Getting unstuck

Helga’s Post #51:

443599849_5da82ea213_z

Photo credit Novak Rogic

The rains have started here in Vancouver after days of glorious autumn sunshine. It’s amazing how it seems to influence people’s psyche. Facial expressions seem to change ever so slightly, as does body posture, even gait. It must be that gray, wet environment that puts a damper on our general well-being. Speaking for myself, I feel my brain getting a little more sluggish, my creativity mushy and my energy definitely less pronounced.

It’s the creativity part that has the most direct effect on my life. It doesn’t bode well for my writing. Not only the actual quality of it. What bothers me more is that some kind of uncertainty creeps into the process of planning, such as, am I really writing the story I want to tell? Why did I choose to write about ‘these’ characters and not others? Am I writing a book that readers will be interested in? Perhaps I should have chosen a different setting for my novel, perhaps even a totally different plot?

That’s the rub. The plot. Did I choose the right one?

Surely, with thoughts like those I won’t be producing a dozen titles per year, like many bestselling authors do. How do they do it by the way? I’d love to interview some of these famous folks to find out just what makes them so productive.

Where do they get their plot ideas from, novel after bestselling novel? Are there plot categories that seem more successful than others?

Christopher Booker says there are only seven plots: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth.  Others think there are only five plots: man against man, man against himself, man against nature, man against society, and man against God.

One thing is certain: There is no secret place we can go to get bestselling plots:  “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we?” Stephen King says.  “There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestseller.”

Some words of wisdom about the process of plotting from screenwriter Roger Ebert, who notes “The Muse visits during composition, not before.” Orson Scott Card of Ender’s Game fame agrees: “Don’t wait for a muse to strike and force you to your typewriter.  Such events are rare—in my experience, muses tend to strike those who are at the keyboard typing their brains out, not those who are playing video games in the basement.”

Lucky for me, I don’t have video games in the basement. Neither do any thoughts of doubts about my writing bug me 24/7. They are more likely to emerge when other things in my life don’t quite work out the way they should. Like a flooded basement and the insurance company refusing the claim. Or my granddaughter wanting to drop biology and take sewing instead during her last year of high school. Or the cortisone shot in my foot to get rid of a nasty pain that made it worse instead.

We all have days and weeks like that. But every problem has a solution. With time and patience we’ll get through them all. And that goes for our writing too. It’s funny, when I read over my writing I can actually tell when I was in a good mood and things generally went well. My characters seem to have more bounce in their actions and dialogue. The writing flows just a little better.

One of the antidotes when hitting a snag in my writing is to get away from the computer and link up with a friend. And if I am in luck, with a writer friend who lives in my neighborhood, like Paula. Because, as fulfilling a career as writing is, it’s solitary as few other careers are. We live with our characters in our head and ours alone. But it’s a tremendous help to talk about them with our writing buddies. That’s why critique groups are invaluable. I am lucky to be part of one.

Now my characters are calling me to action. They are impatient, which is a good sign. Maybe I can write a great chapter or two in spite of the miserable weather.

Being critical

Joe’s Post #54

The Sea of Monsters. I was going to write about what I learned while watching this, and it was going to be amazing and insightful and full of colorful references to mythology (that I would have to research.) Instead, as I wrote it, I realized that I really wanted to talk about something else.

critcalCriticism. Or more specifically, am I being too critical?

Odd topic for a blog written by 5 critiquers, right? Sort of like a group of movie reviewers having one of their members talk about how awesome Battleship was.

I mean, hey, as critiquers that’s our job. Read something. Find flaws. Think of ways to make it better. Be kind, but be critical.

But as I wrote about Percy Jackson and that Sea of Monsters, it occurred to me that it worked. It wasn’t flawless, but did it really need to be? Did all the stunningly insightful observations about what they did wrong really matter? It was fine. I was entertained.

However, had I written that movie (or book), I would have ignored the cool characters that I had created, the neat twists on established mythology and even forgotten what an amazing idea I had in the first place. Instead, I would have focused on what was wrong and spent a ton of time trying to fix it.

I may even have ruined all that I’d done right.

Why?

Being too critical.

It’s something I think has infected my writing.

perfect guy

Have I written the perfect paragraph, the perfect sentence, the perfect word? Is there tension, emotion, action, etc, etc?

Now don’t get me wrong, we all have to work at writing the best thing we can write, but at a certain point, if we’re listening to that critical voice, we’re losing the creative one.

What’s worse, that hyper-critical thinking is beginning to creep into my entire life. Do I have the right shoes? Have I ironed out all the creases (and yes, that’s a real picture of me.) Have I said the right thing? Am I the only one not mortally offended by Miley Cyrus?

