Worth hanging around

kiteHelga’s Post # 113:   This is my first post in over three months. It will be short and has little to do with writing. Just living.

I think I may be ready. Or almost so. Ready to find my way back to the groove, into the fold of the 5 writers group. I haven’t done any writing other than my personal journal, and I have not even done much reading in those last months – a first since grade school. Events beyond my control have dominated my time and my ability to write. They have created havoc with my equilibrium since my last post in May and to some extent, many months before. In the face of a tragic event, the muse goes into hiding. She will stay there despite efforts to coax her back.

The good news is that Mother Nature, sneaky as she is, has a way of taking care of us. Once we reach a threshold of grief, when we think we just can’t face another day, along she comes and endows us with an unexpected strength to not only survive but move forward. Ever so slowly, in tiny increments, sometimes going backwards before we can move forward to the next phase. But the path is firmly set and we move on.

She does so with an assortment of tricks. Suddenly, after months when the world was awash in monotone gray, colours are starting to look more vibrant. The hue of trees and plants take on a deeper green, the ocean a deeper blue; children’s laughter suddenly sounds joyful rather than grating, and people seem to smile more. Or perhaps they are returning our smile. Food starts to taste like food again and we might even remember how to produce a good meal for friends. We might take up walking again, long walks, giving us the opportunity to take stock of our new life, to do some healing. Friendships deepen and new friendships develop. The world starts to look like a worthwhile place to hang around a bit longer.

But we have to do our part to help her out. Not all days are filled with optimism and renewed energy. Dark clouds do descend without warning when least expected. They will continue to appear, with myriads of large and small reminders from before our life changed. As time goes on, they are bound to recede and lose their strength, though there is no magic cure. It takes work, lots of hard and painful work, to clamber out of that deep cave. Sometimes we will slide back. There will always be that big hole in the heart that can’t be filled. But the strength and the will to succeed are there – the ‘joie de vivre’ and the capacity and desire to bring joy to others. In the end, we are still the same people we were before a tragic event nearly derailed us. We have the same likes, dislikes, passions, values and quirky personalities. And there is a bonus ahead if we stay the course: We become survivors. We will be stronger and have more resilience for whatever lies ahead.

So, chin up, folks. Eventually, the world will be whole again. We have no choice but to let it so. To quote from Haruki Murakami: ‘Everything passes. Nobody gets anything for keeps. And that’s how we’ve got to live.’

With that in mind, I am dipping my toes in the writing pond again. Wish me luck.

How do you get back to writing?

Joe’s Post #140

kris booksI know it’s going to be different for everyone. Like our group. We’re getting ready to have us a writing shin-dig. A bootcamp for getting back to writing. We’ve set aside 3 days, we’ll be taking over Paula’s house, and we’ll be putting our collective butts in chairs and writing.

For me, though, I got the not-writing bugbear off my back in early May.

How did I do it? Well, it was a bunch of factors.

  1. I had a very supportive spouse who made sure I had time each day to actually write. Without her, none of this would have been possible.
  2. I had a deadline. Deadlines work for me. TOR had an open call for a novella so I thought, what the hell. Three weeks later, I have 40,000 words, 200 pages and the rough draft of a story
  3. torI got out of my head a bit (not completely, mind you, but enough to put aside all the negativity and just write.
  4. I’d get up, get a Timmies. Sit down in my chair. Write. Day in, day out. It’s the only way that works for me. For writing. For exercise. For chores. Whatever. I need order in my chaotic world.
  5. I had a story I wanted to tell. It didn’t matter that the odds were stacked against me. It didn’t matter that I began without an outline or deep character backstories. I just wanted to get it out.

The truth is, though, all those factors existed before. Well, maybe not the TOR open call, but other open calls, other agents looking for writers, other contests opened to anyone.

So what was different this time?

Which one of those 5 made the difference?

For me, this time, it was all 5 coming into play at once. I’d done #4 and written about 50 pages. It was a struggle. #3 got in my way a lot. I’ve had #1 all along and deadlines, hell, we used to have a lot of them in the writers group.

But when all 5 come together, watch out. Especially if you can somehow work through #3. Get past all the rejection slips. All the people who tell you you can’t write or write about THAT. Get rid of that negative voice that says you can’t start a sentence with ‘the’ because you heard it in some workshop. Forget what you read in a book about books. Get past past failures.

The key to writing may be different for everyone, but for me it became a matter of all the right things falling into place at the right time. I hope that after our bootcamp, everyone else will catch fire as well.

