Hi, I’m back.

siwc2017

At SIWC 2017 with two of my writing mentors, Hallie Ephron and Diana Gabaldon.

It’s been a long hiatus. My last post on the 5writers blog was in August 2016. Gasp, can that be true?

I’ve been away so long, the whole WordPress interface has changed and now feels like an alien planet. Even my very brief writing renaissance after attending last year’s Surrey International Writers Conference didn’t lure me back to blogging.

And since I’m in a confessional mood, the truth is I haven’t written anything in a year. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

But here I am, fresh from SIWC 2017, screwing up my courage to face the blank page once again, and wondering how to pick up the 5/5/5 narrative.

Fortunately for those of you who’ve wandered over here today out of curiosity, I learned a game-changing lesson at Surrey last week. It’s a truth so dead simple, a first grader knows it intuitively. Somehow, though, once people become “writers” and start novels and fall in love with their own words, they often have to learn it all over again.

Take out all the boring stuff. There you have it.

Abracadabra! This simple rule releases me from catching you up on my past 12 months. From a writing perspective, it would be the most boring of topics. I can summarize it very succinctly.

Lost momentum.

I believe it happens to every writer at some point. And therein lies the more interesting tale. Some abandon writing for years while continuing to wrestle with their unfulfilled creative urges. Some find other passions. Some lose their enthusiasm, or maybe their courage. Without the kind of crazy optimism it takes to climb Novel Mountain, many never return.

But for those of us who have temporarily lost heart, or drifted away, or simply procrastinated so long that even the thought of writing has become an embarrassing reminder of our failures … is there a way back?

Of course there is.

My own journey, like every writer’s, is unique. But if you should ever become a lapsed writer like me, I offer you these scribbled directions based on my wandering route home to Writerland. Maybe it will help you find your way back …

Start with this: Where the hell am I?

It’s always good to start with wherever you are. If you don’t know, find out.

I’m talking about “where” in very broad terms here. Where are your head and your heart? And equally important, where are you in your life? You’re the protagonist here. It’s your character arc to shape as you will. If it’s all working beautifully for you without taking on the burdens and pleasures of writing again, then just carry on. You can stop reading now. Go in peace and have a wonderful life.

But if your world seems somehow incomplete – a little emptier maybe – without writing, then just simply resolve right now to get back to it.

Next: Face forward.

No, no – DON’T LOOK BACK. Turn around, look ahead. Let the past go. That’s it! Don’t explain. Don’t justify. Don’t drag out that tired list of excuses. In fact, this is a good time to just stop thinking and go with the flow. If writing is calling you, answer.

Now for the hard part: Drop your burden of fear and self-doubt.

Do it deliberately. Just toss it to the side of the road. But what if I never get published? you ask. What if I fail (or fail again)? Well, define “fail”. If you love wordsmithing, if you get stimulation from creativity, if storytelling gives you pleasure, then writing is its own reward. And like everything else worth doing, the more you do it the better you get. It’s a journey. Do the diehard golfers you know beat themselves up because they might fail to qualify for the US Open? Yes, getting published traditionally is kind of a lottery, no matter what the gatekeepers say. But if getting published is a primary goal, you can do it yourself these days. There. Excuse gone.

Get some writing friends.

I wouldn’t be in the game at all if I didn’t have the support of my wonderful 5/5/5 writing colleagues. A writer’s journey doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Get in a writing group. Or start one. Join a book club. Get to know your librarian. Don’t just hide away and hope for the best.

Study craft.

You have to get your head back into it. But before you worry about publishing, or pitching, or blogging, or anything else … study craft. Get the books. Take the workshops. Check out the craft websites. Subscribe to the trade publications. It’s a lifelong learning curve, and a fascinating one. No one makes it just on “raw talent”. Craft can, and must, be learned. And remember this Taoist wisdom: When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Read.

Take a deep dive into good writing, especially (but not exclusively) the kind you want to do yourself. The more I write, the more I read. It’s all part of the same process. But when you’re not writing – for whatever reason (don’t explain, I don’t want to know) – then pick up a book and read your heart out. It’s inspiring. And it teaches you while it entertains you.

Launch your comeback as a scheduled event.

When you’re ready to “come out” as a committed writer again, get some skin in the game. Go to a writers conference and sit in a room with HUNDREDS of other writers. There’s a whole writing community out there. Enjoy the contact high. Listen to the agents, the publishers, the editors, the other experts presenting … and learn. Take notes. Talk to everybody. Don’t be shy. Remember, if you write, you are a writer. Not a wannabe. Think of the whole shebang as a celebration of your return to the writing life. Wasn’t it nice of the conference organizers to hold it in your honour?

Make use of the momentum.

Anyone who’s ever gone to a good writers conference, ready to learn, comes away from it energized and inspired. Don’t waste the momentum. It doesn’t last forever. When you get home, write something. Immediately. Don’t wait more than a few days to get a new routine established and commit to your writing practice. I didn’t take advantage of my momentum after SIWC last year. It won’t happen that way this year.

This year I’m happy to say, “Hi, I’m back.”