So, my new advice to myself (and anyone still reading and not flipping to America’s Top Model), give yourself a bit of a break. Find the good. Celebrate the good. Don’t try to overthink everything and make it all perfect.

SteinbeckPerfect can be the enemy of good writing.

Or a good life.

Now, back to that novel (and short story I’m trying to squeeze in.)

Writing doesn’t have to be lonely

Karalee’s Post #47

Paula’s last post got me thinking about how writing is a solitary activity and it really can be lonely if you let it be. Me, I have no problem shutting myself away to write. I look forward to it actually, and it’s not because I’m an introvert.

When I look at my life it’s far from being solitary or lonely. I’ve made a conscious effort the last three decades to stay fit and stay in touch with my group of woman friends.

black mountain walk

Generally speaking I’m active six days a week. I get up early every morning and between going to the gym, running, biking and walking, I keep in touch with 5 different groups of people on a weekly basis. When the snow falls, I add in another group once a week snowshoeing. This summer I did a short triathlon and enjoyed it so much that I may add swimming into the mix too.

I also try to visit with my three children at least weekly, generally over dinner. I’m very fortunate that my son and daughter that have flown from the nest have both landed within half an hour drive away. My youngest just started university and is still at home.

Then there’s my two dogs to walk three times a day. Did I mention that I love to garden?

raspberries 2013

And there’s my wonderful 5Writers group to keep in touch with too.

Maybe that’s why I have no difficulty sitting down to write. Even behind closed doors  I know that I’m connected to the real world out there. Maybe that’s why I’ve never found writing a lonely occupation, rather it’s a wonderful part of my day that I have the pleasure to enjoy on my own and do what I love. 

‘Ain’t it good to know…you’ve got a Friend…’

Paula’s Post #47 – When I was in the tenth grade,  my friend Nichola became the proud owner of Carole King’s album, Tapestry, one of the best-selling record albums of all time.

I remember this because by then, my family had moved to Canada and I was spending much of my summer vacation back down in Oregon, visiting Nichola and her family.

I remember the album because that summer, the summer between my 9th and 10th grades, we played that record all the time.

Every single day.

Okay, I admit it. We played it multiple times a day. We played it in the morning when we got up (invariably late). We played it before we went out to hit tennis balls. We played it after we came home from bike riding over to the Dairy Queen on Broadway to get Peanut Buster Parfaits. We played it late into the evening. As late as we could get away with, before her Mom and Dad shut us down.

I remember we played all the songs on that album. But, with scant apology to the lacklustre ‘Smackwater Jack‘ and a more heartfelt one to ‘I feel the Earth Move‘  the one song I loved playing over and over again, ad nauseum?  You guessed it – ‘You’ve Got a Friend.

We played that song soooo many times, we almost drove Nichola’s Mom crazy. Okay, maybe we played I Feel the Earth Move a few too many times, too. Looking back, I’m sure her Mom lived only for the day when she could put me on that Greyhound Bus back to Canada.

After we graduated from high school, Nichola went east to university, while I went south

She went to journalism school. I went to law school.

She got married. I got married.

For years we didn’t see much of each other. Until we were about forty, we were way too busy just trying to get somewhere in this world to keep up our cross-border friendship.

Then, about a zillion years later, at the turn of the millennium, I took a sabbatical from my career as a prosecutor. My secretly harboured hope was that during this long year ‘off’, I’d finally get the chance to write a novel. One of the many ‘goals’ I set for my sabbatical year, A year that, at least back then,  seemed a wickedly exorbitant block of free time. TIme that required ‘filling’ with worthy and justifiable projects. Time not to be squandered.

Fortunately, I considered writing a novel a worthy and justifiable project.

I remembered my friend Nicola was a ‘real writer’.( In addition to her career as a journalist, she’d even written a novel or two). So I headed to Oregon for a visit with my writer friend in the hopes of maybe getting a little  advice on where to start. Advice Nichola generously and willingly gave.

“Start right in the middle of the action”, she told me. “Don’t use a lot of backstory…”

(not that i really knew what that was anyway)

“…don’t have too much build up to the inciting event…”

(I didn’t know what that was either)….

.”Make the story as cinematic as possible.”

I remember Nichola also told me that the very best advice she could give me, starting out, was to pay attention to lessons from the screenwriting community. She told me they really get dialogue and dramatic ‘beats’ and the three act structure.”

Nichola talked. I scribbled. Furiously, on a piece of notebook paper, while she rolled out unfamiliar words and phrases and letters like “POV”. (Didn’t have a clue what that was, either). At the end, her parting advice was to try to find a good critique group to join, warning me that writing could be a lonely life.

