Lessons learned

Joe’s Post #20 — I loved Karalee’s post about what she learned from this whole 5 writers, 5 books, 5 months experience so I thought I’d add my own realizations.

simpsons1) A dedicated workspace works makes a whopping difference. Oddly enough, before my laptop died, I would have said,’ writing at a cafe makes a difference’, but when I was forced to clean up my office, unearth all my writing books and set up an area for my mindmapping and notes and scene cards, I found I wrote a lot more when I sat down. More than just an hour at the cafe. Now all I need is to get one of them fancy coffee machines and I’m set.

2) I need to work on developing outlining skills. My mish-mash of thought and ideas and notes stuck to everything is not something I want to do again. Sure I had a basic outline – I knew where it would end, what were my high points etc – but the amount of work I’ve had to do to fix problems is massive. Most of the novel from page 200 – 400 will be a complete rewrite and that’s a lot of work. It became necessary when each change I would make would ripple through the entire novel. I ended up making so many changes, some big, some small, that the result was a tsunami that wiped out the last bit of the book. Next book. Massive outlining. I promise.

3) Never tempt fate. Cause if you do, you’ll pay the price. Case in point. After seeing the Silver Linings Playbook with a friend, she told me of a terrible cold she’d just gotten over that had, in addition to all the fun cold stuff, a skull-cracking headache, dizziness, chills and sweats. To which I say “oh, I’m glad I didn’t get THAT cold.” So what happens? Very next day, THAT cold hit me so hard, I didn’t even want to get out of bed and nothing, I repeat, nothing, seemed to cure that headache. Lost a day of writing because of it and with the deadline looming, that one day hurts.

F_Lanfear054) I need a brainstormer. That’s part of why there were so many things that had to be changed going from first draft to second. I had to figure it all out by myself and I am a bear with very little brain and sometimes I just can’t see things that are wrong in my writing. In the old days, I had a wonderful wife who helped me craft better novels and now I know I need to find someone to fill that role.  Craig’s List Ad : Looking for nerdy, well-read woman who looks like Sandra Bullock and can help struggling writer become a best-seller. Must know who Lanfear is or Jack Reacher. Clothes optional. For both of us.

5) I miss my writing group get togethers. I miss talking about writing and getting inspired by the other writers in the group. Who would have guessed that? A shy, introvert missing being with people? Well, I do. I hope we’ll be able to put something together as we go forward in 2013.

6) I have to find a way not to get lost in research. Lemme give you and example. I wanted to find out what beds were made of in medieval times. So I googled it and found a cool site that not only talked about beds but ironing methods and oooh, I wonder what rushlights are? … And the next thing I know, hours have gone past and I’ve learned something cool about mulled ale and where the LARPers are gathering. Not that it’s all useless information (it’s NOT, do you hear me, NOT!!!!) but I think I may have to put a timer or something beside the computer so I don’t get lost in the research.

7) I can get a novel done to first draft (and maybe even 2nd draft) in 5 months. Believe it or not, I once wrote a novel in 1 week. 400 odd pages, but it was complete crap. A fun exercise for sure, but crap none the less. I just didn’t have the skill to go from nothing to a full novel in that time. But 5 months is doable. More likely 6 to get it to a publishable state but still, that bodes well for me getting another novel done before the end of the year.

Pages rewritten: 320

Pages left: 100ish, (ah who knows, that’s just a guess.)

Colds: 1

Turkey Dinners: 0 (will make one for myself when I finish the novel.)

Coming Together – 5 things I’ve learned from our writing challenge

Karalee’s Post #20

jazz vespersI went to Jazz Vespers last Sunday to hear musicians and singers give tribute to the life of Jerry Wennes, the founder of these Sunday concerts at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church.

I’m not religious by any means, but I am open to listening, and this jazz concert invites both musicians and the public no matter what one’s spiritual thinking is. Besides, this particular church is well worth the visit simply for its spectacular architectural beauty.

It struck me that musicians from all over the city had come together to give tribute, and many had never played and sung together before. Of course, this got me thinking about my book and how my characters have come on and off stage too, interacting with other characters as they weave their own musical way to the climax near the end.

Fitting for a book I’d say. I sat back and enjoyed the concert as I mused.

This is the last week of our five month writer’s group challenge to complete a new manuscript with new characters, setting, and/or new style of writing. Has mine come together?

Mostly.

It’s got strong bones and is fleshing out like a coming-of-age adolescent standing in front of an open refrigerator. I will need to encourage a few gorging sessions in the coming weeks, but I look forward to them. Writers enjoy these type of days when words come spilling out faster than our fingers can type.

Those are the best.

So what have I really learned along the way?

