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?

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

What's the rush?

Back in May 2011 Publishing Perspectives reported that an estimated 200 million Americans said they’d like to write a book. Back then, that represented 64% of the population of the United States. I bet that number was just as high in other countries.

Word count: 478 Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Likewise I’m certain that every single person on the planet could tell a good story based on his or her share of life’s sorrows and joys.

  • Question: who is prepared to sit down and transcribe their vision into a book?
  • Answer: quite a few people if Twitter is any indication.

I searched ‘free e-book’ just now and got eighteen immediate hits. Six new results arrived in the time it took me to count those. I usually read 50-60 books a year so if I wanted to, I could fill my reading list with nothing but free e-books picked up on Twitter.

  • Next question: who is prepared to work and hone that original draft? To sit down and mould their experiences into a quality book?
  • Answer: not so many people if my experience with free e-books is an indication.

“We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the internet, we know this is not true.” Robert Wilensky

The simple fact is it takes time, lots and lots of it, to learn to write well and to develop a strong voice. It takes stamina, both physical and psychological, to slog through the 20, 30, or 40 drafts that may be necessary to produce a single good scene. I didn’t realize this when I wrote the first book that was dying to get out of me. In fact my first three novels were more like monkeys typing than quality art.

Good writing isn’t something that’s tossed off in a few minutes whenever it’s convenient. It’s the culmination of training, effort, and setting ego aside, again and again. Of listening to how tension hasn’t been sustained in a scene or how the characters simply aren’t convincing. It’s about having the patience to hear all that and still tackle the next revision with heart and soul.

Speed and quantity do not trump craftsmanship and quality.

Then there is the final – brutal – fact of life that even if a person does invest a huge effort into being the very best writer they can be, it doesn’t ensure success. But, as Steven Pressfield suggests in his Writing Wednesdays column about the 10,000 hour rule, maybe mastering the craft is its own reward.

What started you writing? Was it a single idea? How has your commitment to your first (or second or third) book stood the test of time? Do you push out work at a great rate of knots? Or are you patiently crafting a good story, told as well you can tell it?

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 Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Dogge mit Würsten by Wilhelm Trübner

 

Have you found your staircase?

During a dinner  in  the home of statesman Jacques Necker, someone made a comment to philosopher Denis Diderot which left him momentarily speechless. Later he explained, "L’homme  sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier."

Translated: a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs. This expression used in English has been condensed to l’espirit de l’escalier’ or ‘the spirit of the staircase.’

Word count: 512                                                 Reading time: approx. 2 mins

As the junior participant on a recent writers’ panel, I was asked to speak first. I had no idea what the questions would be and no time to compose my answers. When I reached the staircase later, I realized the points I’d missed:

  • I said lay down your work at the feet of editors. A writer who spoke after me suggested that policy might be a bit too accommodating. Very true! If I’d prepped for the question I would've still encouraged writers to set aside their egos. But I would have added: first get a commitment from a publisher and always hold your ground on what’s important to you. Also when an agent or editor says, “We like the book but could you change this for us,” don’t rewrite on a kiss and a promise. You may end up losing months in revision and still be left without a contract.
  • Be friendly and diligent. Writing opportunities pop up when you’re not expecting them. Recently a musician put some of poet Bernice Lever’s work to music, simply because she was in the right poetry café at the right time.
  • The internet, writing groups, and craft books are full of things you must do as a writer. Absorb as much of that as you can. Then pick your favourites from the Rules-of-Writing buffet. No one rule is absolute.
  • I would have encouraged emerging writers not to give up. All the hours, days and years spent writing before publication may seem unproductive but they are not – a lot is happening in the creative part of the brain. It is being exercised and developed. You may not realize it, but you are progressing. Also, as you continue to study, your skill level is improving, layer by layer, like the pearl in an oyster.

Today's blog is my attempt to edit my writers’ panel appearance, to say the things I thought of later. I’m pushing # at the end of a voice mail message and modifying it. I’m recalling the e-mail and adding the bits I left out.

L’esprit de l’escalier is the editing part of writing. It's where we sit down and spend hours finding le mot juste (the right word or expression) to heighten the drama and flair in our stories.

Have you ever submitted or published your work prematurely, before you'd reached the bottom of the staircase? Is there work out there that you wish you could recall and redo? I am guilty as charged, on both accounts.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Fisher Fine Arts Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, by Daderot

Is your writing as strong as good tea?

The patience of tea refers to its quality after being brewed many times. Good teas – patient teas – maintain complexity and flavour with multiple infusions. The flavour evolves each step of the way, as Joshua Kaiser one of the world’s leading tea experts demonstrates here.

Likewise, patience builds a good writing career.

(Word count: 342                Reading time: 1-2 minutes)

  • First we have to learn to write well. Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule: it suggests that 90 minutes a day practice for twenty years is needed to master something. I’m unsure if I agree with that onerous a requirement but I do know that writing proficiency demands practice, as least as much as sports, music, or art. There is no way out of this.
  • Then we have to wait for recognition.
  • While the first two processes are underway, we must dip into the world of social media where, Suw Charman-Anderson reminds us, maintaining a blog or website is a long game. It can take months or even years to develop a strong following.

In other words, if you want to carve out a career as a writer, be prepared to cultivate the virtue of patience. Tolstoy said, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Right now the publishing industry is battling for sales in a constantly changing, more-distracted-than-ever market. Prepare for a wait. How?

  • Keep writing.
  • Keep studying the craft of writing.
  • Throw yourself into new experiences and enjoy the moment, embrace the now. It will ultimately feed your writing.
  • Meditate. Seriously: take time to breathe and relax.
  • Stay strong and determined – two essential skills.
  • Slow down. There are shortcuts but, if you take them and publish or submit before a novel is well-polished, you may burn a lot of bridges.

Impatience is the intolerance of anything that thwarts or delays us. It’s a wonderful quality in a character. In a writer a lack of patience crimps the prose and taints the voice.

What are you waiting for in your writing life? Are you like patient tea, transforming with multiple infusions of practice and feedback?

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Photo by: Ragne Kabanova