Do you write by design?

When interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald, George RR Martin said [There are] two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.  

After living through renovations for the past four months, I find this reasoning, well, flawed. We spent months in the planning stages. We looked at many 3D models of our kitchen design. I’ve spent more time in plumbing shops than I have in the library in the past year. Ditto flooring, lighting, and tiling.

We measured. Our builder measured. Suppliers measured. The electricians consulted on all aspects of light and power supplies. We handed our ideas back to our designer. She revised and we forged ahead.

Now, as we move into the home stretch on this extended process, I hope the words, “Excuse me, do you have a minute” will occur less often in my life. Because no matter how much thought was put into every step, how many blueprints were drawn of each room and hallway, there were many decisions that really couldn’t be made until the project was underway. Building is an organic process.

Likewise the architect-vs-gardener thinking implies that a gorgeous garden is an accident of randomly-placed seeds. Also not my experience. The most beautiful gardens are the result of years of experience, lots of planning, continuous hard work, and an element of luck.

I suspect the best approach to writing is a hybrid, an architect-gardener mix. All disciplines have to be creative to solve problems and capitalize on unexpected developments. As Stephen Hawking put it, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” Planners revise their course when new events arise. Gardeners have to plan so the seeds and bulbs are sown at the optimal moment.

This is the old plotter vs pantser question, isn’t it? Do you fall firmly on one side of that dichotomy? Do you outline your work with slide-rule precision? Or do you write by following whatever evolves as you type? 

At the hop - blog tour on the writing process

Thank you Jenny Watson, author of Prove It, Josh for inviting me to this blog hop. Jenny's extensive sailing experience shaped her compelling middle grade novel about 11-year-old Josh who has a race to win and a major obstable to overcome.

Jenny and I met in 2013 at a seminar hosted by the Society of Children’s Illustrators & Book Writers. Now that I live in Victoria, we are getting to know each other better. You can read Jenny’s answers here.

1)    What am I working on?

First of all I have to admit to being a bit superstitious about talking about work in progress. When the story is still incubating in the Petri dish, I fear its tentative energy will evaporate if exposed to the bright light of open scrutiny. 

I’ll say this much, it’s a contemporary adult novel about loss and forgiveness, set in Australia, with its resolution unfolding in the Outback. It’s a favourite project which has been in process for a number of years. I’m uncovering its secrets slowly.

2)    How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Years ago two friends of mine were walking down a dark street in the early morning hours. A man trailed some distance behind them. He came closer and closer. When he was right behind them, they both turned back to face him. One friend looked at his face to see if she recognized him. The other looked at his hands to see if he had a weapon.  He didn’t. He was an exhibitionist playing with his wedding tackle. The moment they confronted him, he ran away. When they reported the incident to the police later they gave wildly varying descriptions of the encounter.

Similarly every writer’s work is unique. I see things differently than the person next to me. Even if we look at the same object, we carry away personal impressions. Go to any writing workshop and listen to how people respond to the same prompt. Ask twenty writers in a room to describe the colour, texture, smell, taste, and sound of sorrow and you will get twenty highly diverse answers.

My debut novel is classified as YA but is that a genre or an intended audience? I’d say that Lockdown is speculative fiction. It could happen on planet Earth. Some say it eventually will. But there is no fantasy, paranormal, or space travel involved. Two of my three novels for the YA market are contemporary fiction; that is they are set in modern times and have no fantasy element. How will these novels differ than those from other writers? Simply: they will be focused through the lens of my life’s experiences.

3)    Why do I write what I do?

I write for the same reason many writers do: to stay connected, to explore the ideas that haunt me, to put order into chaos, and to find out how I think about things.

The what is a little harder.I write YA fiction because I love it. I write contemporary fiction because a few stories have wrapped their tentacles around my heart. Ideas find me. I play with them and when they stick, a story starts.

4)  How does my writing process work?

Most of the time it’s glacial slow. Even more so now that I’ve been living out of a suitcase since February. It involves rewriting and lots of it. Taking characters out, enlarging the remaining ones. Cutting many scenes, adding others. Cleaning up the diction and deleting weasel words.

However, I can write fast when pushed. A couple of my short stories emerged in a single writing session with very little revision. I have laid down three draft novels during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month—50,000 words in 30 days). Lockdown was one of these.

My process is also experimental—never the same colour twice. I’ve tried writing off the top of my head (see above comment about NaNoWriMo). I’ve used the Snowflake Method where I’ve done eight page character studies that identified everything from childhood illnesses to favourite socks for the main characters.

