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

Been there, done that, what's next?

Last Saturday, for the first time, I appeared in public as a writer. Another milestone now behind me. Some people are attracted to such events like butterflies to bright flowers. I’m more like a unicorn; I’d rather not be seen. However, remaining anonymous is a luxury no 21st century writer can afford. In the Forbes’ article, Five Lessons For Authors and Self-Publishers, Neil Gaiman tells writers that you have to get out there, you have to be a part of your community, and you have to be the signal, not the noise.  

Word count: 600                                                        Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I accepted the invitation to join the panel because I knew I needed to. In days before the event, I reminded myself of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: Do one thing every day that scares you.  It’s not like I’m naturally timid and desperately in need of that advice. I’ve travelled to Europe alone, I’ve moved across Canada by myself, I’ve moved across the Pacific. Twice. I’ve camped in the Outback and scuba dived in the icy waters of the Pacific Northwest. But none of those were as daunting as public speaking.

I prepared myself as best I could. I read aloud, into a voice recorder, and forced myself to listen to it. I asked the moderator if I needed to bring notes on any subject but she said no, it would just be informal questions and answers. I sang at the top of my lungs on my way to the library where the festival was held. This seemed to strengthen my vocal chords or at least clear the cobwebs. I couldn’t be more ready, or so I thought.

Then there was a moment of horror when the moderator asked us all to speak, for three to five minutes, on our journey to publication. If you’ve followed this blog, you know I’m not yet published. I have a contract to publish. I do not yet have a book in my hand but the organizers considered that an important point in the road and thus I was included. As the junior panel member, it was natural that I’d be first off the mark. But I hadn’t brought notes.

Being first meant I didn’t have the benefit of gathering my thoughts as others spoke. So I took the microphone (another first) and winged it. I tried to speak slowly, not my usual geyser rush of words. I made eye contact with members of the audience. The session went on for an hour and a half. I seem to remember being on my feet a fair bit of it. I wonder what I said. I really can’t remember.

As Robert Brockway states in the blog, Writing is the easy part, the burden of promotion and marketing now falls squarely on the writer’s shoulders. The North Shore Writers’ Festival was my first chance to test the waters of getting known, of a little self-promotion.

When it was all over, I realized I’d learned a lot:

  • People who attend writers’ festivals are incredibly supportive.
  • When a speaker makes eye contact with an audience member, and she nods in agreement, it’s incredibly helpful. It lets the speaker know she is understood.
  • People who go up to a speaker after a talk and say something like, “that was really interesting” make the speaker’s day.
  • I will be a better audience member from now on.

Have you ventured into some peripheral realm of writing that you dreaded, only to discover it wasn’t nearly as bad as you expected? Or was it even worse? Where have your greatest joys and biggest disappointments been?

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Photo by: Raksit

What are your bare necessities?

The hardest part of writing is writing,” said the legendary Nora Ephron. To me, the hardest thing about writing is getting started.

Word count: 303                       Reading time: 1-2 minutes

When I finally get down to work, the walls recede, the rat stops gnawing the door, and I forget everything but the characters in front of me. Why is it so difficult to get out of the starting gate? Are there physical things that draw a person to the desk? Over the past week, I made a list of things that seemed essential to writing on different days:

  • a cup of green tea
  • a mug of strong coffee
  • a glass of wine
  • none of the above – water only, please
  • a tidy desk
  • a desk heaped with notes and reference material
  • a free writing warm-up
  • jumping right in
  • a good pen and a friendly notebook
  • a laptop
  • sunshine
  • rain
  • reading a couple of poems aloud, listening to the diction, tripping out on the images, enjoying the poet’s playfulness
  • reading no poetry
  • a quiet corner
  • music
  • complete silence
  • incense
  • open windows and fresh air

So the list revealed nothing more than the lack of a magic formula. In the end, the main thing that gets me working is a looming deadline, usually a self-imposed one. Without it I could and would avoid the pain and the joy forever. After all: writing is 90% procrastination, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write. ~ Paul Rudnick

What makes you get started? Do you have a favourite spot that gets your story spinning? Or do you like variety, somewhere new every time? Do you have routines or physical comforts that that entice you to work?