Grateful that I had a friend to set me out on the ‘write track’, I headed back to Canada, realizing that what my friend Nichola really taught me was that I didn’t know diddly squat and I’d better learn it. Fast. She didn’t say that in so many words. What she did tell me was that writing was both an art and a craft, the first something that could be practiced, the latter something that could be studied and learned.

Nichola and and her Mom and Dad remain amongst my closest friends. When I last visited them in Oregon, in June, Nichola and I had a great time, catching up, chatting about writing and dogs and kids and husbands and that summer, way back when, when we were her daughter’s age and  played that old Carole King album, night and day.

Even her Mom, (now in her late 80’s),  remembered that. Oh, and so did Nichola’s Dad. I couldn’t write about ‘writing friends’ without mentioning Nichola’s Dad. He’s 88 now and writing a novel. He’s an amazing literary talent. As a young man, he gave up ‘a writing life’ after taking a good long crack at it in post-war New York City. Eventually, he put writing aside for kids and a career as an engineer with the Oregon power authority. But he never stopped reading. Even today he’s in two different book clubs… and he reads The New York Times Review of Books, from cover to cover. And even now, at 88, he’s never given up the dream of writing that novel. Nichola says it is absolutely brilliant. As soon as I finish this blog post, I’m going to send her an email and remind her to send it to me, like she promised.

Anyway, thanks to that initial encouragement from my friend  Nichola, I did indeed produce my own rather dreadful first novel during my sabbatical year. So dreadful, even I can’t remember the title. But that same sabbatical year led me to another wonderful friendship, that with my 5writer colleague, Helga.

Because you see, during my sabbatical, I didn’t just write that dreadful first novel, we also travelled. My husband and I spent two months in Europe, hopping on and off trains, mimicking the kind of holiday most people experience when they’re twenty. (Only with marginally, and sometimes extraordinarily better hotels). One such hotel was glorious Villa Delia, a romantic cooking school in Tuscany.

Villa Delia2

When I got back to Canada, later that fall, I knew I wanted to write a novel set in an Italian villa, even had a dozen or so characters, sketched out on index cards.

But somehow, I just couldn’t seem to get started.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may recall a post I wrote back in February of this year, describing how I first met my 5writer colleague, Helga:

About this same time, Helga and I were introduced by a mutual friend. Within an hour of meeting, we decided to write a novel together.

Crazy?

Ya think? I mean we barely knew each other. And, at the time, my idea for this novel was still little more than a small flame, burning not-so-very-brightly.

But Helga, who’d just returned from cooking school in France, helped fan that flame with her enthusiasm, talent and culinary expertise. With the “power of two” on our side, we fleshed out the setting and acquired a full cast of quirky characters. All from our imagination.

Are you starting to sense a theme here?

Writers need friends. Sometimes they provide advice. Sometimes moral support, sometimes creative input… if you’re a writer, you’ll know it is one of the most solitary professions imaginable. You need your friends, baby.

After I met my good friend Helga, things only got better. I shared with her what my friend Nicola had said about writing being a craft that could be learned and how Nicola suggested attending some writers’ conferences. So we signed up for the Surrey International Writers Conference, and after a year or so met Sean Sommerville, a police officer I knew casually from my work at the courthouse, and his friend Joe.

Yes, our own 5writer colleague Joe.

And that’s how our critique group was born. Within just a few years, Sean was published (now internationally renowned thriller writer ‘Sean Slater‘). Check out the link from Sean’s Amazon UK page and you’ll see why the demands of his dual careers as police officer and novelist precluded further full-time participation with our group. After Sean bowed out, we held  ‘auditions’ for the vacant slot and were soon joined by 5writers Silk and Karalee, both of whom we’d also met at the Surrey International Writers Conference.

And so it goes.

It’s raining in Vancouver now. In a few weeks, like those ubiquitous Canadian geese,  I’ll be heading south again for the winter.  I’ll be sorry to leave Helga and the rest of my 5writer critique group friends behind, but hopefully at least a few may be tempted to come visit me over the winter.

We plan to stop in Oregon along the way for a visit with my fabulous son and daughter-in-law and my adorable three year old grand-daughter. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a chance to visit with my friend Nichola and her parents and catch up on their writing lives. And once I get to California, one of my friends has said she wants to start on a novel of her own. We’re going to meet at least once a week and hang out together and write. Oh, and another tennis buddy from the desert wants to start a book club.

I’m in.

I don’t want to miss the chance to make some new friends.

I don’t know where your ‘writing life’ started. It doesn’t really matter. But I bet that you’ve made a friend or two over the years, a friend who has proved instrumental in helping you on your way. Today, I want to thank Nichola and all my other writing friends for their help and support along the way.

If you’re a writer, trying to write alone in your room, without any ‘writing friends’ you may want to rethink that.