Currently, my approach is a bit of a hybrid between a well-mapped plan and a wander to wherever the story takes me. I find plot twists and character revelations develop over the course of the novel.

I have thick notebooks and big files of photos and other visual prompts that help me stay in touch with my imaginary world. Sometimes a particular piece of music evokes a mood I’m trying to capture so I’ll play that repeatedly. Mostly I try to visit my work every day so the characters and their dilemmas stay with me.

While I’m developing a novel, I continue to read books on craft because it’s important to be reminded of the basics. I like to do Sarah Selecky’s daily prompts with pen and a notebook for practice—like playing the scales.

Through all this, I keep reading. Usually I read one short story and one novel a week.

Then there are those other writing things I do that looks suspiciously unlike writing: I clean house, go for walks, do the laundry, visit with family and friends, take in a film or concert—things that let new ideas bubble to the surface.

***

I’ve tagged three wonderful authors to follow me on this blog tour. They are:

Lynn Crymble who became a writer because she didn't want to have to be accountable to anyone else or explain what, exactly, she was doing. Also, Lynn is commitment shy. Not to her husband as they have been married, like, forever. Rather, since she has been dealing with the unpredictable nature of a really fun disease called Multiple Sclerosis! - it is probably a good thing that she doesn't have a boss yelling at her. Or deadlines. No, Lynn enjoys the void and vacuum of grinding out words, hoping that one day, someone might actually read them.

Her first novel, It Can Happen To You, was miraculously published by HarperCollins in 2009. She lives with her husband and daughter in North Vancouver.

***

A Canadian-born author, Lisa Voisin spent her childhood daydreaming and making up stories, but it was her love of reading and writing in her teens that drew her to Young Adult fantasy. In addition to being an author and technical writer, Lisa also facilitates the Lynn Valley Young Writers’ Club to assist young authors in finding their writing voice. In her spare time, she teaches meditation. So when she's not writing, you'll find her meditating or hiking in the mountains to counter the side effects of drinking too much coffee. She lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her fiancé and their two cats. Her first novel The Watcher, is a paranormal romance.

***

It was probably on the ship coming from England to Canada that Karen Dodd’s destiny to become a writer surfaced. Even at the age of four, she could spin a wildly believable yarn that ensnared a member of the ship’s crew into helping her search for hours for her missing “doll,” who turned out to be her invisible friend. She could read before she started kindergarten and by the time she was in grade school, she struggled miserably at math and science, excelling at composition. After publishing hundreds of articles, Karen’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Deadly Switch: A Stone Suspense was released in December, 2013, and she is currently working on the sequel.  

***

Blog photo: Euro in spinfex, North Flinders Ranges Australia by Alan Bolitho, leading man.

What is your hummingbird?

There is one major problem with our new home. Hummingbirds. They come to feed on the fuchsia plant hanging outside my window. When they do I am lost. I have no hope but to sit and watch them dart in and out of the flowers.

Then I have to go online and read about them or watch videos made by local Eric Pittman Hummingbirds Up Close. And we all know what happens when a person when you start searching the next.

Word Count: 449                                                               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

While I’m on the subject of things that distract me at this new house, I’d like to add the following:

  • Cats. There are a few of them in this neighbourhood and it’s entertaining to watch them face off on the street out front or cadge a pat or two from someone walking by.
  • Raccoons. Aren’t they meant to be nocturnal? So what are they doing, cavorting in the driveway across the street, forcing me to lift my eyes from my work?
  • Dogs and their walkers. At least a dozen different breed and mixes of dogs walk past this house everyday. My favourite is what Aussies call a bitsa, bits of this, bits of that. His top half looks like a lab with a long, golden body and a handsome head. His legs are basset hound short. His winsome face charms me from thirty feet.
  • Deer. There were lots here in the spring but they seem to have found greener pastures now that we are close to summer. Just as well. I have work to do.
  • Characters. Different people in wonderful outfits parade past every day and often I want to do nothing more than watch them.
  • Cooper’s Hawks. Granted, I’ve only seen one (once) and that was just this week, but I hear them all the time so I’m on the constant lookout.
  • Lastly there is an occasional rabbit and I have to stop what I’m doing and wait to see where it’s come from and where it’s going to. I’m always in the mood for a tea party.

Sometimes it’s good to lose myself in the passing tide of life, to meditate while a frenetic green bird drinks nectar. Other times the imaginary world I’m creating blinds me to all but what is on my screen or in my notebook.