To write or not to write everyday

Joe’s Post #139

Is there a right answer?

it hardcover_prop_embedStephen King believes in writing 1000 words a day, 6 days a week. Hard to argue with the guy who wrote about killer clowns and domes and sold a zillion books  There’s also a 750 word/day club. I even suspect there’s a 12 step writing-every-day program.

On the other side, people like Paula or Cal Newport argues that such a regime is for full-time writers, only, that we doom ourselves to failure by setting such an artificial deadline.

So let me present another POV.

I doesn’t matter.

Write every day if that motivates you. Personally, I find that such a goal is good enough to keep me going in the short term, but not good enough for a long term project like a novel. For that, I need to be in love with the idea or the characters or a really comfy chair.

If writing once a week for a good 5 hour stretch works, that’s ok, too. Or writing a novel in month. Whatever.

I think it all comes down to motivation. What makes you want to sit alone in a room, stare at a blank screen and try to knit a story from the cobwebs in your brain? What makes you commit hours and hours and hours to something only your cat or critique group may read? What makes you put aside family, the latest Bachelor episode or a golf game so you can put words on a page?

torFor me, it was a deadline that motivated me to write. A deadline from an open call by one of my favorite publishers. TOR. They were looking for novellas. 30,000-40,000 word length.

I had a short story that I loved and thought, hey, why not turn it into a novella? I loved the setting – NY in a slightly altered universe, one where magic is creeping into the world little by little. I loved my character – a creature of the old world, a Fey, who means to misbehave like Malcom Reynolds in Firefly, and uses his magical talents to solve crime. I loved the plot, but I knew I’d have to create a new one for the novella.

It didn’t matter that it wasn’t quite what they’re looking for. It didn’t matter that I’d never written a novella. I didn’t even matter that we were out of motivational wine and chocolates.

I just decided to write.

In 10 days, I’ve got 80 pages done. Oh, I know, it could be better, but that’s 80 pages on a brand new story. I was writing again. About 15,000 words worth.

Due to commitments, I couldn’t write every day, but if writing every day gets you back to writing, then I’m all for it. I didn’t write one day for 5 hours, but if writing once a week for 5 hours gets you back to writing, then I’m all for it.

In the end, whether you’re inspired by a deadline, a daily goal, by a trip you took, an adventure you had or something you just need to get off your chest, writers write.

So, as Silk said, this day we write, but I have to ask…

What process to you use for writing? 


Best show last week – Game of Thrones. Without a doubt, though I hear good things about Outlander.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Reading Sean Sommerville’s latest book. The Unforgiven. Man that guy can write.

Pages written on new book  80 pages on the new novella.

Social media update – If you like this blog, please follow us or share us on facebook

Best thing last week  Back to writing, again. 80 pages is not bad.

Worst thing  Finally over my cold, but it’s left me with diminished hearing. Dammit. I may need to get a hearing aid. I greatly feel this is the beginning of the slow slide that will eventually see me in adult diapers and a hover-walker.

For anyone interested in the TOR open call, see this link.


Wasting away in Mañanaville


Silk’s Post #102 — Let me ask you a question: have you ever procrastinated? No? Really? Not even once? Okay, you’re dismissed. The rest of you should read on.

Some background: this is my last post before the 5writers get together for our mini-retreat in Vancouver later this week. It has been on the calendar for more than two months. One of the key things on our agenda is reviewing synopses for our five books in progress, and we all agreed to have these ready for presentation and discussion.

A confession: I’m still working on my synopsis with less than three days left to finish it. Did I say “still working” on it? I meant “just starting to work” on it. I will charitably assume that all the other four writers are totally ready. Actually, I know better. We’re all in the same boat.

So why is it so difficult to knuckle down and focus on writing? Why do even ambitious and engaged people procrastinate, especially on projects that are really important to them?

I can understand putting off tasks like, say, taking the garbage out, or purging an over-stuffed back hall closet that you know has absolutely nothing in it you’re ever likely to look for in the next five years (we all have one of those). But writing? That’s supposed to be a calling, not a chore. I admit I’ve sometimes put off writing to do some other wonderful thing, like sailing. But I’ve also put it off to do something incredibly mundane, like laundry.

It seems so perverse – and pervasive – that I don’t find the easy, little-questioned, explanations very satisfying. Old-fashioned laziness doesn’t seem to get to the heart of it, since I know plenty of procrastinators who are demonstrably not at all lazy.