 

 

Snoopy advice

Joe’s Post #166

Super busy week for me so just a few fun things for the writers out there who are struggling…

There are fewer wiser dogs than Snoopy

There are fewer wiser dogs than Snoopy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think I got one like Snoopy did.

I think I got one like Snoopy did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

medium_Peanuts_Writing_Comic

It was a dark and story night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope everyone is well and writing up a storm. Even a dark and stormy storm.

 

Cheers

Joe

 

The art of course correcting

compass

Silk’s Post #146 — The course to your writing goal is rarely a straight line (a reality writing shares with most other life goals). When you start writing a novel – especially if you’ve done all the work of outlining, or at least envisioning the story arc from start to finish, you think you know where you’re going.

But when you encounter an unexpected impasse, what do you do? Press on ahead, no matter what? Or reassess and correct course?

In other words, can you – and should you – be flexible enough to deviate from your carefully-planned roadmap? Without feeling like you’ve given up, or failed? Or should you go backwards and try to “fix” whatever narrative deficits have brought you to this troubling nexus?

For some writers, the answer is “forward-ho!” Forge on to the predetermined end, and fix whatever problems are causing a sense of discomfort or dislocation in the second draft. Nothing wrong with that strategy, especially if it keeps you on-track with your writing discipline. Mind you, you may be spending a lot more time with your second draft working out stubborn plot or character problems than you had imagined. But it’s a way forward.

And forward is where we must go.

Other writers may pull up the reins, look around at their storyworld surroundings, and realize they’re just plain lost. How did I get here? Everything’s wrong! Feeling trapped in the bog of the mushy middle is no fun, and I wonder how many books simply die right there … slowly sinking into the quicksand of confusion and lost momentum.

To be brutally honest, some unfinished and unworkable stories do need to be given a decent burial rather than continue to suck energy out of their authors, to no good end. But many others are salvageable – maybe even brilliant, eventually – if the writer is willing to let go of the original prescribed plan and let the story bloom in its own natural time and manner.

What happens when an author gets to the narrative’s mid-point, for instance, and realizes – with horror and probably a wrenching ache in his or her gut – that the protagonist should  actually be someone other than the chosen lead character? Or that, even worse, the protagonist is terminally boring, or unlikeable? Or that close third person isn’t working at all, and the story should be told in first person? Or that the whole “voice” of the book is wrong? Or that the story is actually a mystery, not a romance, and needs major structural revisions?

Ah, but these are the lucky authors. The ones who can actually see what’s wrong in the course of the first draft. Why they’re struggling, why they’re swimming against the tide. For many of us, these insights may not come until much later – although “later” is still not “too late” when it comes to a novel. Many resurrections take place in the second or third draft.

However, making a decision to correct course in the middle of a writing journey can be more than daunting. It can be debilitating. Demotivating. Discombobulating. And, seriously – do we need yet more hurdles and self-doubt in our sometimes stuttering writing practices? After all, we’re not out on the high seas in a Clipper ship, our very lives dependent on finding the right course to make a safe landfall. We can just tuck that off-track manuscript in the bottom drawer and go do something more rewarding.

Persistance can be hard, but it can have a big pay off.

Correcting course requires some potentially painful choices. And they can be humbling.

It may mean literally throwing away a lot of stuff you worked hard on, and struggling to convince yourself that it wasn’t just a waste of time. It may mean psyching yourself up to counteract the demotivating experience of having to go backward before you can go forward. It may mean admission that you over-reached, or didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t work smart enough, or picked a genre that isn’t your forté, or any number of other writing sins.

And sometimes the worst sin of all is simply neglecting your writing practice. Maybe you’ve left your manuscript untouched for so long that it has become a kind of skeleton in your closet, Exhibit #1 in the damning case against your sin of omission, a personal rebuke. Maybe you got stuck somewhere along the way, the going got tough, and you put it aside for later. Now it’s later, much later. Are you going to keep avoiding it? Or summon your courage and seek a fresh direction?

To recognize you need a course correction, you have to admit you’re on the wrong track. And who likes to be wrong?

But this is where the art of it comes in – the art of nourishing your writer’s soul. Writers all work essentially alone. Yes, you may be lucky (as I am) to have a writers/critique group, or an editor, or a mentor, or any number of wonderful, supportive people in your writing life. And that really matters. But when the words go on paper, it’s just you and the blank white page. You are an enterprise with a staff of one: yourself.

You have to look after yourself and your assets – your mind, your imagination, your health, your skills, your commitment, your creative spirit, and maybe most of all your enthusiasm.

So don’t look back. Don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself huge points for making the decision to get back on track, take a breath, then get to work with renewed hope and energy. Because although writing is hard work, it should be joyful work.

In my own experience, writing feels incredibly good when it flows, when I know my scene, or my character, or my storyworld, or my narrative arc is working well. It only feels bad when I’m grinding my gears because something’s broken down.

Course corrections are positive. They mean you’ve learned something essential. They mean you’re becoming a better writer. And, hopefully, they lead you away from the struggle of wrestling with something that isn’t working right, and back to that euphoric place all writers seek: The Zone.