Where do you write? What are the distractions flicking into view that take you from your work? Do the distractions also serve as real life reminders of the magic you are trying to create? Does the man sitting across from you in the coffee shop figure into that scene you are writing now? Or does his image hover and dart out of view?

***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Annas Hummingbird, Calypte anna in flight by Calibas

Do you know when to lie down?

sheepdog2.jpg

Earlier this month I went to the 152nd Highland Games in Victoria BC.  Arriving early we had excellent seats to watch the Border Collies work. I’ve seen these dogs in action on huge sheep properties in Australia and admired their skill and enthusiasm. Their talents, demonstrated in the video called Power of the Border Collie, are:

  • Speed
  • Concentration
  • Focus
  • Patience
  • Persistence

Word count: 374                                                            Reading time: 1-2 minutes

As I watched them at the Games, I thought of how their work was like a writer’s.

  • Writers need speed when attempting a NaNoWriMo challenge or simply trying to make an editorial deadline.
  • Swearing off the distractions of the internet and other social temptations is only possible by the sheer force of concentration.
  • Without focus, novels ramble and become weighted down by too many characters and random actions. Finding Focus in Your Fiction by the Literary Corner Café discusses the pitfalls of unfocused writing.
  • Patience, and a lot of it, is needed in the editing phase. Watch the Border Collies as they herd—they don’t run the entire time. Sometimes they seem to almost tiptoe around the mob. Other times they simply lie down and strong eye the stock.
  • Persistence—have I mentioned the need for this in writing before? Persistence is what carries me beyond the prosaic dull words that first fly off my fingers. It leads me to the occasional moment of that’s it! That’s what I’m striving for. Tobias Wolff said it best: “We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.”

Of all these virtues, for me patience is the most difficult one. I want to chase those sheep until they’re rounded up and through the gate but that’s not how life works. Watch this champion dog Nell as she lies down and nudges the sheep to her will. Sometimes I need to just back off and strong eye my manuscript. Look for the stray story lines and extraneous characters that are cluttering up the scenes.

What is the hardest part of the writing discipline for you? Are you impatient? Do you focus on word count while giving character and plot development less time than they deserve? Do you need to get in front of your work, lie down, and give it the strong eye?

***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Sheep & Sheep Dog by Rosendahl

Where to from here?

Stairs.jpg

At the bottom of a steep staircase, at the end of a twisted trail in a corner of West Vancouver, there is a spot that used to be one of my favourite places when I was a scuba diver. Copper Cove was a short drive from my West End apartment. Costs were limited to gas for the car and air for the tank. Once I was in the water, the wall on the right side of the cove was full of hidden treasures. To this day the dive site remains relatively under-utilized, which is extraordinary in a city of almost two and a half million people. To end the dive perfectly there is a lovely rocky beach with driftwood logs to sit on for the all-essential, post-dive debriefing.

Word count: 345Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I loved diving there but, to be truthful, I didn’t look forward to the long ascent afterward, hiking the hundred pounds or so of gear up those stairs and back to the car. If I wanted to get home, or more importantly to my next dive, I had to make that climb.

My book launch two weeks ago was like diving at Copper Cove. Getting there, although somewhat fraught with jittery nerves, wasn’t too bad. Once I entered the venue, there was no looking back. It was like putting the reg in my mouth and deflating my buoyancy compensator—there was only time to look around and enjoy the ride. Afterwards sitting and talking about it with friends helped me understand and appreciate the experience even more. Just like diving.

Something important happened two weeks ago. I had the uncommon experience of launching a professionally-published book into the public domain. That was a privilege and a delight. That initiation ritual is behind me. Now I’m climbing the staircase back to my next novel.

How did you feel after your first book launch? Did it energize you for your next writing project? Did you race up those stairs two at a time? Or did you feel slightly daunted at the new prospect of a secondary career in sales?

***

Photo from Wikipedia Commons: Concrete stairs 2007 by Diego Godoy

Merci! Gracias!

IMG_8079.JPG

and thank you -

  • to my two wonderful mc’s at Friday night’s book launch, Lisa Voisin and Lynn Crymble.
  • to the members of the Young Writers’ Club who helped set up the room and worked on the draw for the door prizes.
  • to my family who have encouraged me every step of the way. 
  • to all of you who showed up to support my launch.
  • to those who could not make it but sent congratulations and encouragement.
  • to my publisher, Great Plains Publications, without whom there would have been nothing to launch.

What is holding you back?