Some of the psychology terms used to explain procrastination – like lack of attention control or inability to defer gratification – liken procrastinators to immature children, the weak-willed, or those with mental deficiencies. Granted, it’s the job of psychology, apparently, to look at human behaviour through the lens of pathology. But bouts of procrastination are so widespread that I’d have to call it pretty “normal”, even among people who are usually quite self-determined.

The most common view of procrastination is often expressed with the ever-popular “boot strap” cliché. Procrastinators simply need to apply better self-discipline. You know … in the same way that fat people just need to go on diets. No problem. Right. Well, there must be some kind of problem conjuring up self-discipline – and a common one – judging from the number of new diet books and schemes constantly springing up (a $20 billion dollar-a-year industry in the US alone), and the untold number of unfinished manuscripts lying around in bottom drawers nationwide.

In any case, the old “boot strap” saw is neither an explanation, nor a very useful prescription. Saying that procrastination can be stopped by having more self-discipline is like saying that rain can be stopped by having less water fall from the sky.

As Nietzsche might have said, procrastination is human – all too human. I decided to do a little investigating into the phenomenon. I figured, if I couldn’t discover a way to stop being a procrastinator, maybe at least I could make myself feel better about it.

Procrastination, Wikipedia asserts, “is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time, sometimes to the last minute before the deadline.”

Except for the reference to the “last minute before the deadline”, this definition doesn’t seem to fit the writer’s circumstance very well at all. But let’s read on …

“The pleasure principle may be responsible for procrastination; one may prefer to avoid negative emotions, and to delay stressful tasks … Some psychologists cite such behaviour as a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.”

Hmm. Stressful tasks. Coping with anxiety. There’s something in that.

“Procrastination may result in stress, a sense of guilt and crisis, and severe loss of personal productivity, as well as social disapproval for not meeting responsibilities or commitments. These feelings combined may promote further procrastination.”

Yes, yes, the effects are obvious. So tell me something useful: why do we do it?

“While it is regarded as normal for people to procrastinate to some degree, it becomes a problem when it impedes normal functioning. Chronic procrastination may be a sign of an underlying psychological disorder … On the other hand many regard procrastination as a useful way of identifying what is important to us personally as it is rare to procrastinate when one truly values the task at hand.”

Ugh. Let’s put off delving into the rest of the Wikipedia discussion of neuroticism, meta-analytic research and temporal motivation theory, which purports to “summarize key predictors of procrastination into a mathematical equation”. Maybe tomorrow.

If we can’t get a straight answer on why a writer who loves to write would procrastinate about writing, maybe we’ll have more luck investigating discipline (and how to get some). Back to Wikipedia.

“Discipline, in its natural sense, is systematic instruction intended to train a person, sometimes literally called a disciple, in a craft, trade or other activity, or to follow a particular code of conduct or order. Often the phrase “to discipline” carries a negative connotation. This is because enforcement of order – that is, insuring instructions are carried out – is often regulated through punishment … Discipline is the assertion of willpower over more base desires, and is usually understood to be synonymous with self control. Self-discipline is to some extent a substitute for motivation, when one uses reason to determine the best course of action that opposes one’s desires.”

Huh? If you’re still conscientiously trying to follow this somewhat contradictory line of thought, you’re more disciplined than I am. I checked out right after the thing about punishment.

Let’s try for more practical advice. The Mind Tools website provides a helpful list of signs that tell you you’re procrastinating when you are …

  • Filling your day with low priority tasks from your To Do list.
  • Reading e-mails several times without starting work on them or deciding what you’re going to do with them.
  • Sitting down to start a high-priority task, and almost immediately going off to make a cup of coffee.
  • Leaving an item on your To Do list for a long time, even though you know it’s important.
  • Regularly saying “Yes” to unimportant tasks that others ask you to do, and filling your time with these instead of getting on with the important tasks already on your list.
  • Waiting for the “right mood” or the “right time” to tackle the important task at hand.

Mind Tools and other websites also attempt to explain why people procrastinate (refreshingly, without the psychobabble) …

  • You might simply find a task unpleasant or boring.
  • You might simply be lazy or unmotivated.
  • You might be hopelessly disorganized.
  • You might feel overwhelmed by the task and lack the confidence to tackle it (this can further escalate stress and diminish confidence).
  • You might be too much of a perfectionist (also related to lack of confidence about accomplishing the task to impossibly high standards).
  • You might have poor time-management or decision-making skills, and can’t decide how to start or what to do (another indicator of lack of confidence).