And The Zone is where I hope I’m bound this week. Because I have to admit that, of late, I’ve been guilty of the sin of neglecting my writing practice. Yes, right in the middle of the 5writers5novels5months challenge. While the hardy NaNoWriMo participants gushed hundreds of thousands of words during November, my writing output barely filled a teacup.

I was stuck with a few pretty major holes in my current story. Who, exactly, is my villain? How does the story end? And what motivates one of my key characters to take the action that unlocks the whole flow of the plot arc?

Yeah. Big questions. Until I answered them, I was paralyzed. I questioned whether the whole book premise even made any sense. I wondered whether I was capable of writing it, given that it’s a story far outside my own personal experience. I felt like a fraud, taking on a complex, dark, “big idea” story as a novice writer living my idyllic life on my nice, safe little Pacific Northwest island.

So I stalled out. I found other things to do. And my underfed manuscript sat abandoned on my drive. And meanwhile, the 5/5/5 challenge clock ticked towards our deadline.

But, almost unbeknownst to me, my mind kept at the story. Wouldn’t let it go. I wasn’t even aware I was processing it until last week, when the answers to my plot and character questions suddenly popped into my consciousness while I was driving to the grocery store. All in one big epiphany!

So I’m back to the keyboard, and it feels good. Not quite Zone-like yet, but I have renewed confidence I’ll get there.

But now a new course correction is needed.

Because I know I’m not going to have this first draft finished by our 5writers deadline – artificial as it may be – of February 5th. It’s just not going to happen. So I polled the other 5writers, and it seems I’m not the only one whose productivity has fallen a bit short of where we all should be in our stories by now – if we want to be typing “The End” in exactly 60 days.

Rather than avoid the problem, deny the reality, guilt ourselves into a demotivated state of inertia, painfully wedge enough scraps of writing time into the holiday season to make up for lost time, or just give up … we are discussing a course correction, including a reset of our challenge deadline to April 5th. This would also give us more time for mutual support, including some in-progress critiquing and feedback, and virtual group meetings.

Paths to any goal in life, after all, are just plot lines. They do take twists and turns, with something to learn around every corner. And if you’re afraid to make course corrections, you may never get there.

Writing as a moving target

snail

Silk’s Post #129 — There’s a time and place for writing. But getting the time, the place and the motivation all in synch so the words practically jump onto the page by themselves … well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? We all feel daunted at times.

 The Place

The colourful image of the solitary writer holed up in his creative domain has evolved from the bearded scribe dipping his quill by candlelight, to the whiskey-drinking novelist hunched over his Remington typewriter in a smoky garrett, to the cyberspace dweller keyboarding prose at a nighttime inner city kitchen table.

Their lairs all share one thing in common: each is a private comfort-zone, a retreat apart from the distractions and vagaries of the world. A stillpoint.

There’s plenty of advice to would-be writers on how to set up their own distraction-free writer’s space with the objective of becoming focused, organized and happily productive. Chuck Wendig recently wrote a great blog post from his own purpose-built writing spot, which he calls The Mystery Shed, extolling the virtues of creative writing habitats. I would put money on the probability that most professional, full-time writers do the majority of their writing in their own comfort-zone workspaces. 

The Time

The next challenge is clearing space in your calendar to get your butt in the chair and get to work. This, too, is all within the writer’s control. Let’s face it: it’s all about choices. Even the busiest person can find time to write if she truly wants to, even if it’s not every day, or not in long blocks, or has to be scheduled very late at night or very early in the morning.

The 5writers have probably written more about finding time to write than any other single topic (or, more accurately, about not finding time). So, obviously, it’s not always easy to integrate a productive writing schedule into a busy life.

It really comes down to priorities.

If you read my recent post, This day we write, and the 5writers debate it sparked, you may have found my inner pep talk as a lapsed writer to be a little bit hard-assed …

As much as I cherish that writing flame within, being a devout, practicing writer really requires only one thing. And it requires it absolutely, as an article of faith.

You must write.

Even if it’s shit. Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if your life is full of good, or bad, distractions. Even if you question your calling and are struggling to believe in yourself. Even if you’re overcommitted and all your time is spoken for. Even if you’re bored or uninspired. Even if your routine is disrupted. Even if you’re so consumed with guilt about your lack of productivity that you’ve gone into avoidance mode. Even if you’re too stressed, or too sad, or too worried, or too tired to care. Even if you’re consumed by some other seductive passion that demands your attention. Even if you fear your words have left you.

You must write anyway.

Or forget being a writer. Do something else. Find another route to spiritual, emotional, intellectual fulfillment.

My premise is simply that “writer” is a self-defining title: if you don’t write, you’re not a writer. But I didn’t mean to suggest that a writer must write constantly, or every day, or with complete disregard to the other circumstances in her life. I’m a realist, not a sadist!

The Choice

Everyone has demands on their time: job, family, household, health, financial or other life necessities that simply have to be attended to. We get to make lifestyle choices like whether to have kids, how many cars or houses or other stuff we own, and what (if not writing) we do to make ends meet. These choices (along with whatever kind of luck we’re having at the moment) dictate how much time our non-discretionary responsibilities will gobble up in our lives.

