Category Archives: On writing

And so it’s a new writing year. 

I updated my daily writing log template to better suit my needs, tore out all the pages logged in 2016, and tossed them in the recycling bin. I made a list of goals for the year, including to continue waking up at 4 am to write on weekdays and to log at least 500 words per day. I moved my writing desk to a better location and cleaned it. I burned a sage stick after the room was clean and just sat in my space thinking about the past, looking toward the future, feeling grateful in the moment.
I’d love for all of you to help me get reach my goals this year. Anyone out there need a motivation buddy? For a few months last year a writing friend of mine asked me to be his accountability partner. It was simple and effective. When we hit our goal for the day, we texted the other person, then waited for the high-five in return. It did make a difference in my motivation to know someone else was counting on me, rooting for me.
I haven’t blogged as much these past few months, but it isn’t because I haven’t been writing. Quite the opposite! It’s because I have been. I finished edits and layout design on my novella and sent it out into the world. I wrote an entire first draft of book one in what I’m for now calling my Olympia trilogy. I edited and designed a book of poetry for Red Dress Press that will be out in time for Valentine’s Day. I edited a friend’s murder mystery. I’ve been too busy to blog about how to make time.
For 2017, I commit to a weekly blog about how the work went over the past week, plus an occasional blog post about the shit that makes me want to rant or rave like books, meatless living, and yoga.
How will you make time for writing this year? Looking for encouragement? Well I hope you’ll find some here. That’s what I’m here for. To help you and me to make time for our Art.
Wishing you words in 2017, all the words you desire. *mwah

 

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hallelujah book cover

Making time, people. Are you?

“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Chris and I read Big Magic this summer. If you are loosing heart, not making time for your creative work, read it–read it now. We actually carried a hardback copy of the book into Enchanted Valley and back, read the entire thing out loud. As we walked the last 2.5 miles of road to our car, we finished the last pages of the book and perhaps because our bodies were aching, torn, and exhausted, but also because of how the book spoke to us both, there were a few tears shed before closing the paint-splashed cover and driving home.

It’s Saturday morning, the first weekend after the first week of school and I’m at Mudbay Coffee in Olympia writing. My best writer friend Carrie  is writing across from me and Chris is in the corner working on a short story. This, for me, is so much bliss. I’m finishing up the first draft of a novel I’ve been working on for a year and a half and starting to think about draft one of book number two in the trilogy. In the past year, I self-published two beautiful books through Red Dress Press, a self-publishing service co-founded by me, Chris, and my baby sister, Em.

I have a routine and I’m making time. That’s how I’m getting there. It’s not easy getting up at 4 in the morning to write, but this feeling of accomplishment, having made two books I’m proud of, putting the finishing touches on a draft of a story I love writing, makes it more than worthwhile.

 

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patience

On patience in revision.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of patience this morning, how it is so necessary, but also something that has to be learned. Why, you ask, was I thinking about this? I spent the morning going through a first draft of a novel, charting all the changes to make before I begin draft two. I charted scenes that are currently in the novel in one column, scenes that I want to be in draft two in a second column. I charted POV, motifs, and details. I feel great about this slow process of revision, but it is something that has taken me twenty years to come to.

Maybe you, like me, came to writing in the first place because you loved the creative immersion, the flow, the story–and I won’t lie–the idea of being a writer? But that only gets you so far. Patience and discipline carry you the rest of the way. Suzannah Windsor Freeman wrote about this idea on Jeff Goins blog. Her post is worth a read. Maybe it will resonate with you the way it did with me?

 

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first draft editing

Yep. It’s a first draft, all right.