  1. Outlining helps. For me this is the organizational structure, writing down my ideas from character creation to storytelling. I establish Act One, Two and Three and then fill in the rest as chronologically as I can. I do a rough outline in table format.
  2. Structured time helps. I have a routine I follow where I exercise first thing, write mid-day, and spend time with family in the evenings. Of course there’s room for flexibility and my family support is awesome. I’m NOT a night owl so writing in the evening doesn’t work unless caffeine-induced.
  3. Exercising helps. I try to be active every day whether going for a run, yoga, walking with a friend and/or my dogs, winter sports, biking, or if the weather is too miserable, even doing some housework. Not only am I healthier, my back thanks me and it helps clear my brain for the next session of writing.
  4. Reference books/information help. I don’t know about you, but when I’m stuck for ideas or need to find out about some  plot detail I will turn to the internet for information or pull out a book on character development, writing humor or emotions, etc. It’s all part of the ongoing learning and it does take time.
  5. Dedicated writing area helps. I never used to have my own space to write, not until one of my children became an independent young adult and flew the nest (only a ten minute drive away which is very nice). With a laptop I can still be mobile, but now I can set up my bubble web plotting on the wall and keep who/what/where/when/why in front of me. I love it!

desk

This time next week will be the start of a new chapter in our challenge. What will we do? I see a group decision coming over coffee and laughs.

Productivity: this has been a challenging week. I’ve tightened my timeline to increase the tension in my book which required backtracking and changing dates, etc. but my plot-line is much better. Progress yes, but added word count not so much.

Happy writing.

Eat dessert first!

Life is Uncertain

Paula’s Post #20 — One week to go!

Whether you’ve followed our exploits from the beginning or are just now tuning in to the saga of the 5writers journey, I know you’ll be watching this next week with interest. Five months ago, five unpublished aspiring authors threw down the gauntlet and challenged each other to write a new novel, from scratch, in just five months.

Now, just a mere seven days remain before the challenge ends. If you’ve followed along with us from the beginning, you’ll know that throughout these past 5 months, we’ve all faced challenges, we’ve all juggled commitments, we’ve all spent hours writing about why we were… well… not writing.

Which is pretty funny, when you think about it. Five writers, each committed to a marathon writing contest, each with the additional burden of having to blog about it one day a week and what have we done? By and large, we’ve spent the vast majority of this blog ‘splaining’ (to quote Ricky Ricardo) why we weren’t actually writing.

So today, when I sat down to write my penultimate post before the February 5th deadline, I knew I wanted to write something about ‘balancing acts’.

Balancing dogs

If you read Silk’s post from yesterday, you know she’s involved in her own epic struggle, heading into the home stretch while on vacation in Hawaii. For Silk, temptations lurk at every turn: a boogie board here, a mai tai there, a sunset sail, a soft ocean breeze, whales leaping in the distance.

How can I describe her agony, (if you can call it that) in such vivid detail? Because I was there! I spent nearly three weeks in Maui over Christmas, battling not only the above temptations but also the added joys and woes of travelling with grandchildren, my two gorgeous but energetic toddlers.

So I have more than a passing interest in solving the conundrum of what is oft referred to as the ‘work-life balance’. But I also have a little philosophy that has always been of help to me. Many years ago, I wandered into a New Age bookstore in Del Mar, California where I spotted a thin little volume on the remainder table. The title immediately caught my eye and piqued my interest:

Life is Uncertain…. Eat Dessert First!

By now, if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that this 5writer is a self-proclaimed ‘Tigger’ and the authors of this little self-help book were preaching to the converted. But that didn’t stop me from buying the book.

Remember, if you don’t buy the book, the author doesn’t get paid.

Buy books!

Later, I gave a copy of this book to my father who already embraced a positive life philosophy. But it gave him joy to read the book and to receive affirmation of what he already held true, just as it gave me great joy to see how he loved this little book and how, like a mantra,  he ‘quoted’ from the title many times over the ensuing years.

Today, twenty-five years later, the title of that book not only still inspires me but also inspired my post today. For the past five months, we 5writers have struggled with varying degrees of guilt as pleasure trumped productivity.

I say enough already!

How will we be able to find anything to write about if we do not experience life’s pleasures with all our five senses? How are we to create interesting and engaging characters if all we do is lock ourselves in our writing rooms and write? How are we to sharpen our ears for dialogue if we do not travel out of our home regions? How are we to understand the human condition if we do not sally forth and socialize with our fellow humans and live, laugh and love?

An excellent example of this philosophy is my 5writer colleague, Helga, who not only is a phenomenal cook but also has the talent to write about both cuisine and culinary techniques. We got to know one another when we met and penned Taste of the Past, a collaborative culinary mystery set in a Tuscan villa. I know that Helga experienced a few twinges of guilt when a much anticipated South American cruise took a big bite out of her 5writers calendar this past December, but to my mind, that ‘bite’ is a dessert that ought not be denied. Helga’s already shared some of her experiences in this blog and I know she not only had a fantastic time, she also visited many new and exotic locales, possible settings for future novels. And she met some intriguing people who may be able to provide technical assistance or inspire wonderful, complex fictional characters in future.