But whatever discretionary time we have left over – whether that’s a little or a lot, whether it occurs daily or irregularly – we get to choose how to spend it. It’s in our control.

The Moving Target

There are two notable kinds of disruptions are not in our control: motion and emotion. These can be managed but, in many cases, not avoided.

By “motion” I mean not only travel, but anything that moves you away from your comfy writer’s workspace.

We live in a mobile world. Unless you’re a hermit, you’re going to find yourself physically on the move for short or long periods, for all sorts of reasons. Attending your kid’s hockey practice. Vacationing in Tonga. Attending an out-of-town conference. Going to the laundromat. Visiting family. And you can’t just stop writing every time you’re temporarily uprooted from your favourite desk.

Some writers can focus in the middle of chaos, are able to wrap themselves in their own portable comfort-zones and concentrate on their work, oblivious to distractions. Mothers who learn to write on a park bench to the sound of playground shrieks. Urban bards who like to scribble at a crowded coffee house or nightclub. Travellers, like Paula, who love to take advantage of remnant time spent waiting in airport lounges. (Check out her excellent advice about Writing on the road.) Nomads by choice, like Alison and Don, who are adept at making themselves “at home” in new landscapes and cultures. (Their guest post on Finding time to write is a great read for inspiration.)

For the rest of us, writing while away from our home base – often with little control over our schedule, or the outside demands and distractions we encounter on the road – is a challenge.

I’m doing it right now, at my best friend’s kitchen table 3,000 miles from home, while the rest of the household sleeps (including the snoring yellow lab at my feet, my pal Brady). It’s exactly midnight here in Boston, and the first real chance in a week I’ve had to sit by myself and concentrate on the 5writers blog.

Thus, my Monday post has become a Friday post … a moving target, finally hit.

Writing on a Rollercoaster

The original meaning of “emotion” back in the early 17th century was “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation” from the Old French emouvoir (stir up), which derived from the Latin emovere (move out, remove, agitate).

There’s no doubt that an emotional disruption to “normal” life can transport a writer far outside his comfort zone – even while his body remains planted in his usual chair. When change or stress overwhelms normal routines, the mind often can’t “settle”; creativity, inspiration and motivation can become elusive.

When “life happens” it may cast a shadow, or shine a blinding light. Either way, it can play havoc with a writer’s equilibrium. What might at first seem like forward progress can turn out, on second reading, to have been spinning in circles.

But that’s what second drafts are for. And sometimes, when the ground is shifting beneath your feet, the act of writing is the lifeline that anchors you, the balm that heals.

This Day We Write Anyway

Though writing can be a journey full of starts and stops – sometimes slowing to a frustrating crawl, other times speeding ahead at a dizzying pace – one thing that’s sure is this: the journey will end in limbo if we stop writing and sit still too long.

Writing wants a rhythm, even if it’s an irregular one, and it’s hard to get going again from a standing start.

Maybe “this day” is not the day we write. Maybe it’s tomorrow, or next week. Even a snail gets where it needs to go eventually (or there wouldn’t be any snails left).

But every single day that we get words on paper “anyway” – no matter the hurdles – is a great day to be a writer.

 

 

Guest post by Sheila Watson: Fear

Joe’s Post #136

Actually, I’m not sure I can call this my post as I’m going to give the blog over to a guest blogger. I hope that other people will also be interested in blogging on our site, so please send us a note if you are. In the meantime, Sheila Watson was fortunate enough to take a workshop on something we’ve all been struggling with over the last few months. FEAR!

So, here it is. It has some great insights.

Part 1 (the 2nd part will be next week)

FEAR ˈfir/    noun

  1. 1. an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

The key word in the above definition is “belief”.  Fear, as it relates to writing, is not real.  There is no danger or threat in telling a story and no disaster will ever befall you because you write a novel.

Those of us who are writers can’t help but write.  If we are not writing a novel, we are writing a blog or crafting status updates on Facebook or responding to discussions on forums or emailing and texting our friends and family.  There are hundreds of ways of writing daily.  And we manage to do all of them – except the writing that matters most.  Because we are afraid.

Why aren’t we afraid to write a blog?  Why is it that we set a goal to write a blog every week and we manage to get it done and published?  Every single week.  But when we say we are going to commit to writing a novel a year – a snail’s pace of merely 275 words a day – we can’t get it done?  Why aren’t we afraid of writing a blog?

Because there is nothing dangerous or threatening about writing a blog.  What’s the worst thing that could happen if you wrote a blog and put it out in the world?  Someone might not like it?  Someone might disagree with it?  No one will read it?  Maybe someone will write about the same idea and be better at it?

So what?  Is that what you are thinking?  So what if no one reads it?  So what if someone disagrees or doesn’t like it?  So what if someone writes better than I do?  It doesn’t matter.

That same idea – that feeling – needs to translate into the writing of your “real” stuff.  It’s the same.  You are just another person putting stories out into the world and seeing what resonates.  Some people won’t read it.  Some people won’t like it.  Some people will write it better than you.