Honestly? It’s good to know, you’ve got a friend or two.

Hungarian language rhapsody

Silk’s Post #53 – A short, pictureless post from my cabin on a cruise ship on the Danube River. This is day three in Budapest, a place that was never even on my bucket list. This only goes to show that, a) I knew nothing about Budapest or I would have always wanted to come here, and b) I need to rethink my bucket list overall.

I was so ignorant about Hungary when I landed here on Friday night that I literally had no coherent expectations. I’m only slightly less ignorant now, but my expectations have soared, and been exceeded. Without getting into the whole history of this many-times invaded and occupied nation, or its proud but unpretentious culture, or its lyrical creative spirit (none of which I’m really qualified to comment on at length), let me just talk a bit about the voluptuous and fascinating texture of its language.

If you’re a word fanatic like me, you experience language at multiple levels. You feast your eyes on the shapes of words on the page (maybe this is the designer in me), you roll words about in your mouth and wrap your tongue around them, and you listen to the music of the sounds words produce. So, for me, the Hungarian language is as rich and exotic a feast as their dishes are to a foodie.

We tend to value things for their rarity, it seems (with apologies to those with palates more refined than my own, how else could you explain the price of beluga caviar?). If you want to know the value of letters, for example, you need look no farther than the Scrabble™ score sheet. A “Z” is worth 10 points, a “J” fetches 8 points, a “K” or “Y” 5, and a “V” 4. I’ve always thought of these letters as special. Elevated above others. Exotic. Memorable.

There’s scarcely a word in the Hungarian (or Magyar) language that doesn’t include at least one of these letters. “How are you?” = Hogy van? “Very well thank you.” = Koszonom nagyon jol. “Call the fire department!” translates to Hivja a tuzoltokat! (which, by the way, translates to 42 Scrabble points).

How can you not love a language so full of rare, jaw-cracking letters?

Especially when it sounds like music when spoken? There’s nothing gutteral about it. More like wind through rushes, bees buzzing around flowers on a hot summer afternoon, the clink of glasses toasting your health, and the cadence of horses’ hoofbeats galloping along in the background.

I don’t know what value these observations might have for my writing friends or those following this blog, other than the reminder to look and listen for poetry and new perspectives in unexpected places. There’s nothing like dropping yourself into a different culture to get your eyes and ears working.

So, Orulok hogy megismerhettem, Budapest. Pleased to meet you.

Dare to say it out loud

Helga’s Post #50:

A milestone of sorts: 50 posts. Almost the size of a novel (Not quite up to par with Joe’s 53, though)

A few days ago I went to the local library to pick up one of the books from the 5Writers reading list, 1st to Die by James Patterson. There must have been triple the patrons from a month ago, indicating that summer is officially a memory. With days so much shorter now, people are settling down indoors and reach for their favorite books.

September is one of my favorite months. Farmer’s markets are at their best. From the varied shapes and colours of squashes, to crisp Braeburn apples, Concord grapes and the incomparable heirloom tomatoes, all beg to be taken home to my kitchen. And they are. Which means I had to put my writing aside for just a bit to process all that bounty. My food processor and blender work overtime to produce basil pesto, Mexican corn chowder, Butternut squash soup and a few more. After all that is put away in the freezer, it’s time to collect my prize.

My just reward at the end of a productive day is soaking my tired limbs in a deep bubble bath, an interesting book in hand and a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc in easy reach. I can’t think of too many other things that beat that. So I immersed myself in the fragrant bubbles and started reading the aforementioned 1st to Die.

Like most writers, I am reading books as much for entertainment as for analysis. What is it about the characters that I like or dislike, how is the structure working, what about POV? Does my own writing follow a similar pattern?

So I started to compare 1st to Die with all the advice about writing that’s been drilled into me for years at workshops, seminars and from how-to books. And I was more than a little surprised and shocked at how Patterson did something so completely different from what I had been taught. In fact, it nearly spoiled my bubble bath. Here’s what I mean:

Patterson used no less than six different POV’s. The protagonist’s in 1st person POV, the others in 3rd person. The book starts in the POV of the first murder victims, and moves on to that of the main character’s, then to the murderer and on to a reporter and after that to the Medical Examiner, and the second murder victims. And that’s only by page 105.

Hmm. I always thought to use Point of View sparsely, maybe two in a book, no more.

The second thing that struck me was Patterson’s use of an obvious character development trick normally seen in newbie writers: make your readers ‘like’ your protagonist because you feel sorry for her. So what does he do? He gives Lindsay Boxer, the homicide inspector, a rare, life-threatening blood disease (which by the way doesn’t exist). Why does he have to do that? We know she will survive it, because it’s written in ‘her’ POV, therefore, the reader knows she will not die. Plus, this is the first of a series of books featuring Lindsay Boxer, so we KNOW she is not going to die. Cheap trick that fell flat.