How can she regret eating dessert first?

I’m happy to say that after I gave my Dad that little gift of a book, twenty five years ago, he went on to enjoy several years of good health He played tennis, he travelled to distant lands, he enjoyed time with his grandchildren and met hundreds of interesting people from around the world. Sadly though, within a decade, ill-health not only restricted his activities, it greatly lessened his enjoyment and quality of life.

It made me sad to see my Dad end up like that, but at least he had the chance to get out in the world and enjoy life before his health problems curtailed his activities. My mother didn’t get that chance, she died at 56, exactly the same age I am now. Maybe that’s the reason I take so much time out to enjoy life. Some might say too much, but I honestly don’t care. It’s my balancing act. And if life has taught me anything, it’s that:

“Life is Uncertain, Eat Dessert First.”

Deserts Eaten This Week – 4

Houseguests Entertained this Week – 1

Trips to Airport this Week – 3

Parties Attended this Week – 2

Tennis Clinics this Week – 1

Golf Balls Lost this Week – 0

Target Word Count:    100,000

Progress to Date:         80,084

Words short of Target: 19,916

Target Page Count:       400

Pages Written to Date:  288

Pages short of Target.   112

Oh, and if you haven’t guessed yet, my last week of writing will be spent in the desert enjoying dessert and writing and writing and writing.

In the mood

Sunset from our lanai

Sunset from our lanai

Silk’s post #20 — You’re looking at the reason I’m late with this post, illuminated in Technicolor. You’re also looking at the reason I’ve made little progress on my book in the past 12 days. Oh, let’s be honest. NO progress.

None at all.

There are the obvious reasons. A two-week vacation on Maui doesn’t come cheap, even when you fly on points, and every minute spent sitting at this desk while the sun shines irresistibly out beyond the lanai feels like a very expensive minute to waste indoors. Then there’s the, mostly unspoken, pressure to be a better travel companion for my patient husband (fortunately, or unfortunately, he has his own iPad addictions to fall back on).

And the most obvious reason of all: girls just wanna have fun. In the sun. At the pool. On the beach. With my hair dripping wet from a swim, and a hibiscus behind my ear.

But let’s put that all aside for a minute.

Yes, I could write at night, though this might not really be the most productive idea given my sundowner consumption on this trip. The “go with the mai tai flow” philosophy is, at least for me, incompatible with the drive to write. At least to write something that will allow me to respect myself in the morning. After a day of sun, I’m lucky if I can read a few pages of a good book before I fall asleep – let alone write a few.

I could also take the laptop down to the pool deck or out on the beach. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Waves providing the gentle sound track for creativity, and occasionally splashing droplets on the keyboard. The sunlight … well, the sunlight making the screen completely unreadable. And the happy sounds of children playing on the beach. And screeching, and crying, and kicking sand all over the computer. Right. Scratch that.

But the truth is, I could overcome all these somewhat manufactured problems if I was really in the mood to write. In fact, nothing would stop me.

And now we get to the real issue. Mood: a mental or emotional state; a disposition to do something; a prevalent atmosphere or feeling.

It’s the vaguest, mushiest of definitions for one of the most powerful of forces determining human action. It sounds frivolous, inconsequential, insubstantial. Mood seems like an arbitrary, irrational condition that can turn on a dime, and is therefore not really a valid excuse for doing or not doing something.

A mood is something to get yourself into, or pull yourself out of. To overcome with reason. To just get over.

But mood doesn’t work that way. It’s a complex, compelling force that shifts colour like a butterfly’s wing. And we often don’t really know why. I think mood is deep in the brainstem.  There’s no use trying to get the cortex to have a little chat with it, make it see reason.

You’re in the mood to write, or party, or eat ice cream, or have sex … or you aren’t.

And not only individuals have moods. Whole populations have moods. Events have moods. Places have moods. Books have moods.

Moods are like emotional weather.

And I’m hoping that I get in the mood to write during the few days I’ll be home before our deadline. I need a huge brainstorm of in-the-moodness.

No Kingdom Lasts Forever

Helga’s post #17 — I hope you are a tennis fan, watching the Australian Open on TV this week.

Tennis? Why am I watching TV when I should be writing? With only 12 days to the deadline? With a novel half-finished at best?

There are only so many hours I can spend at the computer. After that, my brain seizes up. The words refuse to flow. Enough.

So back to tennis. Even if you don’t watch it, chances are you heard the story anyway. Something unbelievable happened on Wednesday. Since I started writing this post, there has been a media frenzy around the event. You might have been more than a little astonished, or gobsmacked (depending on who you are rooting for), at what unfolded in the women’s quarterfinals. And yes, it does have something to do with writing. Because there is a lesson in it for all of us new writers. First, here’s what happened.

An incredible upset!

23tennis-1-articleLarge-v3

The sweet smile of victory – Sloane Stephens

A teenager who had never been past the fourth round in a Grand Slam tournament beat the best player of her generation.