So what?

You are already facing and managing this fear when you write a blog, or an email or a forum post or a witty Facebook status.  You just have to bring that to your “real” writing.

How much could you write if you were not afraid?  If you could sit down at the laptop with no beliefs of danger or threat or pain clouding your thoughts and you could just tell a story?

Do you know?

I didn’t. Not until this weekend. This weekend I set about writing a story for my teenaged children.

They still request an Easter Egg Hunt every year and we are long past hiding chocolate eggs behind the curtains.  So each year, this mom devises an increasingly difficult hunt.  This year, I decided to write a “choose your own adventure” for them.  The idea being that they read a story and at certain points in the story they have to decide between option 1 or option 2 (and sometimes options 3 and 4).  Seemed like a good idea.  But it required a story.  I started writing on Friday night.  And I wrote more than 11,000 words by Sunday morning.

11,000 words. In a day and a half.  Because I was not afraid.

*****

Bio: Sheila Watson is a wife, a mom, a self-defense instructor, a 2nd degree black belt in Taekwon-do, a wanna-be chef, a dog companion and a writer of tall tales, fanciful stories, occasionally useful commentary and rather wordy status updates.

Stay tuned, she has a second part coming next week!

As always, if you like the post, please follow us or share on FB or get your 8 year old daughter to do something with it on instasnap or chatlink or whatever’s new.

 

The Write Stuff (part I) aka “Houston, we’ve got a problem”

the right stuff

Paula’s Post #99 – I’m back. Back after my longest 5writer blogging hiatus ever.

I published my previous post: Multi-Tasking Writers: Are you a tortoise or a hare (part 3) way, way back at the beginning of February, in what now seems a long, long, time ago; in a universe far away.

Since then, my husband and I have:

i) inked a deal to sell our single family second home in California with the intent of downsizing;

ii) inked a deal to purchase a smaller single family second home in a nearby community;

iii) reviewed the home inspection report for the proposed second home and cancelled the agreement;

iv) inked a deal to purchase a condo in the community where we presently live;

v) a mere three days later, simultaneously closed on the sale of our old home and the purchase of our new home and packed up and moved into our not-so-large condo, two blocks away;

vii) unpacked, unpacked, unpacked…

viii) purchased a new washer/dryer, new sound system and subsequently welcomed the Sears appliance delivery, the cable guy, the audio-visual guys (they’re here right now, making my husband’s TV and sound system even louder – oh, joy – and so on, and so on, and so on).

But wait, there’s more.

That is just the, pardon the pun, “home front”. Since I drafted my last blog we have also, in February:

i) flown from California to Canada;

ii) driven from Canada to Washington State; picked up darling LuLu, our new, 8-week-old, miniature poodle puppy in Washington State; driven 2500 kilometres for three days straight across three states, crashing in three hotels with LuLu in tow, introducing her to the thrills of watching the finals of the Australian Open and the SuperBowl while eating take-out pizza in ‘yes-we-welcome-pets’ chain hotel rooms.

ii) arrived back in California in time to welcome 5writer Helga and her husband to the desert and to celebrate Valentine’s together at the iconic Riviera Hotel in Palm Springs, home of the Rat Pack;

iii) cheered on my teammates on our Ladies 6.0 over 55 tennis team and even played in a match. We’re on a roll this year – undefeated – and just this week, after celebrating our sixth straight win, learned our team will be going to the USTA Southern California Sectionals in Santa Barbara in September. Whoo-hoo!;

iv) shown clients at least a dozen homes; hosted two open-houses; attended a glittering soiree at the famous Bing Crosby estate in Rancho Mirage and a couple of less than glittering office meetings;

v) participated in last weekend’s Club Championship Mixed Doubles Tournament with my brave (though novice) husband as my partner in a sport that, when spouses play together, is invariably referred to as ‘Mixed Troubles’;

vi) participated in the Club Ladies Guest Day “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” event (which of course involved first watching the movie on the big screen, planning wardrobe and props and a full day of fun and camaraderie on the course). Never anyone’s first casting choice for Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, I decided to play to my strengths (5’7″, blonde, ‘big-boned’) and cast myself as George Peppard’s character, Paul Varjak). Guess what: winner of ‘Best Costume’?

Paula as Paul

I could go on, enumerating a long list of social and business events that have filled the days of my calendar, but what’s the point?

By now, we all get the ‘real’ point: this is not a writer’s calendar. Not by any stretch of the imagination. At least in February of this year, I no longer had ‘The Write Stuff’ and, if truth be told, haven’t had ‘The Write Stuff’ for a very long time.

Too long.

If there any consolation, I seem to be in good company. While my 5writer colleague Silk is Clearing Roadblocks to Writing, my 5writer colleague Joe struggles with Making Writing Fun (again). To some extent or other, with the possible exception of the ever-disciplined 5writer Karalee, we’ve all been struggling lately.

When we started this blog in September 2012, we definitely had ‘The Write Stuff’: courage, confidence, dependability, daring. in other words: the necessary qualities for the given task of writing and publishing a novel.

But that was then.

This is now.

Do we still have it?