I understand why people live with peeling wallpaper and ancient kitchens with drawers that jam and stick. It takes courage to venture beyond the planning stage. Once a renovation starts, there is no turning back. The old bathroom gets ripped out, but what looked good on paper may not proceed according to plan. Electricians, plumbers, and builders come into the mix. They each have an opinion and they often contradict each other. Maybe it’s easier to live with the crack in the bathtub and the toilet that flushes away 13 litres / 4 gallons of potable water with each use.

Word count: 327                                                                                          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Is an unknown result the reason some people fail to finish the big artistic projects they start? How many outlines of stories have I scribbled into my notebooks over the years? I love that playful stage. So I write the first scene. It’s satisfying to see the characters come to life, say and do things exactly the way I expected.

Deep into a manuscript, I often find that a story is not unfolding the way I expected. The electrician arrives on the scene and says that my protagonist has no spark. No one is getting a charge from her. The plumber informs me that my throughline is jammed and needs to be reworked. I need to rip out half of what I’ve written.

Sometimes the weaknesses are beyond repair. Better tear the old house down and salvage the parts. Other times I just need to pull out the rotted wall and replace it with something  more substantial. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge according to Picasso.  So really, when unexpected obstacles pop up in the narrative, isn’t that the time to muster the creative courage and smash what needs fixing?

Do you avoid writing your great novel because you know hard it’s going to be? Or do you have the perseverance to get through the project, so you lay out your blueprint and get started?

***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Bedroom and sitting room of the White House during the Renovation 2/27/1650 by Abbie Rowe from the US National Archives & Records Administration

Enter, stage left.

In early February this year, three of us North Vancouver writers drove halfway to the US to see Ivan Coyote at the Semiahoo Library. “The stage is a sacred place,” she said in her presentation Talking the Talk. Ivan emphasized that writers who are invited to participate in public readings or launches should treat the event with respect. They should work as hard preparing for public readings as they did writing the material in the first place.

Word count 425              Reading time: 2 minutes

This spring my novel Lockdown will be launched. That means for the first time, I’m going to have to read this work in public. That thought terrifies and excites me. Pain is so closely linked to pleasure after all.

Thank you, Ivan, for the wisdom, humour, and experience you shared that night. For those of you who may never have the opportunity to hear this wonderful speaker, here are some of her points:

  • Foundation rule: who are you on stage for? Choose material with your audience in mind.
  • Listen to other performers who are sharing your stage—and reference them.
  • Watch other authors reading and learn from them. (Hint: google spoken word artists and open mic events).
  • If you are reading from a book, let the audience see it.
  • If you are reading from your own copy, print the material in a large enough font that is easy to read.
  • Read the material aloud before you stand in front of the crowd. And practice practice practice it—at least twenty times beforehand.
  • Think of your piece as ascending a 15 story building. Pace your reading so there are landings—pauses that allow your listener to absorb the material.
  • The length of your pieces should be timed to fill about 85% of your time slot. See previous comment about landings.
  • Arrive early and check the facility out. Introduce yourself to the sound people and event managers. Try to remember names.
  • Don’t go on stage starving, after drinking carbonated beverages, dehydrated, or after a big meal.
  • Most importantly, bring your best self to the stage. Don’t trash anyone or complain.

Still, I think the book launch will be a challenge for someone like me who avoids the spotlight. But it’s an essential part of the writing caper so I’ll set a date, put on my extrovert disguise, and take the leap.

What are your experiences with public readings? Is there something else that prepares a person for the first time (or the tenth) that they read their work in public?

*** 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Sarah Bernhardt performs as Sorceress, Library of Congress 

What is shaking your tree?


When our house sold in February, it had only been on the market for a few days. The buyers wanted possession in three and a half weeks. My husband and I had anticipated the usual sixty to ninety days to ease ourselves out of our North Vancouver lives. However, we are nothing if not adaptable. A bird in the hand and all that. We went into overdrive, and last week packed up a trailer and said good-bye to the house on the hill.

Word count: 335                                                                           Reading time: 1-2 minutes

For the next few months, we will live out of the suitcases and few boxes we brought with us. Our new place is in its original thirty-year-old condition and needs many upgrades. We’ve rented a tiny apartment a ten minute drive away. Empty and bare, our home waits for the contractor to start ripping out walls and tearing up the stained carpets. The ordered, relatively predictable life I had in November has vanished into the ether.

To add spice to the mix, my novel Lockdown is ready for release. I have been given a budget by my publisher, Great Plains Publishing, and must start planning my first book launch. Next week I travel back to Vancouver to lead the March session of the Young Writers’ Club.