So, of five potential causes frequently cited, three of them relate to a daunting, immobilizing lack of confidence. I call it Fear of Failure. Finally! A possible cause of writing procrastination that makes sense.

Unfortunately, I was spectacularly unsuccessful in finding cures for Fear of Failure. Neither did I locate that No Fail Recipe for Self-Discipline. So I’m sorry to admit that in the perennial writer’s quest for productivity, it’s still every man and woman for him- or herself.

wait-but-whyBut I did find a hilarious and instructive post on a just-discovered blog that I plan to return to often. “Wait But Why” by Tim Urban ran an illustrated essay titled “Why Procrastinators Procrastinate”, starring Rational Decision-Maker, Instant Gratification Monkey and Panic Monster, which takes place variously at the wheel of a ship and in a diversionary outpost called the Dark Playground.

He follows this up (some time later) with a Part 2 titled “How to Beat Procrastination”. A lifelong procrastinator himself, Urban admits that him giving advice on procrastination is like the guy who shoots himself in the foot while talking about gun safety. But his paradigm for forward progress – “changing your storyline” – is liberating, and he has added some intriguing new settings in this essay, including The Dark Woods, The Critical Entrance, Mixed Feelings Park, The Tipping Point and The Happy Playground (Where the Instant Gratification Monkey gets distracted from The Dark Playground by giving him diversionary High Self-Esteem Bananas).

If you really want to understand and tackle this procrastination syndrome and get yourself a new supply of self-discipline, I highly recommend “Wait But Why” over doing serious self-help research or seeing your psychiatrist. Urban unerringly hits every nail on the head and makes you laugh your guts out at the same time.

Seriously, go to “Wait But Whyright now and read these posts about procrastination. No, don’t wait until tomorrow or put it on your long To Do list.

Come to think of it, nothing boosts self confidence and lightens the burdens of stress, angst and perfectionism like a belly laugh – especially when you’re laughing at yourself. It’s very freeing.

Maybe I can change my storyline and become the Mistress of Discipline yet.

Interview with the protagonist – take #2


Substitute for Silk’s Post #61 — Follow-up interview conducted in National Public Radio studios, KPLU Seattle-Tacoma.

Interviewer:  Good morning on this partly-sunny Thanksgiving week Monday. Welcome once again to Book Talk: New Voices, a weekly exploration of emerging writers. And speaking of ‘sunny’, regular Book Talk listeners may remember my unusual interview last April with Sunny Laine, who is not an author at all, but a new protagonist in an upcoming mystery-suspense story by emerging writer Silk Questo. The story is set right here in Seattle, and today Sunny is back to update us on her, uh, development … Hello again Sunny.

Sunny:  Hi. Thanks for having me, but … look, I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot here, but could I just make one comment?

Interviewer:  Well, certainly. That’s why you’re here.

Sunny:  Development? That’s what you said – my development. That’s a little impersonal sounding, you know? I mean, I’m not a new mall. I’m a human being. Okay, I know I’m fictional, but I do have feelings, right? Frankly, I’m just a little sensitive on this topic.

Interviewer:  I see. Well, uh, you know I haven’t had the chance to interview many, uh, people like yourself – fictional characters, that is – so I’m curious about your unique perspective. Can you tell me a little more about this sensitivity?

Sunny:  To be honest, I’ve had a difficult time finding myself and I’m even beginning to wonder whether my story is going anywhere. I’ve been doing a lot of sitting around, waiting for Silk, and it’s making me stir crazy. No one likes to be neglected, you know? It’s nerve-wracking.

Interviewer:  Sounds like you’re frustrated.

Sunny:  Frustrated, yes. And a little scared.

Interviewer:  Scared?

Sunny:  Yeah! Wouldn’t you be? My life hangs in the balance here. I mean, will I die on the page before I even get a chance to live?

Interviewer:  Well, you have the microphone here, Sunny. What would you like to say to Silk about your feelings?

Sunny:  How about, “Get the lead out girlfriend!” I mean, I don’t want her to think I’m … difficult. It’s just that, as I said last time, it’s not easy being a protagonist in an unfinished book. Especially one that’s creeping along at the pace of a three-toed sloth. I keep telling her it only takes nine months to gestate a real, living baby – shouldn’t she be able to pop out one little book in a year?

Interviewer:  And what is the ETA for this manuscript you’re starring in?

Sunny:  (Laughs) Silk says end of the year.

Interviewer:  And what do you say?