This week, I finished up another draft of a manuscript that is in nearing the publishing phase of the editing process, then finished a read-through of a first draft of a novel I’ll spend the summer revising. A pretty productive week! I had this moment after reading that first draft where I let loose an enormous, heavy sigh. That sigh was me letting go of all the delusions of grandeur I’d let mount over the months I’d spent writing. In fact, in spite of my highest of hopes, it was a true first draft, lacking so much of what I’d intended to be there, including some things I had intended, but that now seem like a pretty bad idea. I’m okay, though, I have a plan.
First, I’ll go through the book again, charting some notes on key scenes, details, conflicts, and motifs chapter by chapter. Then, I’ll write more before diving in and making changes to that first draft. I’ll write new scenes first before going in to delete and change what I already have. Then, I’ll begin weaving it all together into a second draft, hopefully, better than the first. This is how we do it. It’s not magic. It’s first inspiration, then persistence, discipline, and planning.
Tomorrow; however, is Friday, and with all this editing in my life right now, I’m aching for that first draft feeling where it’s all vision and flowing words, and damn, you’re good! So I’ve declared that as for my writing process, my Fridays are going to be something akin to casual Fridays and I will write new words, first drafts.

 

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stepping stones

One true sentence? Considering Hemingway.

My seniors are reading Hemingway, so, of course, I am rereading him too. And thinking about him and his oft-quoted advice to writers. Just one true sentence? The truest sentence you know?

When I first read Hemingway with a writer’s eye (in college), I became enamored with his concision and tried to mimic it. The result was stories that were puzzling. All that human emotion and thought left unsaid, unthought, left for the reader to pluck from the tone of a line of dialogue, the selection of a particular noun or verb. What resulted were stories that were good in parts, but that didn’t satisfy my own sense of what I needed to convey in writing. They weren’t in my voice. Plus, I’m always a little suspect of a narrator who hides entirely, offers nothing to the conversation.

I’ve learned I’m  no Hemingway, don’t desire to be. But I do take his one true sentence advice for a particular use. That moment when you are stuck as to how to get from A to B, one moment to the next. Your girl is standing outside the door about to knock. You are trying to get her inside. The scene that matters is beyond the door. Now is the time to invoke one true sentence. Write a string of true sentences to get you where you want to go.

 

Becca knocked hard, shoved shivering hands in jeans pockets, waited. The neighbor’s mastiff came sniffing into the year, off leash again.

 

Becca stood, moved to knock, paused. A car sped by. She reread the notes she’d written on the back of a napkin. She put on a smile, shook out the nerves, pushed the doorbell.

Any time you are stuck, really. One clean, objective sentence of description. Then another and another. A true sentence? Hold on there, Hemingway. Truth is a funny word that holds power only until you start to probe it. One real sentence? Yes. That works. Write one clean, objective sentence located in the reality of your story. These sentences, for me, act as stepping stones. stepping stones

 

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One day spent chaperoning debate nerds. Two insights about writing fiction.

I say nerds admiringly. After all, I was one of them back in highschool when I regularly skipped other classes to work on my debate cases. Am one of them, really. I no longer geek out on arguing the ethics or efficacy of various philosophical schools, all of which I was  learning solely to build my rhetorical arsenal. All of which were making me more befuddled as to what I really thought and believed. Now, for me, it’s books and the things that make up books. Precious sentences!

For the two judges sitting across from me in the judge’s lounge that day it was crossword puzzles. To be precise, four of them. Another judge they knew, a tall bespectacled man carrying a fresh copy of the New Yorker, noticed they were currently working on the LA Times and proceeded to rib them. How could ladies of their caliber deign to do any crossword puzzle than NY? They laughed. They had that one too, tucked under the LA Times. This was the seed of my first insight of the day into writing fiction. It has to do with character, specifically archetypes and models. As I was sitting there drinking the coffee but trying to avoid the white sugar parading as mini bagels by munching out of my baggie of trail mix, it occurred to me how far one can get in developing a character’s identity by first figuring out what social sub group they belong to. You can sketch a lot about what they wear, what they do in their free time, what topics of conversation they lean toward, what books they might read, even what they value. The danger of course is to stop there. And since I had ten hours of basically just sitting around watching people that day, I did a lot of sneaky staring and character sketching. I eavesdropped on stories and began to see the individuals emerge in this group that at first seemed strikingly aligned. What emerged for me from this exercise was that it’s useful to begin sketching a character by identifying a model. The danger is to stop there. Perhaps a more pervasive danger exists in fearing models that are out of our own social comfort zone We must push past the judgement that emerges when values clash to create human characters who inhabit ways of being that are difficult for us to empathize with. Because, in the end, characters should be individuals, not models.