There are many more problems with this book. The female characters are not credible; they are clichés and wooden. How original is it that a black woman (the only person of colour) ends sentences with ‘Honey’? Patterson has a complete lack of understanding of how women think and act. He portrays them as smart, but they miss just about every clue. And then there’s the atrocious dialogue. (Like ‘Marshmallow Dialogue’, a James Scott Bell term). That’s not how women speak. If any of our 5Writers group were to submit writing like this to the others for critique, we’d get dinged!

So, where’s the moral of this post? There isn’t one, unless you make one up. I for one will be more careful spending precious hours reading poorly constructed and badly written novels. If any of our 5Writers group or many other unpublished writers would submit this manuscript to an agent or publisher, I am pretty sure it would be rejected. I will go out on a limb for saying this: I am proud of the quality of our group’s writing, which in my opinion is far better than Mr. Patterson’s in 1st to Die. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d hired a ghostwriter, because some of his other books, like the early Alex Cross novels, are far more creative and entertaining than this one. But if your name is as well established as Mr. Patterson’s, most things you write will sell millions upon millions of copies. (As a matter of records, Mr. Patterson has sold more novels than that of Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined. He is the single most selling author of 63 hardcover titles).

I realize that many readers might love this novel. And that’s great. It would be a boring world if we’d all agree on the quality of a book. One reason I wrote about this novel is to show that even world-famous authors don’t always write great books. And by extension, it demonstrates just how much most of us newbies actually know about the craft of writing, and that we produce some damned good stuff – even when compared to powerhouse authors. The trick is to get that first book published. And the next. And a few after that. Once that’s done, go back and dig out that dusty manuscript from the attic and submit it.

It too will sell millions. Guaranteed.

pic.pl

A critic’s view

Mining My Life

Joe’s Post #53

mark twainOne of the greatest writers (no, not me) said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Mark Twain.

So let me look back at this week in my life and put that to the test.

Tuesday: 10:00 am. Meet a doctor who was so pale that the white walls behind him had more color. Like he had never seen the sun. Like he was allergic to it. I wondered how he managed to avoid the sun so effectively. Hmmm. He wore the thinnest glasses I’d ever seen. Pencil thin. Half an inch from top of the frame to the bottom. I wondered how he could see out of them at all. Hmmm.

Tuesday: 10:30 am. There I am. In an elevator crowded with patients and doctors. The doors open. More people stream in. One lady, a bit of the large size, wearing a blue hospital smock marches in, stands beside me, pivots 45 degrees to stare at me. Just stare. At. Me. I pretended not to notice, but it gave me the willies. “Maybe she was doing a test on how uncomfortable she could make people feel,” I was told by the funniest person in my life.  Hmmm.

skatesTuesday: 4:00pm: Lace up a 6 year old’s skates. I work really, really hard at doing them up tight. I pull. I yank. I strain. And finally I get them so tight, you couldn’t slip a gnat’s butt-hair between those skates and his ankle. I am so proud of myself. Later, an hour after skating on them later, I’m told that I put the skates on the wrong feet. Hmmmm.

Wednesday: 6am: Huge pain in stomach. Upper region. This is something new and completely unpleasant. Try to will it to go away. 7am. It’s not going away. It’s getting worse. A lot worse. Do I head to the hospital right away? Ah, no. I shower first and shave. If I’m going to die, I figure, I want to at least look ok and not smell like last week’s laundry. Drive to hospital. Not as easy as you think when you’re in a lot of pain. Grunted a lot. Swore a lot more. Got into emergency at 8am. And that’s when the fun began.

Wednesday: 8am: Give me information inform the nurses that I have, ‘severe abdominal pain’. ‘take a seat’. So I do. And I wait. And it’s getting a lot worse. A LOT. I can barely take a breath. It’s 9am when I go back to the nurse’s station and a nurse is chatting with a doctor. I sit, because, well, the sign says sit, so I sit and neither one of them looks at me. I manage to peep out, “hey” and the older one, the doctor, snaps, “we’ll be with you in a minute!” Like I’m bothering her. Like it’s not her job to kinda look after sick people. Like I’d come to her house and knocked on her door and tried to sell her time-shares in South African slums. Beside her is a sign that says foul language and threatening behavior will not be tolerated. I think there should be a sign that says foul language and threats will be expected if hospital staff are douches.