Sunny:  I say, what year would that be?

Interviewer:  My goodness. Well, let’s move on to other subjects. How have you changed since we last chatted?

Sunny:  Well, that’s the good news. I got a big promotion to ‘first person’ status, so now I’m telling my own story in my own voice. I’m really excited about it.

Interviewer:  Wonderful! So I’m guessing you have a bit more influence on the story now?

Sunny:  You bet. The first thing I did was stop going to my law classes. I’m really not big on sitting on my backside in a lecture hall. Boring, boring, boring.

Interviewer:  But how will you get your law degree, then? I thought that was so important to you! Weren’t you on a mission to get justice for – who was it? – someone in your family.

Sunny:  My brother Wolf. But don’t worry about my academic career. I can do this. Believe me. But I’ll do it my way.

Interviewer:  You sound very determined. I just hope you know what you’re doing.

Sunny:  Me too.

Interviewer:  Now, on another front, how are your relationships with your fellow characters going? Any love interests we can look forward to?

Sunny:  There will be if I have anything to say about it. But the ‘person of interest’ I have in mind will be a real challenge. One of those hard-to-get types. Mystery man, right? Deep. With a bit of a dark side. Those bad boys always turn me on. But he’s really good-hearted inside. Or I hope so …

Interviewer:  Sounds delicious. And dare I ask about the villain? I believe we established that this is a murder mystery when we last spoke, and I assume you’ve been reassured by Silk that you’re not the victim. Do you know who your evil opponent is?

Sunny:  Sore, sore subject. The fact is I still don’t know if I’m a victim or not, and that’s very unnerving, to say the least. I mean, if I get killed, I can’t really be the protagonist, right?  This living in doubt is enough to kill me all by itself. The problem is, in a murder mystery you really can’t assume anything. Otherwise, where’s the suspense?

Interviewer:  Yes, I take your point. And the villain? Have you met him or her yet?

Sunny:  No idea whatsoever. You don’t think Silk’s going to tell me ahead of time, do you? It would ruin the surprise. She doesn’t give a sh— … a hoot whether I can sleep at night or not. In fact, I think she spends most of her time thinking up ways to make me suffer. She won’t be happy until I’m totally paranoid.

Interviewer:  That sounds … distinctly uncomfortable.

Sunny:  Now you’re getting the picture. You think it’s easy to star in this type of story? It’s torture, from start to finish! That’s the point, see? Now maybe you understand why I’m trying so hard to kick Silk into gear so we can get this thing done. I’m sick of living in fear. I’d like to know, once and for all, whether I live or die.

Interviewer:  I had no idea what a tough job you protagonists have in the mystery suspense genre. I must admire your grit. You’ve certainly given me a new appreciation of the drama that goes on behind the scenes.

Sunny:  Yeah. Welcome to my hell.

Interviewer:  Well, we’ll all be on the edges of our seats until your story is finally out, Sunny, and I wish you the very best of luck with all your challenges. Thanks for joining us this morning, but that’s all the time we have today. This is NPR’s Book Talk: New Voices, reminding you to read someone new this week!

Sunny:  Can I say one last thing?

Interviewer:  Yes, quickly please.

Sunny:  Silk, if you’re going to kill me off, at least let me have a hot affair with you-know-who first, okay? 

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.


Evening on The Baltic Sea

The verdict

Before the verdict.

Before the verdict.

Silk’s Post #41 — I sat in the straight-backed chair at the head of the table, facing the panel. The hot seat. Four jurors sat before me, two on each side, laptops open and coffee cups steaming. Four faces smiled back at me as I made some forgettable opening statement.

Don’t worry, their expressions telegraphed. This won’t hurt a bit. Uh huh. I’ve heard that one before.

I knew I was starting from behind, with my paltry 100 pages of manuscript. It should have been closer to 400. Sitting before a jury of my peers, I knew I was already guilty on one count: Writing Without Due Care and Attention to a Deadline. As I yielded the floor to my colleagues, I sat up a little straighter, steeling myself for the additional charges that might be added.

Illegal Use of Backstory, maybe.

Violation of the First Five Pages Hook Requirement.

Contributing to the Corruption of a Plotline.

Arrested Character Development.

Failure to Signal Emotions.

Or the worst of all, Author Voice Intrusion. 

It was going to be a long day. I looked longingly at the bowl of candy bars.

Candy bowl: before.

Candy bowl: before.

Candy bowl: after.

Candy bowl: after.