In my heart, I know we do. Just like the heroes of Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1979 novel, The Right Stuff, profiling the US test pilots engaged in the first early rocket experiments, I believe we 5writers have all the essential elements in our own chosen field of endeavour, fiction writing. Specifically:

1) Courage – In mid-2012 we created the epic challenge of writing a novel in just 5 months. But we didn’t stop there. We decided to engage in this challenge in a very public way, not only creating this blog, but also blogging about our often exhilarating, often painful, and always intensely personal experiences on a weekly basis.

2) Commitment – Through 2012 and into 2013… not a waver. We never lost our way. We stayed strong, dedicated to our craft, focused. But 2014… 2015? Hmm… have we lost our way.

3) Confidence?

4) Dependability?

5) Daring?

Hmm…. while the jury is still out, I, for one, feel that we have lost our way.

And that’s a damn shame.

We 5writers, at one time, had something very special. And I don’t just mean this blog and our followers. We had a unique relationship born of our shared membership in a very special critique group. At the outset, we shared not only a burning desire to write, but also the shared commitment to give and accept criticism with candor… with grace and with above all, great good humour. Sure, one or more of us were occasionally reduced to tears. A raised a voice was occasionally heard during an especially spirited meeting. But more often than not, we shed tears of joy and laughter, let loose with shrieks of excitement, enthusiasm and inspiration.

We had fun. But that’s not all. We were productive.

Prior to our 5writers challenge, each of our 5writers, on average, churned out the first draft of a new novel every year. Maybe not Pattersonesque speed, but not bad, either.

We were learning from one another, honing our skills, our craft, our gifts. What’s more, we knew we had something special. Smug in our knowledge that as members of our own very special and dedicated writers’ critique group, we had an immense advantage over those poor lonely writers struggling to ‘go it alone’.

Today?

Today, my fear is that we may have squandered this advantage. That we’ve lost our core focus. Our momentum. Our track record of achievement.

So what do we do about this? Well… perhaps the first step is admitting we have a problem. Only then will we have the courage to rekindle our commitment and return to the shared vision and core values that imbued us with ‘The Write Stuff’.

LuLu enjoys the Westin

Creating something from nothing

Karalee’s Post #77

The last three weeks have been out of routine for me as I’ve been helping my friend care for her hobby farm while she is away taking her 96 year-old invalid father to Cuba. Silk was saying that 60 is the new 40, but once you are in your 90’s it’s pretty hard to look or act as a 70 year old.

I take my hat off to my friend knowing that she’s in the rare group that would tackle such a task of organizing beforehand and taking care of her father while away. It is definitely a trait to consider in a character I may develop one day.

I’ve taken time to write and I also offered to build a couple of vegetable boxes so my friend can have her first outdoor garden since moving here a good 20 years ago. It is for her  to enjoy as well as her adult children and grandchildren when they have their yearly vacation on the farm.

Today I literally made something from nothing, much like the writing process and starting with the infamous blank white page.

1. Start with an idea and toy with “what if’s” and “where it can take place” and gather information and tools as you start to outline (or write if you are the type that delves right in)

 

 

 

 

 

2. Start developing your characters and start building the foundation of your story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often at this point for me ideas come fast and furious and it’s exhilarating to start writing and see where they go. During these creative bouts it doesn’t take long to get a good number of scenes written and feel some accomplishment. That’s how I felt when I had my first vegetable box finished. Full of enthusiasm, I sent a picture to my friends on Facebook, much like sending a submission to my writing group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My visions of grandeur were short-lived when I got feedback that the box wasn’t in a spot that suited everyone that uses that space, so I found out.

That’s what happens in submission in our writing group too. Some things work, others don’t, and not always the same feedback from everyone.

So back to the drawing board and I take down the newly constructed box and move it farther up towards the back of the garage. I also put the second one beside it. Back here is a good spot too as it still gets lots of sun. It’s less convenient for watering and tending to, but on the other hand they are now visible from down in the barn, so the perspective changes and adds to the enjoyment of the property.

The foundation is now complete.

To me this would be like finishing my character development and outline of a book.

 

 

 

For this garden, next comes the soil which needs to be the right texture and mix of nutrients. Then one needs to decide what to grow and plant the seeds or transplant seedlings. When the garden grows, it is for all to enjoy.

In writing a novel, next comes the actual writing and editing, more submissions to our writing group, more re-writing, etc. until I have a finished product. At that point, it will be for readers to enjoy.

I’ve had a day of physical labour. I feel good although tired and I have a blister from screwing in screws.

That’s like writing for me too. Have you ever written so much in one day that the tips of your fingers are a bit sore and feel like you’ve worn the skin off?

Happy writing!

 

 

 

Why do we torture our heroes?

Happy Canada Day! Now that the 5 writers have reported on our big critique adventure on Whistler Mountain, we thought we’d use the summer to blog about some of the things we learned, observed or discussed in a collaborative way. The idea is to open each week with a topic of interest (a provocative one is always fun), and then each of the 5 writers will in turn add their thoughts about it … or maybe take it in some new direction. We’ll see! We also welcome readers’ thoughts in the comments section, so jump in anytime. Since it is vacation season, after all, we hope readers will forgive us if some of us play hooky occasionally over the summer. And now, on to our first topic …

perils-of-pauline

Silk’s Post #42 — We all got the memo. You get your hero up a tree. You throw rocks at him. And then you get him down.