Wednesday: 10am: Who else is in the waiting room? I have to get my mind off the pain. There’s one drug addict waiting for his, what, fix, methadone? He’s lying across 2 chairs in what looks like clothes he’s dragged out of a dumpster. Another sits rocking back and forth has two different shoes on. The third patient is someone who says he’s going to do something to himself. The forth, well, he looks healthy so who knows, maybe a rash on this testicles or something. Amazingly enough, all of us are waiting. The drugged up guys I kinda get why they made them wait. But me, I’m in serious distress and the guy who’s going to do something to himself, why yes, sir, just have a seat and we’ll get to you sometime before you stab yourself in the neck with a bic pen. Sigh.

morphineWednesday: 10:02: Blood taken, three jabs to find my deeply hidden veins, EKG done, and then on to a bed. Nice nurse. Close-cropped black hair. “What’s the pain level, Mr. Cummings, On a scale of 1-10?” “10!!” I shout. IV stuck in. Morphine applied. Ten minutes later. “What’s the pain level, Mr. Cummings?” “Two, dah-doo-da-doodle. Two-tattoo. Two-badoopeedoo.” Ah, morphine. It was my friend that day. They never did figure out what was wrong. Just what it wasn’t. Wasn’t gallstones, wasn’t an appendicitis. Probably good, since if it was the latter, I would have died in the waiting room while the doctor was discussing her choice in coffee creams.

Is there a story in any of those events? Probably not. Not even about the woman who took care of me and the friend who looked after my dog while in the hospital. But characters, sure. The rude doctor with her blond hair like dried hay, the drug addicts or my personal favourite, the guy who was going to off himself and was told to wait in the waiting room. Or the creepy lady who stared at me like she knew something was wrong with me, like maybe she put a curse on me.

Ah, who knows? But life is full of all sorts of grist for the writer’s mill. This week, more than most.

Chaos Theory

 

GibsonsLanding

Paula’s Post #46 – While 5writer colleague Silk writes about zen and flow, my life seems to center more around “chaos theory“. Not that I really understand what that is in all honesty. I just like the catchy title. And as we all know, catchy titles sell movies and books.

Anyway, I looked up “chaos theory” on Wikipedia. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking the animation below bears a spooky resemblance to my life:

If you recall from my post last week, I’ve just checked in again after a long absence.  I’ve been on extended summer hiatus due to our move and an extended run of house-hunting.

Well, that hunt continued this past weekend, only this time, I think we may actually have a…

…deal!

There, I’ve said it. I hope that doesn’t jinx it, (we writers can be a superstitious lot).

Last Friday morning we again journeyed up to the Sunshine Coast to the quaint seaside village of Gibsons, B.C., to meet our marvellous and very patient realtor, Grant Marshall. This time, our whirlwind tour of the latest listings coincided with Gibson’s annual ‘Shuckfest’.

Shukfest

We toured homes on Friday morning and Saturday enjoyed a marvellous dinner with 5writer colleague Helga, who joined us up the coast. Saturday we attended the now infamous ‘Shuckfest’ and, after consuming copious quantities of food and several glasses of wine, somehow our choice seemed clear. Saturday night, aided and abetted by Helga and her husband, we called our realtor and made an offer on what I hope will soon become my very own: Writer’s Retreat.

My room with a view.

Bay Rd view

Keep your fingers crossed for me. We’ll know soon. In the meantime, I just don’t think I’m going to be able to get much writing done…

 

 

Zen and the pursuit of the elusive flow state

McArthur-Burney-Falls-SP

Silk’s Post #52 – Oh, to go with the flow. To romp across the page, fingers flying, the newborn words of a first draft pouring forth in a gush of wild abandon. Time stands still and creativity travels at the speed of light. This is the holy grail. This is nirvana. This is the writing drug.

This is the opposite of what I feel when I face the dreaded blank page at the “getting started” stage, distracted by my keen awareness of time racing by and creativity standing still. And with my lousy, undisciplined writing habits over the past year, the problem has become chronic because I’m constantly “getting started” over and over again.

Some call it writer’s block, but that cliché illuminates nothing. It makes the anti-flow state sound like something one can just hop over, like a tree fallen across the road. Writer and productivity coach Hillary Rettig has given it an amusingly tactile new name: the spaghetti snarl. She envisions it as a tangled up mess of counterproductive influences which can be unsnarled strand by strand, rather than a monolithic brick wall that the hapless writer must painfully fling herself against in hopes of a creative breakthrough. The knot may be composed of such inhibitors as perfectionism, ambivalence, time constraints, resource constraints, ineffective work processes, unhealed traumatic rejections and a disempowering context.

Yeah, I think I have all of those.

But rather than focus on that plate of psychological snakes, I want to skip right to the topic of how to pursue, capture, and ride the elusive flow state. First: what is it, exactly?