Here’s what it can sound like when you’re trying to follow a verbal critique: “On page 18” … (I scroll to find page 18, miss page 18 and find myself on page 34) … “blah blah blah your character’s acting like a nitwit blah blah blah” … (I finally find page 18) … “and then on page 72” … (scroll, scroll, scroll) … “blah blah blah brilliant dialogue, well done blah blah blah.”

You really have to be on your toes, and I began flat-footed.

The jury.

The jury.

But I got my rhythm. Listen, don’t scroll, that’s the secret. Listen, don’t defend. Listen, don’t read, don’t write, don’t explain, don’t try to atone for your sins. Now, no one can listen to a discussion of their work and fail to react at all, but I tried (with partial success) to keep open ears and a closed mouth. An inveterate note-taker, I didn’t even take notes. I wanted to look the jury in the face and listen to their unspoken words, the ones behind their eyes.

When you’re being critiqued, the impulse to interrupt with “Yes, but …” is almost irresistible. I admit, I did occasionally try to acquit myself. But the object of getting a first draft critiqued is not to convince the jury your manuscript is already perfect as written. No first draft is perfect. As Papa Hemingway so delicately put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

No, the object of getting critiqued is to get some clues about how to make the second draft  better. Hopefully, much better. And faster than if you rattle around in your own head for weeks trying to decide which of your treasured characters to dump, or where to actually open the first scene, or how to turn 15 flabby pages into 5 tight pages, or where you can painlessly weave in the arcane details needed to understand your plot.

The problem with first drafts, especially for us unpublished writers, is that we grow attached to them. We love them for their strengths and tolerate their weaknesses. An honest critique – delivered with good will and intelligence by someone whose opinion we value – helps get us unattached. Able to see it through other eyes.

In advance of our “critter summit” at Whistler, BC, we all blogged about the challenges of critiquing. We researched critiquing advice in books, on websites, on blogs. We developed a template for organizing our comments. But, like all communication, the critique process is a two-way encounter: a speaker and a listener. And the best critique in the world will not help the writer who lacks listening skills.

That’s why I was watching the eyes of my 5writers colleagues as they delivered their verdicts. We’re friends. When we declare each other guilty of a writing offence, we try not to inflict too much pain. So I was watching for supplementary, unspoken input: signs of pulled punches, frustration, or, worst of all, pity. And for unvoiced agreement (or disagreement) around the table while each juror made his or her statement: heads nodding, heads shaking, eyes rolling.

What I realized – what we all realized in our 5-day retreat – was that after a couple of years of practice we have actually become pretty damn skilled critiquers (if I do say so myself, and I do). For all five books, for almost every major observation both positive and negative, there was a high degree of agreement around the table. Every juror viewed the work through a slightly different lens, and often had a different suggestion for solving a problem, but as a group we were virtually unanimous in identifying the key strengths and weaknesses of each manuscript.

We’re learning. And not only from the critiques we receive, but also from critiquing others’ work. And hearing everyone else’s critiques. And then discussing them. And then brainstorming ideas to help get a writer “unstuck” with a plot or character difficulty. And then taking advice on board and going back to the keyboard to craft our own solutions in our own voices. We’re learning.

In my own case, the verdict was clear and this was my sentence:

  • Smarten up my protagonist so she never sounds witless or allows herself to be used to serve the plot at the author’s whim.
  • Make sure the protagonist is consistently driven by priorities. Mystery and jeopardy first. Everything else second.
  • Rewrite the whole story in first person.
  • Introduce the villain earlier.
  • Extract all undue writer cleverness that takes the reader out of the story.
  • Tear down and rebuild one major character and his relationship with the protagonist.
  • Resequence some of the plot points to make the beats work better.
  • Keep the characters in motion. Don’t let them sit around.
  • When I scare the bejesus out of the protagonist, make sure she shows it.

I was thrilled with this sentence, as much for what isn’t in it as for the rewrite direction it gives. I wasn’t convicted of serious backstory violations, for instance. That’s progress, for me. I only got dinged for minor author voice misdemeanours, except for my plot-driving-character felonies. And almost all my characters were unanimously acquitted, with the exception of a couple who were released after time served and will be replaced. Even my protagonist got away with a stern lecture, shown leniency as a spirited but sometimes confused youth. (However, she is expected to keep her nose clean from now on.)

I’m wildly grateful to my 5writers colleagues who spent hours reading my partial first draft, deliberating the verdict, and giving me a sentence that will rehabilitate my book and help give it new life.

