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?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Sheep & Sheep Dog by Rosendahl

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

How are your tent caterpillars?

Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. When asked why, he said he rewrote it to get the words right.

Yesterday I walked along a sunny road on the edge of Mount Maxwell. It was bordered by thick rows of enormous foxgloves, some of which towered over my 172 cm / 5’ 8” height. Later, when I mentioned it to my sister, she commented only weeks before when she walked it, she’d had to push her way through all the tent caterpillars.

Word count: 344                                    Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Not long ago my novel Lockdown was in the same state as that mountain trail in the spring: sticky with tent caterpillars. It had been part of me for so long that I was unable to see its flaws. Then I skyped with my editor, Anita Daher and she turned the light on. The spidery webs started to fall away and a few flower spikes nudged their heads into the sunshine. Those blooms only started to open after more rewriting.

The editing process is far from being a pleasant summer’s walk on a favourite mountain trail. It’s more like hiking the same terrain in autumn, winter, spring and summer and contemplating the different perspectives that each rewrite brings.

I think my novel is getting close to its full glory, although I have a draft or two to run through yet. To help get there, I remember the beautiful flowers that rise out of the caterpillar silk. As I work through the next reiterations, I’ll model my attitude on John Irving’s: I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.

How many times have you rewritten your latest scene, story, or book? Are you like Hemingway, rewriting the same page thirty-nine times? When someone suggests you rewrite something, do you perceive that as a punishment or as an opportunity to bring the work to greater power and clarity? Are there bright spring flowers poking through the caterpillar plague?

 

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Photos from Wikimedia Commons:

Abstract art in the hedgerow by Penny Mayes

Digitalis purpurea by Nevit Dilmen


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

Are you killing a friend?

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This morning I found, in the middle of the curly, box leaf, and Redbor kale, a stack of dandelion greens for sale. $1.99 for a small bunch. I stood and calculated the economic windfall that might be reaped from our lawn. There wasn’t enough potential to cover the cost of building a farm-stand out front but I appreciated how one man’s taraxacum is another man’s poison.

So I googled the yellow blossom. Did you know that it was only in the twentieth century, with the invention of the lawn, that dandelions became the enemy of yard-proud people everywhere? In her book, The Teeth of the Lion, The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion, author Anita Sanchez makes the case for the good side of dandelions, including:

  • They are a green and growing first aid kit. For millennia, dandelion tonics have been used to help the body’s filter, the liver, remove toxins from the bloodstream.
  • Dandelions are actually good for the lawn and garden. Their wide-spreading roots loosen hard-packed soil, aerate the earth and help reduce erosion. The deep taproot pulls nutrients such as calcium from deep in the soil and makes them available to other plants. Dandelions actually fertilize the grass and other plants.
  • They are more nutritious than almost all other vegetables grown in a garden. They were named after lions because their lion-toothed leaves healed so many ailments, great and small: baldness, dandruff, toothache, sores, fevers, rotting gums, weakness, lethargy and depression. Not until the twentieth century was the underlying cause of many of these symptoms realized: vitamin deficiencies. Dandelion leaves have more vitamin A than spinach, more vitamin C than tomatoes, and are a powerhouse of iron, calcium and potassium.

Gardeners hate dandelions partly because it’s the thing to do, the accepted attitude, handed down from generation to generation. Does that make it a gardening cliché? Has it lost its relevance from overuse? I agree that dandelions are an aesthetic blight in an otherwise perfect lawn. But is it necessary to flood the world with chemicals to eradicate them?

In developing memorable stories, it’s important to know which dandelions stay and which ones go. Some clichés will never be eradicated. Perhaps Roy Huggins explains it best: The cliché flourishes in the creative arts because the familiar gives a sense of comfort and security.

So maybe not all clichés are wrong in fiction. Could it be that they are a kind of shorthand that acts as a springboard to other creativity?

When you’re writing and editing, do you occasionally let a cliché slip in? Where have you encountered clichés in fiction that seemed to work well, that you didn’t mind reading because the rest of the story was awfully well told?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons by: Atriplexmedia

Critical mess

Word count: 394            Reading time: 1-2 mins.

No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft said HG Wells. I wish I’d known that quote when I sent my first short story to a competition. It was rated Highly Commended and one of the judges asked me if I’d like some help polishing it. Without so much as a by-your-leave, she rewrote it and read her version to the audience on the awards night. Her rewrite wasn’t wrong; it was just different. It wasn’t my voice.

Do-not-rewrite-someone-else’s-work was my first lesson in editing. Here are a few more I’ve picked up since:

  1. It takes courage to share your work; make sure the person who sees it is worthy of your trust.
  2. A good writing partner pinpoints the areas that might benefit with revision. She never replaces your words with hers but suggests solutions to problem areas.
  3. A constructive editor encourages your strengths. Note: I’ve paid for professional reviews where the readers seemed totally unfamiliar with classical thinking like: correction does much, but encouragement does more (Goethe). If you have to ask questions - like what parts worked better than others - it’s time to find someone else to help you.
  4. The more you study and learn about writing, the better your writing gets and the more you have to offer as a writing partner and editor.
  5. Some people want intensive feedback; others only want their typos caught. Remember Somerset Maugham’s words: [some] people ask for criticism but they only want praise. If you’re committed to doing a meaningful review, the latter will waste your time.  
  6. You don’t have to take onboard everyone’s suggestions but it doesn’t hurt to listen. You’re the creator; you decide whose opinions are most relevant.
  7. Still, even when you think you’ve absolutely nailed something, be receptive to the fact that it could be better.