What was supposed to be a learning experience against one of the greatest tennis players in history turned instead into one of the bigger surprises in tennis history as 19-year-old Sloane Stephens introduced herself to a global audience by rallying to defeat her 31-year-old American elder, Serena Williams.

serena-williams-australian-open

It was such a nice racket

I loved watching that game and its outcome.  It was like a fresh wind blowing over Rod Laver Arena when young Sloane burst on the scene. I almost didn’t watch the game because of its foregone conclusion that Serena would win. I had gotten bored of seeing the queen of tennis rack up the victories (and prize-money) over and over. In fairness, Serena did battle a back problem, which might have opened up some opportunities for Stephens. (Scant excuse though for gamesmanship of smashing her racket to smithereens.)

In an interview Stephens said she felt good about her chances before the match began.

“Last night I was thinking about it,” she said. “And someone asked me, ‘Do you think you can win?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ But I wasn’t too clear about it, and this morning when I got up I was like, ‘Dude, you can do this. Go out and play and do your best.”

And so she did. And went on to victory with grace and modesty. By Wednesday afternoon, she was busy fielding text messages and monitoring her growing number of Twitter followers shortly after the upset.

“It was 17,000, and now I have 35,000,” she said with a grin (it rose to over 58,000 a few hours later).

159764740

Novak’s ‘modesty’

As an aside, I am hoping we’ll see a parallel in men’s tennis. It’s badly needed. Novak Djokovic, in spite, or rather because of his excellent technical skills, holds no surprise.  His attitude has fans leaving in droves  (more on that if you Google Djokovic Images.)

And what does this have to do with writing?

I think there are two lessons here:

First, it refutes the myth that underdogs can’t succeed.  Never say ‘I can’t do it. There are so many excellent established authors out there, I will never be able to write and sell a book with all that fame and popularity.’

Secondly, the public welcomes newcomers. They keep tennis interesting. And new authors do the same for the book industry. Readers want new stories, new voices.

Think about it: How many novels do you read one after another, from the same author? Sure we all have our favorites. I love reading Stephen King, and Lee Child, and so many others. But if I would read too many in succession, I’d start to suffer from author-fatigue.

Am I the only one who feels this way? I believe not. I hope not. Because if readers in general are on the lookout for new stories written by yet unhyped authors, then we, the unsung heroes of the writing world will have a chance to succeed. Readers will take a chance with us if they believe we’ll give them a good read. There is plenty of room at the top.

Not to detract from the talent of these authors, but who would honestly want to read 80 James Patterson or Dean Koontz novels? Or the 200 plus by Nora Roberts? The list goes on.

Back to new writers: Looking at the Stephens interview above, we can easily exchange ‘writing’ for winning and playing and we get a powerful tool for success. Tennis is a mind game. Success depends on attitude. So does writing. I know that if I am in a funk I can’t write. That damn screen will stay blank, no matter how hard I try, no matter how often I open the fridge in search of another snack. To make matters worse, I might tell myself in my darkest moments, what’s the point writing when it looks like there are more writers than readers?

But if I can shake the misery out of my head and change my attitude, the words fly from the keyboard. The world is whole again and I feel I can do anything. And it shows in the writing.

So here’s my new mantra: ‘Dude, you can do this. Go and write and do your best.’ Well, if a 19-year old can depose the reigning champion, those words should bode well for me too.

As for our online challenge, regardless of how far we’ve come by February 5: what we, the 5 intrepid writers have worked on so diligently over the last five months will not be in vain. Because, as venerable author Philip Pullman once said:

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

So let’s weave them some stories!

03SUMBA-Figures

If in doubt

doubt

Joe’s Post #19 — Ok, so there I was, staring at the screen, my Joe-face all scrunched up, looking at the words I’d written, the scene I’d redone. Then it hit me. Doubt. I’d changed the whole scene around, but what if it wasn’t the way to go? What if the first scene was better? What if my new coffee maker wasn’t really the best one to buy?

So how does one, such as myself, overcome doubts in a story?

The Top 10 Ways to Cure (or at least get over) Doubt:

1) Phone a friend. Another perspective always helps. “So, you know, should my character have sex with a dead dog? No? Ok, thanks!”

2) Take a break. Go for a walk. Clear your head. Sometimes you just need to get away from what you’re working on. You come back, a few hours later, a Timmies in your hand, and the answer may be clear.

3) Trust yourself. Sometimes doubt is just over-thinking. Should I have the medium pizza or the large? Should I have my scene start with dialogue or description? Either choice won’t change the world.

horoscope4) Read your horoscope. (This was my horoscope for yesterday.) If it says something like, “concepts you hear about today may seem confusing and bothersome, Aquarius. You might go off alone to try to make sense of them, but this isn’t the day to do  that,”  then you may just want to fug it all and go see a movie.  But come back next day!