Recently I read this Nietzsche quote: You must have chaos to give birth to a dancing star. I have adopted it as my personal mantra. From all this upheaval some good writing will surely be born.

What is writing if it isn’t chaos anyway? Still, for two weeks I’ve barely written a word. Now I am shaking myself out of my stupor. It’s time to retreat to writing when everything gets a little crazy. For one thing, it’s much cheaper than therapy. Writing is one place where I can create a world that makes sense, at least to me. It’s a place to escape the turmoil of building codes and construction.

When your world gets turned upside down do you capture the madness in your writing? Or do you step away and wait for things to settle before you start the next chapter?

*** 

Photo from dreamstime by: Stuart Miles

Earjacking anyone?

Fog rolled around the cold acres of the Tsawwassen terminal. Two thin lines of cars and trucks waited for a ferry that costs thousands of dollars an hour to run.

In the toilet stalls in the women’s washroom, a conversation bounced off the shiny tiled walls, like ricocheting bullets:

“He’s really mature for his age.”

“I know but he still gets on my nerves.”

“I think he’s a nice boy.”

“He’s driving me crazy. He wants things his way all the time.”

“I could take him off your hands if you want.”

“Seriously?”

“I really like him. I could get him moving nicely.”

Silence from the nearest stall.

“You know...if you didn’t mindI bet I could get him to stand still for brushing.”

“Cool. And that would give me more time to work with Esme.”

When I emerged to wash my hands two young women stood at the sinks, dressed in the winter uniform of horse riders everywhere: waterproof jodhpurs, fleece vests, and muddy, knee-high boots.

As soon as I got back to the car, I wrote up the earjacked conversation in my notebook. Thus one writing task for the day drew to a close, proving once again how important it is for a writer to always carry a notebook, and to keep her ears and eyes open.

Where have found gems like this? Did you seek them out or were you simply a prepared opportunist?

How do you solve your problems?

Since the 1990’s, Britain has introduced Konik ponies to many of its wetland areas. Relocated from their natural habitat of marshy woodlands in Poland, as the animals graze they restore and sustain once-threatened ecosystems. They chomp their way through dense grass and reeds and create habitat for ground nesting birds and well as winter feeding grounds for wading birds.

Word count: 277                                                                                   Reading time: about 1 minute

I wish those ponies would come and chew through some of my recent writing. It feels like I need a good habitat for new ideas and fresh expressions. Maybe what I really need is inspiration.  

You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club, according to Jack London. Where should a person look for it?

Obvious places are:

  • Books
  • Movies
  • TV
  • Eavesdropping
  • Blogs
  • Plays
  • Writing groups

The Konik ponies grazing habits had only an indirect relationship with the recovery of England’s degraded fens. Similarly, the sources of inspiration for writing often have an indirect relationship with writing itself. That means the writer should look past the obvious to:

  • Music
  • Physical labour
  • An afternoon at an amusement park
  • A walk in the forest
  • A game of chess
  • A bike ride
  • A run on a beach
  • A car race
  • Doing something new, out of a person’s comfort zone

Sometimes the fastest route to the prize isn’t a straight line. We have to walk around the problem, look over the horizon and see what’s there. Then we have to find those Konik ponies and create new habitat for our dormant ideas.

Where does your inspiration come from? Do you look across borders to find a special little pony to solve the problem of your deteriorating wetlands?

*** 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Konik mare and foal trotting by Roy van Wijk

Cleaned any cupboards recently?

For the past few weeks my life has slipped away in tiny increments. The decision to sell and move was sudden and immediate so what has to be done, has to be done quickly. I’ve spent many hours sorting through cupboards, closets, and filing cabinets. The tape gun has become an extra appendage. I’ve lost count of the number of boxes I’ve assembled and filled.

Word count: 446                                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Hours spent in manual labour are one of my favourite times to think about plot and characters. As an additional bonus, I’ve discovered that moving is actually very much like writing:

  • Just when I thought I’d found a place for everything, it was time to sort through it and toss all the excess. Stephen King aims to tighten ten percent out of his first drafts. The amount of stuff we’ve given to the thrift store, friends and neighbours surely must account for ten percent of our house. Editing my life, like editing my fiction, is a cathartic process.
  • Once I’m on a roll with packing, it can be hard to stop. Sometimes, around midnight, I think something ridiculous like I’ll just edit one more chapter. In moving it’s: just one more box.
  • Both writing and packing can lead to physical exhaustion if I don’t pace myself.
  • Both benefit from input of talented outsiders. Just like my writing improves with feedback from my critique partners, a skillful stager is helping us get the house looking its best.
  • Every step of the way dozens of decisions raise their troubling heads. Some solutions are easy and obvious. Sometimes easy is the wrong choice.
  • I have to resist the impulse to look too far ahead. When I’m packing, it’s disheartening to try to imagine the new home and how things will fit. That’s another job for another day, just like the clear ending of my novel may not be visible from the first chapters. I have to rein in my impatience to know exactly how everything is going to be resolved.