This writing adage about the three-act structure did have an origin, but tracking it down is not so easy. According to Barry Popik on his very cool blog, The Big Apple:

“It has been cited in print since at least 1897 and has been credited to French writers of farce. George Abbott (1887-1995), who wrote the books for the Broadway musicals Damn Yankees and Fiorello!, often used the saying, crediting it to the American playwright Augustus Thomas (1857-1934). Thomas credits French playwrights in his 1916 book.”

All I know for sure is that when I googled this well-worn novel/script/screenplay bromide, I decided to stop trying to find its genesis when I got to the 25th page of citations.

No matter. It’s received wisdom that has stood the test of time. Why?

If you’ve ever read a book on writing or sat through a workshop at a writers conference, you will be familiar with the constant exhortation to create conflict and tension on every page by giving your protagonist troubles. And then more troubles. In other words, getting him up a tree then throwing rocks at him.

Good advice, as far as it goes. But I think it’s smart to remember that this adage is shorthand for a much more nuanced principle of drama. Blind adherence to the dictum can result in “Perils of Pauline” melodrama, or produce a protagonist so hopelessly beleaguered that the hero comes across as a hapless victim.

There are three big problems with a hapless victim as protagonist.

Problem #1: Repetitive Agonizing
Over-tortured, victimized characters tend to express their constant frustration. After all, the author has to give these poor sods something to say, and when a character with a life-threatening disease, whose true love recently dumped him just after his dog was run over by a car, falls off a cliff and into a gigantic waterfall after being chased by evil aliens … well, let’s just assume the first words out of his mouth after he hits the water will not be, “Wow! What a beautiful waterfall.” How many readers want to spend a whole book with a constantly anguished or angry protagonist? We all want someone to root for, not just feel sorry for.

Problem #2: Boredom
Being in a pickle is not inherently exciting. Giving a protagonist a ton of problems to worry about and suffer from does not automatically create conflict and tension. A guy sitting in solitary confinement in a prison cell has big trouble, but watching him pace the floor and mark the days off on the wall is not interesting. Or even tense (for the reader, at least). Why? He can’t solve his problem. All he can do is be miserable. And misery without conflict, action or interaction is kinda boring. (In case Papillon comes to mind as an exception, that was Henri Charriere’s memoir and, arguably, the exciting parts were the escapes, not the scenes where he spit out his rotting teeth in a filthy cell.)

Problem #3: Miraculous Victory
“The Perils of Pauline” told classic damsel-in-distress stories. Sending in some outside force to rescue the protagonist is one way to get him, or her, down from the tree. But if you’re not (intentionally) writing melodrama, you have to figure out a way to have your hero find his own way down from the tree. If you’ve beset your protagonist with continuously mounting (and unsolved) troubles through the whole book – your character is going to have to morph from hapless victim to unstoppable Superman in the last act to get out of the mess by himself. (Okay, Papillon is certainly a breathtaking example of this … but if it hadn’t been an autobiography, who would have believed it?)

So, what does the “up a tree” dictum really tell us to do? This is something we discussed at length in Whistler, and my own personal epiphany was about the purpose of giving your protagonist troubles. It’s not to make him a miserable, complaining victim. It’s to give him something heroic to do. To put him in action. Only by the protagonist’s reaction to his troubles can we get to know what he’s made of.

Ding … the lightbulb went on for me. Give your hero problems he actually can do something about. Then let him show his stuff. Do we really care about a hero who sits up in that tree kvetching and waiting for miracle? No, we want him to be visibly overcoming his fear of heights, planning his escape, throwing apples at the baying dogs below, weaving a rope out of twigs or something … anything! The tougher the problem, the bigger the hero. But if the protagonist is not well matched with the problems to be solved, the writer may have to cheat and resort to miracles or magic, and that could actually diminish the hero.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Hat trick

fedora

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.

grad-cap

New beginnings

opening-day

Credit: Silk Questo photo

Silk’s Post #34 — As I sit at my writing desk, looking outside my window at another impossibly perfect, sunny, hot early May day, I can feel the tingle of my red face.

Embarrassment at being late with my post?

Fervor to get back to the far-from-complete draft of my book?

No. It’s sunburn. First of the season, and it feels good. Sunscreen be damned, I’ll live with another wrinkle.

Yes, I’m late with my usual Monday post. The reason is illustrated above. That’s us, in the line-up to sail past and salute the Commodore of our little sailing club at a traditional maritime occasion known as Opening Day. This being Saltspring Island, a picturesque haven for hedonists, arty types and iconoclasts, our ceremony is more casual than at uppity yacht clubs, but we do go in for a parade up the docks behind a Scottish piper. It’s the sort of club where you’d have seen more people in pirate costume and French sailor shirts yesterday than in blue blazers.