5) Think of similar stories. How did those writer’s handle similar situations? Odds are, they didn’t let their hero have sex with dead dogs (although, to be fair, I haven’t read all of Chuck Palahniuk’s books)

6) Consult a psychic. Ok, funny story here. I went online to see about the whole psychic thing and there was a woman sitting in front of her computer crying. Above her “Free Chat With a Psychic.” W-T-F? It was the saddest thing I’ve seen in a long while.

drunk7) Have something to drink. No, I’m not saying go all Hemingway for a day, but sometimes a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, a shot of jack (or a quick smoke of something) might actually help calm the mind (or make you care less about the perfect solution.) Hot tea can even work for some. I have no idea why.

8) Ignore the problem. Hey, you aren’t Hemingway, drunk or not, so it’s ok to realize you can’t write the perfect novel. Leave what you last wrote and move on. Ben Franklin – “When in doubt, don’t.” I love this guy

9) Realize that doubts are fears. (Oh, I have to remember this for my characters!) They come from somewhere. Is it a good scene or am I afraid people will judge me for, you know, the whole dog thing.  Again, no wrong choices here but understand where your choice and fear and doubts are coming from.

10) Write the doubts (and fears) down on a piece of paper or type it out or scrawl it on the walls in blood (fake blood, right?) Afterall, if we’re writers and having doubts about our writing, doesn’t it kinda make sense we’d solve the problem by writing it out?

Today, for example, I think I used all 10.

Anyone else have any other ideas?

Pages Rewritten: 220

Turkey Dinners in 2013: 0

Doubts Quelled (this week): 2,396

Attention to details

treeKaralee’s Post #19

Writers are supposed to be observant, right? Sometimes I wonder if I have what it takes since I tend to sail through life without really paying attention to details in detail. For instance, I’ve run in Pacific Spirit Park for years with my girlfriends. When a snowstorm last December brought down over 200 trees I didn’t “see” that a bridge railing had been knocked off until I noticed the section had been replaced. The new wood caught my eye, not the gaping hole I’d already run by a few times.

But then many of us don’t pay attention to details. How many of us have had a haircut and our significant other doesn’t even notice? Or a house you walked by for years is knocked down and a new one is going up and you can’t remember what the old one looked like?

I’ve discovered that this ability to not “see” what is actually there is given the term inattentional blindness (or sometimes called attentional blindness). Remember the person in a gorilla suit that walked across the basketball court mid-game and was not seen? (The study at Harvard University by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris

Our brain can only take in so much detail at once. Also, I think many of us look at the world in the big picture way and not the “pay attention to all the little details” way. But then at other times smaller details can conjure up “the big picture” in great detail.

For example, when we walk into a house and a turkey is cooking in the oven I would guarantee (for those of us that celebrate with turkey) that an image comes to mind beyond the mere vision of a turkey in the oven. We may think of what else is included in the special meal, who will be there, what music will be playing, etc., etc.

Take another example. When we are driving, if a firetruck and then an ambulance goes by we may wonder what has happened, and our minds may envision an accident with injured people and road closures and such. And for those with medical training (I’m a physiotherapist), we may think about the injuries in more detail, bringing helicopters in to medi-vac patients to the hospital, surgeons at the ready, blood everywhere, etc.

If you think about it, no matter what these smaller details make us think of, they are based on past experience. All of us can envision acute in-depth details without the actual landscape physically in front of us.

Thus, the magic of writing and using sensory details. Can one word be worth a thousand images?

I came across an article called Do You Think Like Sherlock Holmes? by Maria Konnikova. I found it fascinating how Conan Doyle has been able to build Holmes’s character with such ‘relentless mental energy’ that he pays attention to all the details (and thus solves the crime.) The secret is that Holmes both sees and observes, which apparently is central to mindfulness.

So, as authors, if we practice mindfulness it may help improve our problem solving skills, enhance our imagination, give more depth to our writing, and improve our productivity. I know that when I write a scene I “see” it in more detail than I normally notice the world around me. What about you?

Apple pie Right now my productivity feels like this picture.

I am creating a great story, albeit not flushed in full detail yet and probably won’t be by the deadline (the proverbial optimist speaking). The beginning and middle have been set up well, but I may need to scramble to The End and fill in more connections later.

To me this is already a successful project: new story, new characters, new setting and a new style of writing. To others, it will depend on your measure of success.

And by Feb 5th I need to learn to compile in Scrivener,  the great writing software I’m still learning to use.

Oh, and in case you missed it, did you see the squirrel happily eating in the tree in my top picture?

Previously, on 5writers’ Theater… (channelling my inner Alistair Cooke)

popcorn

Paula’s Post #19 — Don’t you hate walking into a theater after the movie has started? If you’re like me, you need to be in your seat, extra large buttered popcorn in one hand, Strawberry Twizzlers in the other, well before the ‘Previews of Coming Attractions‘ flicker across the screen.