Soon enough we’ll be moved. Oh yeah there are all those small adventures ahead of us, like selling this place, working on the new one, and shifting everything from one home to another. Soon enough my current novel will be finished in spite of its current dishevelled state. It just needs me to pick up my tape gun, open the next chapter, and get on with the job.

When did you last do a deep clean of your writing, tossing out all the stuff you hang on to simply because you can? Should we all ‘move house’ on a regular basis just to keep our lives tidy?

 ***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: house being moved from Colton & N Boylston Streets for construction of Hollywood Freeway, Calif. 1948

Are you making time?

In all our deeds the proper value and respect for time determines success or failure, according to Malcolm X.

In 2014:

  • My YA novel Lockdown will be released in the spring. Before that happens, a press kit and a book launch must be organized.
  • My epic Australian novel is shaping up and should be moved to submission-ready status.
  • The Young Writers Club remains stronger than ever and still demands lots of time and preparation.
  • I have a handful of short stories to polish.
  • This writing blog and the earthquake blog must be maintained.
  • A rough draft of a new YA novel needs a month or more of work.

Word count: 370                                                                              Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Behind the scenes there are major changes going on in my personal life that wake me early every morning and occupy me until I drop into bed, late every night.

How easy it would be, in the midst of all this busyness, to think, “I’ll find time to write something new tomorrow.” Time is a slippery thing: one unproductive day becomes seven. A week drifts into a month. Experience warns me that if I let things slide, soon I won’t have created anything new in recent memory.

This year I will make time (because no one finds it) for all the competing priorities. Otherwise starting a new project, or even advancing a half-finished one, seems as feasible as scaling Mt. Everest. To avoid this pitfall, I will shake myself and remember that the only way to get things done is to quit talking about them and just do them.

A goal without a date is just a dream said Milton H. Erickson. So, before the days disappear like cherry blossoms in spring, I’m going to set deadlines and try to avoid the whooshing sound as they fly past. (with thanks to Douglas Adams). I don’t want 2014’s goals to end up as unrealized dreams. I have a calendar. I have dates for each goal. I really, really intend to stick with it. Unless, of course, there is another cute dog or cat video on YouTube…..

What are you doing this year to master the gift of time? Have you recorded your writing goals? Are they broken into small increments that aren’t overwhelming?

*** 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Wanduhr in Deutschland. Es ist 15:00 Uhr.

What is your launch pad?

By the time Christmas Day arrives, I will have listened to A Child’s Christmas in Wales, read by Dylan Thomas (accept no substitutes!), several times. Chances are that Patrick Stewart reading A Christmas Carol will also have played more than once, along with all of my favourite carols.

Word Count: 334                                              Reading time: 1-2 minutes

These stories and music are part of annual rituals that have been in my blood for as long as I can remember. As a child I unquestioningly accepted them as part of the greater Christian teaching, an obligatory part of the WASP culture in which I grew up. Better informed now, I know that many of my adored seasonal traditions predate Christ.

Irish Celts have marked the shortest day of the year at Newgrange for over 5,000 years. Likewise the Druids started observing winter solstice at Stonehenge and the Neolithic Scots at Maeshowe thousands of years before Christ was born. As nights lengthened, Ancient Romans honoured the god Saturn with twelve days of feasting and gift-giving in the festival of Saturnalia. Before the Christian church integrated local customs, Pagans welcomed the sun’s rebirth by decorating with evergreen and holly boughs and toasting spiced cider.

Cultures are grounded in tradition, to comfort people with something solid and certain when life is inherently chaotic and messy. That’s why I love this time of year: it beguiles me into thinking that life has a few mooring points, a place where I can pull in for safe harbour and predictable patterns. It’s there I find renewal, the chance to catch my breath if only for a few minutes, before launching again into the pandemonium of real life.

While I am comforted by the singing of familiar songs and the soft glow in the fireplace, I remind myself not to be lulled into complacency. As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.

Where do you go to restore your creative energy? How do you avoid letting your sanctuary become your prison?

***

Photo from iStock: Stonehenge Silhouetted by urbancow

When is it time?