Opening Day is the ceremonial start of the sailing season (although here in the Pacific Northwest, the hardy sail year round). But it’s probably no coincidence that such Opening Days fall as close as possible to May first, the ancient day of Spring Festivals in cultures throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

may-pole-dance

Credit: Public Domain image, Netherlands, 1934

May Day begins the sunny half of the year, the time when the earth warms, seeds are planted, everything grows and blooms and eventually is harvested to sustain life. What could be more joyful and inspiring? The glorious period of sun, fecundity and long days is extinguished six months later by the cold rains and long nights of dark November. Back when the Northern Hemisphere was dominated by agrarian cultures, these seasons really mattered in the kind of life-and-death way that we can barely appreciate today in our electrified, hermetically sealed, fast food world.

Yet, buried somewhere in our DNA is the memory of May Day as a new beginning in that basic life cycle of renewal and decay.

While the essentially pagan nature of May Day observances like the Celtic Beltane festival and the Germanic Walpurgis Night has been overwritten (not entirely successfully) by churchy holidays and communistic celebrations of the working class, the ancient life cycle that begins with May hasn’t changed. And it never will, until our blue marble ceases to revolve around the sun, or life itself ceases to exist here.

I’m not going all apocolyptic here, but just putting the enduring character of this cycle into perspective. It’s something we can absolutely rely on – and how many things can you say that about? There’s always a new beginning. And that is something really worth celebrating. No wonder May Day, in all its costumes and guises, is a festival to lift hearts and renew spirits.

For a writer, new beginnings are life blood.

We are always seeking them, making them, surging ahead on them like surfers catching a wave. The cycles of both creativity and productivity – inspiration and perspiration – are, by nature, of limited duration. We aren’t machines that can be programmed and coaxed to chug away indefinitely, spewing out words like sausages at a steady rate of efficiency.

We’re alive, and like all living things, we have our cycles. New beginnings to our stories is just one aspect of this. We also experience new beginnings – over and over again – to our emotional, intellectual, creative and energy cycles. At least, that’s how it is for me.

In our 5 writers challenge, it’s no secret that I’ve been struggling to make headway on my first draft, and I’ve been more or less constantly beating myself up about it. Do I actually have the drive and discipline to be a “real” writer? Is this really my calling, or have I been kidding myself about that for most of my life? Why can’t I just get into a writing routine and click off my 1,000 words a day like the pros? Is this some kind of weird, self-defeating behaviour, or am I just lazy?

Confession time: I’ve always been a procrastinator, an eleventh-hour, rabbit-out-of-the-hat kind of person. I’ve gotten away with it all my life. By and large, I’ve made a success of everything I’ve truly put my mind to. Though I admit I’ve probably missed some important opportunities because of my on-the-edge workstyle, I can be incredibly productive over a period of intensive, all-consuming, energizing effort. And then I need a break to re-charge.

That’s my cycle. I work in inspired bursts. A wind sprinter, not a marathoner. Trying to train myself to put on the harness and maintain the steady workaday gait of 1,000 words a day has been a spectacular failure for me.

I’ve read all the advice about The Writing Life. I marvel at writers who can get up every morning at 4:00 am and hit their daily word count target before they hop on a bus and go to work, or run their four children to school. I so admire writers who can tune out the world and be productive during “stolen hours” in coffee shops, on airplanes, in waiting rooms. I stand in awe of writers who sit down at the computer every day at their sacrosanct appointed time and, just like a regular job, keep working productively for a set number of hours or words before they push back their chair and go for a run, or a beer, or a well-deserved nap.

blank-screen

But I’m a square peg in that round hole.

And after eight months of our 5 writers experiment, I’ve learned something important (yes, I know I’m a slow learner).

I’ve learned that I seem to need a lot more new beginnings than some other people. To sustain my kind of momentum, I need to work with my own oddball cycle of inspiration and perspiration. More stroke and glide. More incremental goals (and rewards). More project-like stages. I need bursts of intensive, leave-me-alone time with the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. An hour or two at the keyboard doesn’t even get me started. Even a day is too short. My ideal burst is probably 3-4 days without any other tasks or duties or distractions or interruptions. After that, I have to get the hell away from my desk because I’m starting to write gibberish.

And then … after I’ve re-entered the real world for as long as it takes to catch up on the bill-paying, and hug the people I love, and tidy up the house, and drink a little too much wine, and get some exercise and recreation – all enjoyed absolutely guilt-free even though I’m not writing a word … then I’m ready for another new beginning.

So I’ve decided to stop beating myself up, stop doubting my calling, stop feeling that constant, nagging guilt of failing to get into a sensible, disciplined writing routine. Now that I think I have a handle on my own cycles, I’m going to run with it and see what happens. I’m going to try to create a series of eleventh hour deadlines, each one a virtual project that requires a new beginning, and see how many rabbits I can pull out of the hat.

As for our 5 writers challenge, this won’t be nearly enough to catch me up. No surprise there. It’s an eleventh hour solution to an eight-month problem.

But it’s a new beginning, and it feels like the sun coming out. A celebration of life renewed. I’m inspired again.