At one point I grew bored even of people watching and decided to go for a walk around the University of Puget Sound’s campus. I had no idea where I was going, no destination. That became part of the fun. As I walked, I began to build stories in my head, urged on by what I was seeing with my eyes. A persistent yellow rose, a bit weary, but persevering winter. An old style chalkboard on wheels, some unknown equations written across it. A fountain with the head of a fish next to the head of a lion, the leo and the pisces locked in natural conflict. A rooftop fire escape. I even hopped onto an elevator at one point and pushed the button for the floor I thought was the one I started on. The doors closed, but the elevator didn’t move. I almost panicked, then browsed the buttons again, selected my second choice. The elevator lurched, moved. The doors opened right where I began. What had been on the floor it wouldn’t let me out on? My imagination scrolled through story possibilities for what was on floor M. And here’s where the second insight into writing came to me. Be present as you adventure into the world. Collecting images of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Taking photos and writing descriptions in our journals or recording our own voices describing these things on our mobile phones. This builds the muscles of our imagination.

 

Here’s a prompt and a challenge for you. Take one of the images below and turn it into a poem or a short work of prose. If you’re willing, share it.

 

I’m wishing you all another week of flowing words. As for me, I’m just past the half point in the first draft of a novel I’m writing called It May Look Like Disaster, the first in a series of three Olympia novels. I’m waking up at 4 AM on weekdays to write and trying to edit stories and type in handwritten pages in the evenings. I submitted stories to three journals last week and my goal is to submit every week of 2016.
Blessings to you. Make time.

 

 

 

elevator gargoyle fountain yellow rose         escape spider web

 

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nanowrimo novel writing

Reflections on Nanowrimo at the midpoint, plus the not-so-sexy-after-all struggle

Yesterday morning I made it to 25,800 words on my Nanowrimo novel. My writing morning went as usual, with one significant difference. My alarm blared Bryan Adams “I’m Gonna Run To You” (Jack FM) at 4 AM and I slammed down the snooze button. Twenty minutes later “Come On Feel The Noize” and I slammed down the snooze button again. I got dressed, made coffee while the dogs ate fresh heaps of kibble, then donned my faux fur lined jacket for a walk which only a few months ago I took wearing shorts and flip-flops. Now it’s dark and cold and even the dogs want to just get down to business.

I pour two cups of coffee with cream, placed a plate over the top of one to keep it warm, because although Chris’s alarm will go off any  minute, he’ll also want some snooze time. I sit at my writing desk, set my electric blanket across my lap (thank you, Carrie), then I start a session of freedom.

What’s freedom, you ask? It’s an internet blocking service I’ve known about for a while, but didn’t use. I choose a sixty minute session. This is my fourth day of freedom and I have seen the light. True, I can’t fact-check as I go, can’t look up synonyms to get the wording just right, can’t check my email “real quick”, can’t find the perfect pop culture reference for the time or browse books published the year my story takes place.

I have no choice to keep writing forward.

I’ve known for a long time that this was a good way to write a first draft, but for me struggle is the sexy dark horse. Meaning, it would be too easy to take that good advice I’ve come up against again and again. I am that person who when the yoga instructor says to pay attention to how it feels in your body, I think it’s a “good stretch” when there is a dull throbbing pain up and down my leg. Because I tend to stubbornly persist through whatever quagmire I find myself in. Because I am a person who works hard and perseveres and is resilient. Why would I take an easier way out? Plus, I can be a bit of perfectionist with my sentences, reading them aloud until they’re just so.

Why has it taken me so long to understand two thing that I teach high school students all the time?

 

  1. Have a process.

 

As I teen I was fascinated by ritual, terrified by the idea of falling into too many patterns, imprisoning myself. I was obsessed with trying to force spontaneity. The paradox I’ve discovered in writing (and perhaps it applies to life too) is that the more ritual I have, the more spontaneous my writing can become. There is a freedom in the space of writing when the creative mind is familiar with that territory, has been there before, when the process is clear. Also, patterns will emerge, with or without your input. Don’t you want to have input? Don’t you know better than your fear? Your laziness? Your self-loathing?