From the moment the days start to shrink each September, I look forward to winter’s darkness. Like Andrew Wyeth, I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole structure doesn’t show.

To me, winter is the season of mystery and wonder, ideal starting points for any story.

Maybe this is why NaNoWriMo is such a successful annual event: as days shorten and shadows lengthen, we are reminded of nature shutting down. Plants die. Birds disappear from the garden. Food becomes scarce for the animals that do stay around. Imminent death is always an excellent theme for fiction.

In February, when the days stretch again and the first flowers of the year start to struggle out of the ground, the increased sunlight will energize me with new ideas. I’ll decide that spring is my season and let the vigorous growth inspire me. When the darling buds of May have blossomed into summer’s beautiful flowers, I’ll probably be persuaded that summer is the very best season to write. By the time autumn creeps in on the morning air in September I’ll be reminded just how much I love the fall and I’ll take long walks in the forest to enjoy the rich smells of the trees shutting down for the year.

However now it’s winter and I’m convinced this is the best season of them all. I loved the snow this week and I’m enjoying the long nights. During the day I look out at the barren garden and imagine what is going on just beyond the limits of my hearing and sight. There is a story brewing out there, I can sense it.

Do you have a favourite season for writing? Or can you sit down any time and work the words?

***

Picture from Wikimedia Commons: High Park Toronto by paul (dex) bica

Are you losing it?

The best writing moments are when the characters speak to each other and the scenes unfold with surprising twists. When I work, these exhilarating moments occur at a rate of about one in a thousand. First I have to slog through many dull, prosaic hours before a gem glitters in the dust. 

Word count: 435                                                            Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve looked around for ways to beat the odds, to increase the incidents of strong writing. So far the only thing that improves my writing is practice. By practice I mean work: working harder, working more, working with focus. I don’t worry about whether or not I have the talent to write. Instead I put my faith in people who have gone before me:

  •  Perseverance is a great substitute for talent.Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life.
  • The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.Marge Piercy.

Work means sitting down to long, seemingly unproductive hours, even when inspiration is weak and I’d rather wash the kitchen floor. I have to be there, chipping away for the moments when inspiration ignites and talent erupts. I have to write the bad sentences to find what doesn’t work. I have to play the wrong notes so I can find the sweet ones. Yes there are demons: the empty page, the incomplete scene, the manuscript that is 95% written. These terrifying events often tempt me to throw up my hands, to stop writing altogether. Then I move past my panic and get to work.

One of the greatest ballerinas of the twentieth century, Dame Margot Fonteyn, overcame her stage fright with additional practice. In 1949, as she geared up for her dancing debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, she had a bad case of butterflies. Her solution? Two extra hours of drills besides her regular workday of classes, rehearsals and performances. Investors.com

Because talent—if you don't encourage it, if you don't train it, it dies. It might run wild for a little while, but it will never mean anything. Like a wild horse. If you don't tame it and teach it to run on track, to pace itself and bear a rider, it doesn't matter how fast it is. It's useless.Elizabeth Hand 

Talent doesn’t develop on its own. It needs practice, education, and a chance to run free. So how do you get past your stage fright to let it grow? How do you ensure your talent doesn’t atrophy?

*** 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Vinit Sharma practising violin by Rockwithvinit

What are the signs?

In Australia my husband and I adopted a series of abandoned cats. Our vet said there was a mark on our front gatepost that told the animals our house was a good place to find food, shelter, and safety—like the hobo marks of a bygone era.

The internet is that gatepost now. Whatever a person wants to do, the directions are laid out, marks carved or chalked, by those who have passed that way before. Naively, when I set out, I didn’t look for those marks. I thought writing was a solitary journey. It would be an understatement to say I made mistakes—but that’s one way to get an education.

Word count: 481                                                                                                      Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Some of the marks I wish I’d seen earlier in my writing life were these:

  • Be prepared for the long haul. It takes can take years to develop proficiency as a writer. In his book On Writing Stephen King says that commitment is one of the six essential tools in the writer’s toolbox.
  • Writing a novel can seem overwhelming. Concentrate on what is in front of you and move the story forward one paragraph or one page at a time. Or in the words of Anne Lamottone bird at a time
  • When it gets really frustrating, do something else. Agatha Christie said The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes Get away from it—for a while.
  • Don’t try to do it alone. Yes, writing is a solitary occupation but there are benefits to sharing with trusted readers or writing partners. You may not find the right person (or people) to share with immediately but keep kissing those frogs. When the match is right, your work will soar.
  • Become a ruthless self-editor. Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. Colette
  • Don’t send work out too soon. Impatience can close doors.
  • Don’t hang on to your work too long. Perfectionism can leave it in limbo.
  • Go to writers’ festivals, book launches, and readings at your local libraries.
  • Read books on the craft of writing. Try to absorb some of the vast wisdom available. It can be your secret—It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way. (Ernest Hemingway)
  • Go into the universe with a friendly, non judgemental soul. It’s easier to observe that way.
  • Get an online presence. It doesn’t have to be flashy but agents and editors want to be able to find you when they put your name in a search engine. They want to see what a reader will find with the same search.