I will begin serving my sentence tomorrow. It’ll be a piece of pie. I hope.

Pie for 5. Sweet.

Pie for 5. Sweet.

Name that book

Karalee’s Post #34

It’s here, the end.

Midnight tonight the Send button must be pressed and our new stories  will travel down the birth canal called email to arrive in the loving care of our fellow 5Writer’s Inboxes. It’s the birth of our books. It’s a quick and easy delivery after months of planning (no unwanted protégé here)  and development.

newbornFor those of you that have followed our process to this point you will know that these births will be at all stages of development. Some will be full-term and fat and healthy, others full-term but undernourished, and possibly others premature and in the need of special attention to prosper and grow.

But all will survive and flourish into healthy full-fledged stories. After all, we are writers and have our stories to tell.

This birth isn’t ‘The End’, rather it’s the beginning of every other beginning in this process.

To quote Seneca, the 1st century Roman philosopher who tutored the Roman emperor Nero, Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

In the context of the 5Writer’s, the next new beginning is the Beta Reading process where we will give our full attention to critiquing our group’s manuscripts over the next four weeks.

Then in the context of each individual writer, the next new beginning after the beta reading process is to complete the best draft possible in preparation for publishing.

Then, the next new beginning is preparing to query by: writing a query letter, preparing a short synopsis and a long synopsis, and making a list of a thousand agents that might be  interested in your work.

Then, the next new beginning is to send out to the agents….. etc., etc., etc.

We all know there isn’t an end. Even when a book is published, there’s still ongoing marketing, and of course, the beginning of the next book. That’s why it is called the writing process.

When I look at it, the whole process can be summed up in one word: anticipation. And who doesn’t love anticipation?

After midnight tonight our stories will be born in the privacy of our group, to be nourished and cared for in a respectful manner with their trusted caregivers. Each group member will also send out a request list with their newborns; areas that we struggled with and what we want specific feedback on.

My baby is full-term but undernourished, about 75% of its expected word count for its genre. It’s needs are multi-faceted ranging from requiring more sensory input and having a well-rounded extended family (sub-plot), to having my theme manifested in the main plot as well as in the sub-plot. Sharing is important too. Is my antagonistic shining enough, or the villain vying for the spotlight too often? Is my villain revealed in the best time/place or not hidden enough from the get-go?

I must say I’ve had great fun writing this story. For me writing is never lonely. This process stretched my experience and put me into the head of my main character far more than I’ve been before. First person writing really does that.

In other books I’ve written I had a strong sense of where to start and where to end and I wrote the first and last chapters up front, albeit they changed as the process went on. For this book I knew where I wanted to go, but didn’t have a strong picture of exactly who would be there, or how the final climax would pan out. I know what had to happen, but not how to make it happen.

I trusted my instincts. I had an outline that soon went sideways, but kept winding back to the main path. I kept writing and the pieces fell into place at the eleventh hour. Now that’s a happy hour worth celebrating.

And here I am at the birth of my undernourished baby with not a clue what to name it.

baby names

To me, I can’t wait to hear what my 5Writers come up with!

Happy beta reading.

Hat trick


Silk’s Post #35 — I am really looking forward to a change in headgear. Yes, this week I get to take off my writer’s hat and put on my critiquer’s chapeau.

Frankly, it will come as a relief.

I wish my writer’s hat had been padded. Better yet, a hardhat. It would have saved my noggin during the past few months of bashing my head against the wall. hard-hatYes, I’ve been struggling. Oddly enough, not because I have writer’s block, as such. What I really seem to have is the classic eyes-bigger-than-my-stomach syndrome whose symptoms include ridiculously long “to do” lists, which never seem to have all the items crossed off.

The truth is that I make too many commitments, and have too much optimism about how quickly I can clear my desk, and my calendar, of other obligations so I can “get back to writing.” My head-bashing incidents occur every time life reminds me that I’m actually not, in fact, Superwoman. Which happens frequently.

So now you know the ugly, brutal truth. I am far from “The End”.

Okay, okay. I hear a chorus of people protesting. A real writer would have put the writing first on the list, not last. Why have I granted priority to all this other stuff ahead of my 5writers challenge? Isn’t this just a lame excuse, or maybe an alias for writer’s block?

Maybe. But whatever you call it, I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only would-be novelist who’s had difficulty getting into the rhythm of “The Writing Life.” Difficulty making the kind of commitment that involves tough choices.

Egotistical choices.

What? I can hear some of you almost sputtering now. Just simmer down, I’ll explain.