Once books are published and hit the public domain, imperfect strangers emerge from the woodwork to criticize them. Until then, we can select readers who help us strengthen our voices, not drown them.

What are your expectations from an editor or writing partner? Is there something else you hope for that I haven’t listed? Do you use other writers, professional editors, or good friends - or a combination of all three - to help you improve?

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Artwork by: Tom Morris via Wiki Commons

What I meant to say was...

 

Word count: 428                         Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve been told – and found it on the internet so it must be true – that the best way to wash a car is to do it twice. I don’t have a lot of patience with cars so mine’s lucky if it gets a single wash every couple of months. I’m like that with a lot of jobs. I’ll never create a dessert so beautiful that guests won’t want to eat it. I’ll never produce an awesome needlepoint or restore an old piece of furniture. I know. I’ve tried. These are all endeavours where the that-will-do-factor cuts in really early.

But writing? A different story: the more I do it, the greater my patience is for rewriting and the easier I accept other people’s input. So I  understand what Bernard Malamud meant when he said, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times--once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”

When writers forget this essential part of the writing process and rush to bring their work to the world by way of poorly-edited self-pubbed books they risk terrible remorse down the road as discussed by Suw Charman-Anderson of Forbes. They risk alienating readers who might have enjoyed their work if they had just given it a little more patience.

I'm sure there are writers whose flawless first drafts are ready for global release but John Irving’s words resonated with me: “More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina. I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do. . . . And I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.”

I’d be delighted if I only had to write things three times like Malamud or was even close to Irving’s talent. But still, I do have the stamina to rewrite often, very often. And I hope, at the end of the process, whatever I offer the world shines like it’s been washed twice and well polished.

How do you feel about rewriting? Have you written your story at least three times? Does it finally say what it must?

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Photos:      Junkyard Car by Melissa M. Morris

                 Old Truck by Ron Hilton

The Busy-ness of Writing

Word count: 376                        Reading time: 1-2 minutes

When I qualified as a Certified General Accountant I knew my education didn’t stop with the parchment handed out at the graduation ceremony. Being a member of the CGA Association meant that in addition to the usual long work week, I was expected to complete defined courses of professional development every year to keep my skills relevant. Then I chucked it all to become a writer.

My second career evolved slowly because there was no clear route to what ensures success as a writer. After a lot of time invested and an enormous amount of trial & error, the only thing I know for sure is that a writer needs, at some point, do some or all of the following:

  1. Write
  2. Research
  3. Read extensively
  4. Go back to school
  5. Find a trusted writing partner or two and share your work with them
  6. Rewrite
  7. Give generously of your time to other writers who need help and encouragement
  8. Revise
  9. Polish the revision
  10. Submit and track your submissions
  11. Repeat steps 1-10 – stick with it
  12. Join at least one writers’ group
  13. Attend writers’ talks (local library, university, writers’ festival – wherever)
  14. Build an online profile
  15. Build a profile in your local community
  16. Stay healthy
  17. Play; renew the energy that brings freshness to your writing
  18. Track related income (if you’re lucky) and expenses for your tax return
  19. Repeat any or all of the above as required.

Once my first novel is released, what then? Well I expect there’ll be a whole 'nother list that comes along. I’ll post it later, when I have a better sense of all that's involved.

When I did the mind map for this blog (thank you Daphne Gray-Grant), I was astonished at the commitment of time and resources involved in writing. My CGA training pales in comparison to what it takes to be a writer, but this is so much easier. You know why, don’t you? Because pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. Aristotle said that and he knew a thing or two.

What's on your list and what's missing from mine? Is there something I should be doing that I’m not?  

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Photo by: Uschi Hering

Make No Mistake

                                                           

 Word count: 248          Reading time: 1 minute

To enter the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, it’s necessary to bow to pass through the Door of Humility. As a writer who seriously wants to get better, I’m developing a supple spine from bending through that door often. I’ve had a lot of practical lessons in writing and the most valuable have not been from seminars or courses; the greatest improvements have come from critiques.

 To be truthful, the opportunity for improvement isn’t apparent right away. First there’s disbelief that what I wrote wasn’t perfect. Next there might a dark hour or so of resentment when I think that the reader doesn’t appreciate my cleverness. Finally I slip through the door and see that the feedback is more than well-intended, it’s enormously helpful.

Humility makes us accessible to learning, to new ideas. Unlike insecurity which whispers that nothing we ever do will be good enough, or vanity that blinds us to other suggestions, humility reminds us that there is work to be done and alternate ways of doing it. When a manuscript comes back covered in notes, I try to remember the words of Alexander Pope No one should be ashamed to admit they are wrong,  […], that they are wiser today than they were yesterday. I’m a much wiser writer today than a year ago, which is to say I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

How is your writing caper going? Are you bowing through the Door of Humility as you progress?

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Photo by: Renewer