 

What would the hobo marks look like for the points above? What other reminders should be on this list for writers new and old?

Lost in the words?

A marine inversion layer covered Vancouver in a blanket of fog for much of October. When I rode the SeaBus from Lonsdale Quay to Waterfront Station last week I couldn’t see six feet beyond the windows. That felt a bit like writing a novel:

  • I couldn’t see where I was going. 
  • I couldn’t be certain of reaching my hoped-for destination
  • There was a sense of being suspended in time and space with a cast of unknown characters  
  • The short commuter ride into the gloom was both frightening and exhilarating.

Word count: 433                                                                               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Over the years I’ve collected some tools and practises that help me navigate past the obstacles that threaten the direction of my work:

  • Free writing. Ten minutes minimum. Don’t lift the pen from the page. Just keep going. Great prompts for free writing exercises can be found here, Sarah Selecky and here, Writers Write Daily Writing Prompt.
  • Copy type. I pull out work by a respected author and let his or her words flow through me. Ten minutes minimum.
  • Don’t worry about the big picture: look at what is in front of the bow. Write that one small scene. The next day, write another one.
  • Get on a bus. Go to a coffee shop. Listen, smell, taste, and feel. Give the brain a holiday from the screen.
  • Turn off the ruthless self-editor. Accept permission to write something truly dreadful. After that, there is no way but up.
  • Read a good craft book. There are tried and proven ways to improve writing; skills can be sharpened, new techniques can be tried.  
  • Go for a walk, a run or a bike ride. Do something to wake the body up.
  • Share the work. On Questions Tuesday recently John Green said Curiosity is not the most important human trait. The urge to collaborate is. A second or third set of eyes are often the ones that find a critical weak spot and help a story shine.
  • Read the work aloud. From Neil Gaiman’s acknowledgments at the end of his book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane: As this book entered its second draft, as I was typing out my handwritten first draft, I would read the day’s work to my wife, Amanda, at night in bed, and I learned more about the words I’d written when reading them aloud to her than I ever have learned about anything I’ve done.  

What methods do you have for finding light in the darkness? How do you keep your bearings when the path ahead is unknown?

 ***

 Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Burrard Street Bridge & Fog, DougVancouver

What is staring you in the face?

Bright sunshine beckoned the other day and I tied on my runners and trotted outside. With my headset plugged into my iPhone, I hit the music button, ready for a brisk walk. Instead of Emeli Sandé, I got thundering silence. The bounce went out of my step and I stared at my phone dumfounded.

Word count: 334    Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I punched buttons as if simple determination would make the songs magically reappear. When I pulled out the ear buds and stood there, I heard nothing more than the autumn leaves that rasped along the pavement. I resigned myself to a technology-free hour and moved on.

Without the cocoon of music to separate me from ambient buzz, I walked. Although it would be glorious to report that I heard something so significant that it inspired a brilliant short story or chapter, that didn’t happen. But I caught conversations from people’s yards. Jays scolded in a cedar tree. When a car drove past, the doughy sounds of its tires on the warm road reached me. A normal Sunday morning on the edge of Mt. Fromme.

My sharpened hearing changed to more focused looking and I saw, for the first time, the way the Steller jays’ wings appeared translucent against the sun. I breathed deep the rich humus smell rising from the earth. I touched the springy young needles on a hemlock tree.

Susan Sontag said, “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.” When I plug into my tunes, I deny myself a chance to do just that.

When the latest iPhone 4 upgrade deleted my entire iTunes library it may have given me an inadvertent gift: I discovered that music piped directly to my brain doesn’t turn off only my ability to hear, it also dulls my senses of sight, touch, and smell. Maybe it sweeps me into what Jason Perlow calls the Sea of Stupid.

Do you have a habit, particularly one that is technology-dependent, one that diminishes your powers of observation? How do you overcome it?

 ***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Leaves in autumn, Tapis de feuilles en automne by hamon jp