 

Be as specific about your process as you can. Borrow from others. Don’t worry about whether it’s perfect for you. Pick something and try it for a while. Your process can and will change, but you’ve got to have one.

What times and days will you write?

What are the rules for writing your first draft?

What will you look for in your first revision?

At what point will you invite other people into your work? For what purpose?

 

Keep a logbook and/or spreadsheet of each time you write or edit to track your work over time. Include in your logbook notes about struggles that emerge for you in your work.

 

  1. Time, place, manner.

 

Have a process and trust it. Draw boundaries for the steps of your process. What parts of your writer self will you invite in with the first draft? Will you kick the editor out? What will it take for you to do that? What will you focus on for the second draft? The third?

My process for the past 20+ years has been to sit down and write, then go back and revise. It was a miracle when I sat down to write at all, and when I did, it was often a battle with aspects of myself, particularly the one who wants to write the story and the one who wants to pick it apart along the way. While I’m writing the first draft of the novel I’m working on now, I’m making a list of revision consideration for the second draft. Writing them on that list is my way of setting them aside for now. I am learning to hold myself to the idea of a first draft. I’ve heard this advice over and over again. The struggle was too sexy. I couldn’t resist. But I’m getting it now. I no longer think cool boys in leather jackets are enticingly mysterious and I get that writing can be more or less difficult. More difficult if you don’t follow a plan, including to show up every day. There is a time to pick apart your sentences. It isn’t in the first draft. Just like there is a time to talk about your grade in my class. it’s not in front of the whole class, in the middle of explaining a new present moment assignment. Oh, and put your phone away. You should have checked your grades before you came to class.

 

What’s your process? How do you make it happen?

 

 

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dandelion

A reminder to Make Time.

Hello writer friends!
By this time of year I’ve normally posted an anxiety fueled post about the start of the school year, the subtext of which is always HOW IN THE HELL AM I GOING TO FIND TIME TO WRITE? The title of this blog is called Make Time for good cause. Make Time is a tip of my hat to a truth that’s taken me a youth to arrive at. We don’t find time for anything. If it matters, we Make Time.
What can really drive you crazy is when you can’t find time because you are making time to please and impress everyone else around you. Your laundry is folded on Sunday. Your lesson plans are hot enough to post on Teachers Pay Teachers (yet another potential distraction promising immediate monetary compensation for your ideas). And by crazy I mean dreadfully unhappy, jealous, and resentful. That is what happens when you don’t Make Time for the creative impulse that is calling you particularly.

Why have I not posted such a blog yet? When we’re now six weeks into the school year already?

Well, I’ve been busy writing. I just looked at my writing logs, and–WOW–I’ve been keeping a regular schedule since April 1. No fooling! I get up between 4 and 4:30 most weekday morning to write, plus I write Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and on weekends. When I wake up to write in the morning, I open a word file, not my web browser (distraction!)

When I stop to think about it, I fall to my knees and kiss the ground. I’ve been trying to find time since the 90s and much of that time has been me wishing time would fall in my lap while I dutifully went about making other people’s lives easier.

This morning, after writing, I spent some time sifting through old files on my computer, getting organized. I found this folder FULL of articles I’d downloaded from EBSCO Host in 1995, all on the craft of writing. I smiled to recall myself then, eager as now to write. That was the year my son was born. He’s twenty now. What other permission do I need than that to carry on? That’s no short lived impulse.

Writing exposes us, along with all our fears and doubts. Good writing requires solitude in the drafting, an audience in revision. You must take what matters to you and make it matter to readers. This is not something you find time for. You can do better than that, my friend.

Make Time.

 

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makeawish

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Washing the dishes

Just like the themes we are threading in our stories, these topics about the creative life resurface again and again. I’ve written many times before about focus, about staying in the room until the work is done, about committing to a particular project and seeing it through. But this is easier said than done and our talent of complicating the work is insidious.