But sometimes you can’t help it. Sometimes you’re stuck with walking in on the middle of a film or a play or a television show. Sometimes you’re left scrambling to try to figure out who all the characters are and what the heck the show is about, not to mention what has happened thus far.

Those of you of a certain age may recall Alistair Cooke, the original host of Masterpiece Theater. In the days before DVR‘s and PVR’s, Mr. Cooke helped those who missed a few episodes to pick up the threads of plot heavy dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga, deftly recapping what had transpired in previous episodes while hinting at what was to come. If you’re watching Downton Abbey, Laura Linney does the same thing now.

29_cooke_lglAlistair Cooke understood how hard it is to walk in on the middle of things.

When I tried to decide what to write for this week’s blog post, I realized a lot of water had flowed under the proverbial bridge since September 5th, 2012, when our 5writers challenge began. Some of you have been with us from the very beginning. To you I say Bravo! and Thank You! You can go get another popcorn. Bring back some Junior Mints, too.

Some of you, I realize, discovered us along the way. You missed a few episodes and are a little fuzzy on what is really going on here.

So I thought I’d channel Alistair Cooke for a moment and recap the history of the 5writers challenge. Previously, on 5writers Theater:

In early September 2012, five members of the same critique group, (Joe, Helga, Karalee, Paula and Silk) decided it was time to shake up their writing lives. They knew they needed a new challenge, knew they needed to bring a new level of intensity to their writing.

In our old critique group, our standard requirement was pretty straight-forward. You may be in a critique group that operates more or less the same way: produce 25 or 30 manuscript pages, every four or five weeks. Send the pages off to the other members of the group to critique, at least 7 days before a face-to-face, marathon meeting. Meet for six hours, take turns critiquing everyone’s submission, leave exhausted, start all over again.

For most of us, this target proved a fairly easy one to hit, even during the most hectic periods of our lives, we rarely missed a deadline.

But come on, was that really the best we could do?

When we looked at our productivity, we realized that with an average of 10 meetings a year, we’d only be on target to produce about 250 pages per annum. At that rate, it was taking us a full 18 months to pen the first draft of a 400 page novel.

And therein lay the difficulty.

I don’t know about the others, but by the second year, so much time had passed I could barely remember my own plot and characters. I found it almost impossible to remember the plot twists, characters and storylines in my colleagues’ books.

We knew we needed to do better.

But that wasn’t the only problem. Once we compared notes, we realized that most of us had fallen into the same lazy bad habit: we’d procrastinate like crazy for three weeks, then write like bats-out-of-hell for three days straight to make the submission deadline.

On reflection, we realized some of our favourite published authors managed to bring out a book a year, some more than one, notwithstanding speaking engagements, book tours, writers’ conferences, revisions and research for upcoming projects. Not to mention time reserved for friends and family.

Why couldn’t we do that?

And so the gauntlet was thrown. On September 5th, 2012 the 5writers challenge officially began, the rules simple:

1) Write a full length novel in 5 months. Period.

2) Write it from scratch. No recycled short stories, half-assed outlines or dusty manuscripts pulled from under the bed. No re-working of scenes, no borrowing of characters from previous projects. All original material from inception.

3) Blog about your progress, (or writing in general), once a week. One post, each week, from each of the 5writers.

4)  Push ‘send’ at 11:59 pm on February 5th, 2013 and email your manuscript to the other four writers in the group. Even if it isn’t done. Even if it isn’t perfect. Even if you hate it. No excuses. Just hit send. No matter what.

Once we’d decided on the bare bones rules for the challenge, Silk bravely offered to take on the task of getting this blog up and running and, yippee, our first post went up a few days later on September 9th, under the title:

Let us tell you a story…

5-Writers

Wow!

The picture above was taken on September 5th, 2012, the day we decided to embark on this crazy challenge (note how we’re each holding up 5 fingers).

Look how relaxed we look!

Look how happy we look!

I don’t know about the others, but I hardly recognize myself in that photo. (For the record, that’s me in the front row. The one with the poodle in my lap and the nice pedicure, something I don’t have time for now.

If you missed a few episodes along the way, you can read all our previous posts here, starting with September 9th’s: Let Us Tell You A Story. Who knows? You might find it fun to read as our frustration mounts. As reality dawns. As panic sets in.

Since September 5th, I’ve posted 19 blog posts, each on average at least 1,000 words. So have each of my 5writers colleagues: Joe and Karalee to my right, Silk and Helga in the back row.

As of 5 pm Monday evening, January 21st, 2013, I’d also penned 71,063 words or approximately 255 manuscript pages, about two thirds of the way to my target of 400 pages.

Time for a reality check.

Yesterday, Silk posted from Aloha land, hinting– no, pretty much warning the rest of us she wasn’t going to be finished by February 5th. I’ll be honest, I doubt I’ll finish either. My target is 100,000 words, give or take, which leaves me only 14 days to slap down another 29,000 words. Maybe, I can make the book shorter if I try for a page turning race-to-the-finish that leaves my readers breathless.