I’m no selfless Joan of Arc, but the fact is that I have a lifetime of “training” to do the right thing. And what is that “right thing”? All that adult stuff, that’s what. Eat your vegetables before you can have dessert. Meet obligations to others before you can take time for yourself. Get your work done before you can play.

party-hatAnd there is the telling clue – the heart of my struggle. My paradigm for writing is that it’s play, not work. Why? I love to do it. No matter how hard it is, how much effort it takes, how stuck I may get, how tired I am, I love every minute of it. It isn’t work for me. It’s play, pure play. Work is what I have to do. Play is what I choose to do, strictly for myself. Selfishly. It’s what I get to do after I’ve done all my other “work” and met all my other commitments.

See the problem here? It’s about that “to do” list that never gets all checked off. And because my calcified work ethic classifies writing as “play,” I must steal time to do it. Yes, this is wrong. So wrong.

But now, it’s time to change hats and serve others – my cherished 5writers friends and colleagues, who have poured their souls into the manuscripts I’m about to read. Will I have the same trouble prioritizing my critiquing task? Absolutely not. It’s a commitment to someone else, and I’ll move heaven and earth to get the job done in time for our big retreat in June.

Too bad I haven’t been able to give my own writing the same level of priority.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this process, it’s that I have to re-train myself to see my writing in a different paradigm. It is work, even if it feels like play. That’s what it means to take yourself seriously as a writer. I don’t need a shrink to discover what’s been inhibiting my progress – whether you call it writer’s block, a terminal case of the “convenient social virtue” (as John Kenneth Galbraith called it), or whatever other head-bashing terminology you can come up with.

Since I can’t seem to put play ahead of work after a lifetime of being in harness, I have to reclassify my writing as work instead of play. Okay. Got it.

Meanwhile, I’m truly looking forward to changing hats and diving into four whole-book critiques over the next month. It may not sound like a break, but for me it will feel like one. And I have no doubt that I will emerge from this next phase re-inspired and re-invigorated.

That’s my hat trick for today.


A very private affair

 Helga’s Post # 33 – It’s hard to blog after the sad news of Jay Lake’s illness, as Joe did yesterday. That story should make us all put the foot on the brake and remember what’s important.

We all, writers, readers, friends, wish Jay well. And we will follow him on his journey by reading every word he writes and shares with us on his blog.


My post today is short because I am struggling to finish as much of my novel as I can manage before the deadline. No socializing, no errands until next Wednesday. Nose to the grindstone. Four more days to showdown. In four days all will be revealed at our critique group meeting where we share our final submissions. Five manuscripts, five new novels brought into the world since last September.

So this is my last blog before our meeting. Next time I hope to report something more detailed. As I mentioned earlier, I am behind schedule. No excuses, other than life gets in the way, to use an utterly overused phrase.

But writing is personal. It’s possibly the most intimate activity (okay, minus one) in which Homo sapiens are able to engage. What can be more intimate than putting your innermost core into words to be shared with the world. It’s also one of the most daring and courageous undertakings we can commit to. It’s every bit as daring as stripping naked and walking through Times Square during rush hour (not that anyone would notice).

And for some of us writers, that comes easy (not the stripping, but what do I know). For others, the more private ones, it’s more of a struggle. I count myself in the last group. Maybe it goes far back, to age fourteen, when I found out my mother had snooped in my diary. And it wasn’t even an ordinary diary. It had a lock and key. A lock that, known to everybody but me, could be picked with a paper clip. Funny, how little things in life stick with you and shape you.

How does this relate to our critique group’s 5 months challenge?

Deadlines for finishing novels has its advantages, but it doesn’t work equally well for everybody. There are a multitude of variables why it does for some and not for others. Some people are outliners, some write organically. Some just get the story down, grammar and style be damned, while others enjoy quality writing as they create the story from the start. (And get to regret it later when they have to dump their darlings during the rewrite).

Writing is hugely personal. Because it’s so creative, it’s a challenge for many to write to a specific formula and deadline. The famous ‘square peg’ syndrome. Yet, it’s precisely that which gets writers motivated and cajoled into racing to the finish line.

It’s somewhat of an oxymoron: Creativity needs space to roam freely, without borders and fences so it can flourish, yet it might never reach its goal, or produce a finished manuscript without the discipline of deadlines and rules.

Aren’t we writers a persnickety species.

And for all you moms out there, and those who ever wanted to be one,

Happy Mothers Day!