My current process for writing is to sit down and first write the date at the top of a page in my writing log, then list out my writing goals for the day in the order I’d like to achieve them. I’ve been doing this since April. I use this writing log to journal about the work, especially if I’m stuck on something, and also to track word count for the day and to sketch out scenes for the story/chapter I’m working on. This new habit of keeping a writing log has benefited me in so many ways, a couple of them unexpected. First, because I keep a log each day, it’s easier the next day to jump in where I left off because I’ve left some clues about what I was working on/struggling with. Second, and the topic that is the focus of this blog entry, is that as time has passed, as I’ve become more regular in my writing routine, my ambition and impatience have reared up: My list of goals get longer and longer.

What occurs to me as I look at my expanding list of creative must-dos is that I am headed toward a writing practice that is joyless, each act one stone that must be turned over to get to the end of the day. I’m at risk of becoming a suffering artist. Friends, when I get there, it’s time to abandon the work. The writers I admire most are the writers who when you read them you can tell they enjoy the work of stringing sentences, that it brings them joy. This is why I’m spending my time here.  So I am recalling this morning how Thich Nhat Hanh describes washing dishes:

 

“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them.Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity,for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!”–Thich Nhat Hanh
If you are feeling that the writing is work lately, perhaps it’s because you aren’t writing at all. You are moving through the act of writing, but your thoughts have skipped ahead or are looking behind. When this happens, what are your tools for bringing yourself back to the work? I tend to follow my breath, dive into a scene. Blog about it, so I can really know what I think. Another trick I use is setting my meditation timer for writing goals. Until now, I did this with a chuckle, because I was using something meant for one practice, for a completely different kind of practice.

Is it all that different, though? When you are really in the flow of the work?

 

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nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

Summer is ripe for nostalgia. As children, upon the arrival of summer, we become suddenly free to choose. Choose our own books (in my case by the armload taken from the library along with a summer reading program log), choose our own camps or classes from a range of options, mostly extracurricular, therefore feeding a mode of personal expression. Certainly there is an economic divide in terms of this option, but even kids who grow up drinking powdered milk as I did have options to ride horses, make art, and go to camp. We have more time and more freedom, more opportunities to create memories to be nostalgic about.

And nostalgia is a funny thing, if you think about it. Defined as a sentimental longing or affection for the past, we feel many types of nostalgia, but tend to tie that nostalgia to a particular thing and that fascinates me. What I really feel nostalgic about cannot be touched. I long for a time when I enjoyed greater leisure, when my child depended greatly on me and every day I watched him reach a milestone of some sort in his journey to become independent of me. I long for a time when I took time to hang out with my closest female friends, when that that was my top social priority, and we shared everything. I feel nostalgic for my need to rebel against authority (before I became the authority to rebel against).

But how does this nostalgia manifest itself? Certain moments caught in a single photographic image. Candy cigarettes. The onesie he came home from the hospital in. The smell of baby oil used for tanning. Those colored tassels for bike handles. Library check out cards, the date due stamped in blue ink. These are the carriers of nostalgia. A sight, or sound, or taste, or touch, or smell can transport us to the past at any time. So much of who we are is made up of a life time of sensory experience, and thatGloria went on a hike with us. We are still driving back and won’t be to town until around 10. She’d still like to come see you and wants to know if that will be too late. experience is deeply connected to our thought and emotion. The fact that certain things tend to be prevalent in certain times tie us to our age. Walkman. Need I say more?

As writers we must pay attention to nostalgia in our selection of detail. I find this to be true in at least two ways when editing. Nostalgia can lead to cliché because you choose the detail that emerges strongest, not the one that most accurately fits the moment of the particular fiction you are building. Also, if we’re writing a story that takes place in a time you lived through, you might be tempted to embed objects of your own nostalgia even though they are not the objects that best create the character you are writing about. In essence, nostalgia can lead us to be always writing ourselves into stories. Now I’m not saying objects of your own nostalgia have no place in your fiction. t I am saying that you must pay attention to each particular detail you choose and be sure it serves your story, not merely your own longings.

 

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