Who knows?

What I do know is that I have a houseguest arriving tomorrow and staying until Sunday.  Just a guess on my part, but I doubt she’ll find it very entertaining, watching me desperately tapping away at my laptop, trying to spew out 3000 words a day.

So I won’t be doing that.

If we’ve discovered anything along this journey, it’s that life is what happens when you planned on writing.

And that’s okay. As long as you get right back to writing, the moment you get the chance.

But I think we’ve also learned a few other things along the way. Some important things. As far as I know, we 5writers have all remained friends. No one has cried. No one has attacked a neighbour with a butcher knife, or kicked a dog, or gone ‘postal’.  No one’s suffered a nervous breakdown or threatened to slit their wrists.

As far as I know, no one wishes we’d never started down this road in the first place.

That’s pretty remarkable.

Why is that?

I think it’s because we’ve all learned something about ourselves. About writing. And perversely, even though we 5writers have not met face-to-face since September 5th, 2012, I know many of my colleagues feel that this challenge has brought us closer than ever. We’ve shared our thoughts, our insights, our fears, our insecurities, our joy our frustrations and even our sorrow, both in this blog and in a private group we’ve set up on Facebook.

If we don’t all finish our novels by 11:59 pm on February 5th, 2013, I, for one, will still count this ‘challenge’ a great success. I’ll share more of my thoughts on this after February 5th.

Until then, I’ll be writing.

Write on from Aloha land

Silk’s post #19 — Time is running out. And I don’t care. Well, that’s not really true. I do care, and I salute my 5 writers friends for their accomplishments (which are still to be revealed). But for me, the clock has, more or less, stopped racing.

I’m in the land of Aloha. Hawaii is a timeless place.

Aloha-conference

Ritz Carlton, Kapalua

And what am I doing when I should be putting the pedal to the metal on my book … the one with the February 5th deadline? Attending the first Aloha Writer’s Conference at the impossibly scenic Ritz Carlton Hotel at Kapalua on Maui. I was only able to catch a day of it, but it made me happy to see that a worthy successor to the departed Maui Writer’s Conference (1992-2009 R.I.P.) has arisen. May the new conference thrive!

For those who ever attended, or aspired to attend, the old Maui Writer’s Conference, this is good news. The even better news:  the conference is a project of the Keiki O Ka ʻĀina Family Learning Centers, a non-profit with a focus on Hawaiian culture. One of the visible benefits? Captivating hula performances opened and closed the keynote presentations. These weren’t touristy shows, nor were they gratuitous tributes. They grounded the conference in a deep respect for the human connection to place and time, and added a unique, authentic perspective.

For me, it felt like a cultural massage, relieving the numb-bum of sitting through presentations on conference-centre chairs, and relaxing the tension of 10-minute pitch sessions.

Hemmings-DraegerConference Co-ordinator, Vicki Draeger (seen here with keynote speaker Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of The Descendants), brings an educational orientation to the conference. “It’s all about literacy,” she noted in a hallway chat. Literature, literary, literacy … it’s good for us to remember these all come from the same root.

But now … break’s over. It was fun while it lasted, but the relentless calendar continues to advance. Attending the Aloha Writer’s Conference will not make my writing faster. But it may make it better.

The clear-as-a-bell message I took away from this conference, from an A-list of writers, publishers and agents alike: don’t submit your work to an agent, or anyone else, before you’ve made it the best book you can write.

That means rewriting, polishing, stripping down and completely rebuilding, if necessary. Kaui Hart Hemmings described, for instance, how she tried her spectacularly successful story, The Descendants, from a number of different viewpoints. Different protagonists. Different characters playing the survivor, and the non-survivor. She mixed it up, tried role-reversal, let the bones of the story try on different flesh to see what worked, what resonated. Sounds like a lot of extra work, doesn’t it? The result: a first novel that was optioned for film before the book hit the shelves, and a hit movie starring George Clooney (her first choice for the part). Not every writer can expect such a huge payoff. But stopping short of the best story you can write virtually ensures you won’t achieve the publishing success you’re dreaming of.

In fact, every presenter at the conference made the same point: our priority as writers should be writing first. Creativity. Craft. Heart. All that stuff that’s truly in our hands, and no one else’s.

The whole separate issue of selling that writing – with its complex web of queries, agents, editors, publishers, rights, marketing and so on – comes later. In fact, if the writing doesn’t earn an A+, none of these things are relevant, because your book is going into a drawer somewhere, not onto a shelf at Barnes and Noble.

When you network with other writers, and attend writers conferences, its oh-so-easy to lose perspective on this. So tempting to focus on the publishing end of things before you really have a publisher-ready (or even self-published e-book-ready) manuscript. We’re all told to learn the business, promote ourselves, become adept at queries. And we must.

But first, we write. And rewrite. And polish. However long that takes. Until we have “it” – the best book we can write. The book that no one else could write.