The UBC Visual Cognition Lab has a flow state research project in the works. According to the project description:

Flow corresponds to a mental state that appears when a person is fully immersed in a challenging task performed without effort. This phenomenon shares with meditative states several characteristics such as a feeling of joy, a modification of self-perception and a distorted sense of time. Despite the rich description in the literature next to nothing is known about the mechanisms that give rise to the flow state.”

flow modelFlow was first described by a Hungarian born psychology researcher named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who became interested in the way artists get “lost in their work.”

He even developed a flow model diagram, which is about as easy to understand as his name is to pronounce. While flow can happen during any engaging activity, it is said to be particularly associated with writing. Anxiety, boredom, ego and impatience are often cited as the enemies of flow. Autotelic personalities (people who are internally driven rather than seekers of external rewards) experience flow more easily than the rest of us.

According to psychologist and popular writer Daniel Goleman in his book The Meditative Mind, the key elements of flow are:

  1. the merging of action and awareness in sustained concentration on the task at hand,
  2. the focusing of attention in a pure involvement without concern for outcome,
  3. self-forgetfulness with heightened awareness of the activity,
  4. skills adequate to meet the environmental demand, and
  5. clarity regarding situational cues and appropriate response.

I find the language of psychology a bit too clinical to be inspiring. But fortunately, there is a  motherlode of insights about the fabled flow state, written by true experts: writers themselves.

I spent several days of my summer sailing adventure reading Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. What a wild, wise, weird cat he was. Bradbury’s brain seemed to be   wired differently than ordinary people’s, or maybe he was just in a permanent flow state.

Bradbury nails the “Joy of Writing” in his opening:

“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see his gusto.”

Don’t you feel energized just reading those words? Don’t you love (and perhaps envy) a writer who begins an essay on writing with a couple of one-word sentences? Now that’s a perfect example of show-don’t-tell. Here’s another excerpt from one of his exuberant essays:

“Run fast, stand still. This, the lesson from lizards. For all writers. Observe almost any survival creature, you see the same. Jump, run, freeze. In the ability to flick like an eyelash, crack like a whip, vanish like steam, here this instant, gone the next – life teems the earth. And when that life is not rushing to escape, it is playing statues to do the same. See the hummingbird, there, not there. As thought arises and blinks off, so this thing of summer vapour; the clearing of a cosmic throat, the fall of a leaf. And where it was – a whisper.zen

“What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”

This is no essay. This is poetry. Ray Bradbury boasted that from the age of 12 on he wrote at least 1,000 words every day. That would mean that by the time he shuffled off this mortal coil in 2012 and took his rightful place in writers’ heaven, he would have written 28,835,000 words. That’s one prodigious flow state. And his deliberate choice of the word Zen in the title of this book’s final essay, which became the title of this anthology, is an interesting one, considering Bradbury was no Zen Buddhist and claims he knew nothing of Zen until a few weeks before he wrote the essay.

“I selected the [above] title, quite obviously, for its shock value,” he opens. “The old sideshow Medicine Men who traveled about our country used calliope, drum and Blackfoot Indian, to insure open-mouthed attention. I hope I will be forgiven for using Zen in much the same way …”

Yet, even Bradbury’s essays contain plot twists. His prescription for achieving zest and gusto in writing boils down to this: Work, Relaxation, and Don’t Think. It’s the Bradbury version of Zen principles that aid focus and creativity: awareness, practice, patience and present-moment focus. In most expressions of Zen, this comes out sounding like the tinkling of Tibetan chimes in a light zephyr. When Bradbury writes it, it comes out sounding like the pealing of a big bell carried on a bracing gust of breeze.

Many prescriptions for getting into the flow state come out sounding  Zen-like, either overtly or under the skin. Some writing advice-givers recommend half an hour of Zen meditation as a portal to deep concentration. Others suggest warming up with a few minutes of “free writing” to clear the mind of clutter and self-criticism. Brenda Ueland’s 1938 classic book on Art, Independence and Spirit, If You Want to Write, is one long coaching session on how to cultivate one’s writing flow in the quest to “be Bold, be Free, be Truthful”. Dorothea Brande counsels us to, “Hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm”. Maxwell Perkins tells us, “You have to throw yourself away when you write.”

Ray Bradbury has earned the last word about his path to the Zen-like flow state through Work, Relaxation and Don’t Think:

“Now, have I sounded like a cultist of some sort? A yogi feeding on kumquats, grapenuts and almonds here beneath the banyan tree? Let me assure you I speak of all these things only because they have worked for me for 50 years. And I think they might work for you. The true test is in the doing.

Be pragmatic, then. If you’re not happy with the way your writing has gone, you might give my method a try.

If you do, I think you might easily find a new definition for Work.

And the word is Love.”