Our book. Our passion.

That’s the book people want to read.

Tricks of the trade (a.k.a. cheat sheet for stragglers)

Helga’s Post # 16 — Nineteen days remaining! My calendar indicates that our writing buddy Paula will do the honors of posting to the blog on the fateful day, February 5. What will she say? Maybe it’s the 5Writers’ last post to the blog? We never really discussed the blog’s future. Perhaps we need to hear some cheering from the bleachers to help us decide. Anyone?

Regardless, time cannot be stopped. Countdown to the new era has begun. 19 days remaining for the 5 intrepid writers. The era of ‘back to the normal life’. It could mean any or all of these: ‘I have to delete those 4,785 emails’. ‘I have to lose the 10 pounds I gained since September 5’, ‘What’s wrong with the dog? He’s gotten fat!’dog-obese

And then there are outstanding invoices from uncharitable service providers: ‘Electricity bill 5 months overdue; ditto for gas, telephone, Internet, utilities…) Uncalled for and cruel threats to turn off said services, even collect garbage (don’t these outfits understand the busy routines of writers?)

But we’re not there yet. 19 prolific writing days ahead, and yes, I for one need every one of them; every hour and minute that I can squeeze out of my non-sleeping time. With that in mind, my survival instincts have kicked in. I know with 100% certainty that unless I take drastic measures, I will not have a completed manuscript by the time witching hour strikes on Feb. 5.

I went over my puny  pages written as of today and realized that triage is in order. And even that won’t save my bacon, but at least it may (emphasis is on ‘may’) avoid flagellation in the public sphere of the Internet.

On to damage control then. Tricks I’ve started to apply to increase my page count. It’s the only chance I have to change my short story to a novel. I’m not the first writer to use such tricks, or as published authors would say, tools. In fact, I recognize this in most books I’ve read, whether fast-paced thriller or venerated classic. It’s quite simple, really:

Padding.

I am padding my story with details and back-story. Yes, padding! I am creating scenes that, while not exactly moving the plot forward, add a human element, apart from the more complex theme of the book. In my case (it’s too close to countdown to keep my cards close to the chest; and who would want to pirate such a crazy story concept anyhow?) I have a lot of complex scientific content, which provides the context for the story. The Human Genome Project, international DNA databases, and the research after its conclusion, genetic manipulation, biobanking, etc. etc. (Please, buy the book in spite of it. It’s not that bad). So, tons of research for a neophyte scientist. Hours and hours of pouring over executive summaries (i.e. cheat sheets) of scientific papers, trying to comprehend before I could actually WRITE about it (admittedly, I did enjoy the learning process). As well, I wanted to keep that scientific mumble-jumble to a minimum, because it doesn’t exactly make for the fast-paced suspense novel I had planned. Still, I had to create a credible framework for my story. As expected, even with all that research, my page count suffered.g9510.20_Baby.indd

I decided to be nice to myself. Write big chunks of the novel without the fancy-schmantzy science stuff. So, for example, in one of my scenes my protagonist, a researcher, gets a call from a stranger, saying he has information she needs. Scandalous stuff. They arrange to meet. He is a now show. His next appearance is in the morgue the day after.

That yielded me two measly pages.

I got thinking. How about instead of the stranger, it’s a colleague. He calls, just returned from Asia. He has to meet her urgently. She agrees. There is a bar scene with lots of details about setting and choice of cocktails (yielding another three pages). He is sick (more details, filling up space). But why stop there? Maybe her colleague could be a former lover! And yes, there is lots of titillating back story how they got together, and the city where it happened (yes, with lots of colourful scenes, the city’s history and other tidbits), some steamy sex (never hurts), etc. How their relationship continued and changed, and why. Some soul-searching. Lots of good stuff. I gained another ten pages before I knew it, and it was actually a nice reprieve from the genomes, the chromosomes, the telomeres, the binding proteins, and such.DNA Strands

And there are lots of opportunities to spin the yarn even further. Maybe the colleague/former lover has a sister who has befriended my protagonist. She knows some secrets of her brother that provide more fodder for my story. Family secrets never hurt, if well told. Or a former girlfriend enters the picture. Whatever.

So this is how I just might get through this project. Emphasis on ‘might’. And you know, I don’t even feel guilty about it. Because most authors, if not all, are using that same tool, padding the story, stretching the plot. This is where the writer can relax a little, and write with abandon, without the need for tons of research. To write about our past, our own life experiences. Let them spill on the page like a bag of candy. Like writing autobiography.

And that’s how I’ll be spending the next 19 days. If by chance a miracle happens, I’ll have a manuscript, but if so, it will only be an extremely rough first draft. And then the real work begins, after a short reprieve. In between, it’s time for some serious cooking before I lose my touch, for catching up with friends, for getting back in shape, and above all, for spoiling that nice guy I married long ago.a_vinage_love_and_romance_illustration_1