A delicate balance

Helga’s Post #49 – I’m the last of the 5writers to weigh in this week to share our achievements and challenges since we gave birth to our blog a year ago.

By now you’ve read how this last year has challenged, changed and rewarded four of us, namely Silk, Paula, Karalee and Joe. All have big achievements under their belt with hopes and big potential to see their work published. All have become even closer friends during that last year, giving generously of their time to help each other.

Now it’s my turn to bare my writer’s soul and share with you some personal anecdotes.

Those of you who have read my posts know that getting personal isn’t easy for me. It’s something I avoid. Of the 5writers, I think I’m the most private when it comes to sharing personal detail on the blog. Ditto for social media. Not because I’m introverted or unsociable (people who know me probably think the opposite), but because I don’t assume anyone is interested in my mundane life. I’m not a celebrity (‘not yet’, I would add when I’m feeling optimistic), but a perfectly average person. A writer struggling to get a good story out of me. So I feel reluctant to waste anyone’s time reading about ‘me’.

Fortunately we’re not all the same, or it would be a boring blog-world. I can truly appreciate anyone who has the courage to share their personal life with potentially billions of people out there in cyberspace. It’s just not my forte. But I will try to overcome my trepidation for today’s post.

So, yes, this past year has had its ups and downs. Writing-wise, on a scale of one to ten, I would rate it between a 5 and 7. As you know (see Paula’s posts), I didn’t finish my manuscript. I wrote somewhere between a third and a half of a novel. A work in progress. That’s why I gave myself the 5 on the scale, not more. But here’s the rub: Without trying to sound immodest, I chose to write a ‘big concept’ novel. A topic that requires so much research that I wondered, once I committed to it, if I would ever be able to transform all that into a story. To create a work of fiction that has a potentially wide readership. Why choose such a challenging topic? Here comes my confession:

Because for me it’s ‘all or nothing’. Go big or don’t go at all. Write a compelling story or none. Choose a topic that inspires, informs, angers, amuses, and entertains. Something with substance.

Of course that’s easier said than done. As I found out very quickly, a big story concept has huge hurdles to overcome, especially in terms of story structure. Such as, what is more important: the big concept or the main characters? Readers are generally more interested in what the characters are up to, rather than details of the ‘big concept’. So how to weave the two together without one overshadowing the other? How to actually create synergy between the big concept and the characters? A challenge that I had to face from the very start.

Add to that my aversion to detailed outlining. So I had my research about DNA, chromosomes and telomeres, all neatly filed away in StoryMill. I had filed articles upon articles about Chinese history and the struggle for power following Mao’s death. Ditto with Indian culture. Ditto with the multinational pharmaceutical industry.

I had decided on two main characters and had a pretty good idea what makes them tick. But – here comes the big confession, and I can see a collective rolling of eyes – as I continued drafting chapter after chapter – I still hadn’t made up my mind who the villain was going to be. I had three options in mind but couldn’t decide which would be the best. I figured it would organically reveal itself as the story took shape.

And so it was that by our collective 5 months deadline, February 5 this year, I submitted my partial manuscript, all of 16 chapters, to our group for review and critiquing. I left our retreat in Whistler village with the group’s gifts of wonderful, honest feedback, and many, many valuable suggestions and comments. Things that had totally escaped my attention. Character flaws too. Relationship problems. All manner of things.

I let it all settle, like steeping a good cup of tea. Put the whole thing away for at least a month. Then started ‘thinking’ about my plot before actually sitting down to pick up writing again. That meant planning and plotting during some sleepless nights, or while waiting in line at the supermarket, or while in the shower. That too is part of a writer’s process for getting a story written.

The month of August didn’t bring any progress at all. Not in the writing department, though much on a personal level. My husband and I took a magical journey to Northern Europe and Russia. Plus we spent ten days at the city of my roots, Vienna. That city always creates some serious yin and yang emotions for me. Love for the magnificent city, mixed with guilt for leaving my parents for another continent as a young woman. Love for Vienna’s unique culture and charm, which brings the occasional moment of melancholy for immigrating to the ‘new world’. Luckily, these moments are short-lived.IMG_1951

And now, September is well on its way, which also means the season for writing. I know, there shouldn’t be a ‘season’ but a continuous process of writing. But for me personally, writing at this stage of my life is second to living. Weeks and days are getting more precious as time marches on, and it means balancing and prioritizing.

Time management: that’s one area where I really want to improve. Somehow it was much easier during my working life because there was always a deadline. Now I only have one. That’s to finish my manuscript. Maybe I am taking a huge risk for declaring this: I am aiming to have it finished at the end of this year.

There. It’s out in cyberspace now.

IMG_2143

Evening on The Baltic Sea