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.”

 

 

Dare to open that vein

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Credit: Soulsonpage

Helga’s Post # 123:    Whenever I am afflicted with writers’ block (a frequent occurrence), I am reminded of a quote that uses a chilling metaphor to describe the difficult process of composition: The famous quote, one that most writers are familiar with, is this:

‘There’s nothing to writing. Just open a vein and bleed.’

I would think that a good many wannabe writers would rush for the razor without hesitation if taken literally, if that were all it takes to write a good book.

Replacing the metaphor with more realistic tools, what does it mean? At the danger of over-simplifying the quote’s meaning, the more life experience a writer has, the better the chance he/she will write a great book, perhaps even a bestseller (assuming a certain level of writing skills). But not just ‘experience’. Anything is an experience, lining up at the super market, taking the dog out, whatever. Life challenges might be more accurate. And the steeper the challenges, the deeper the valleys that life has carved out for you, the more likely you will be able to ‘open a vein and bleed’. Not always, but there’s a good chance that writers who took it on the chin for much or part of their life will write stories that resonate, stories that readers will remember. Not only remember, but they’ll be chewing their fingernails waiting for your next book to appear in their favorite bookstore.

Take these examples:

One writer leads a straightforward, uncomplicated life. He has travelled widely. He has a decent job but is bored because it doesn’t really challenge him. There are no conflicts in his daily routine or only minor ones, no complicated relationships. He has never had to worry about money and he has never been betrayed, simply because he doesn’t feel close enough to anyone that it would matter. Never felt much passion for anything, never felt the agony or ecstasy over falling in love or being abandoned or watching a loved one die. He thinks he is happy by the sheer absence of calamities in his life, but he has no way of measuring it. Such a person could become a reasonably good travel writer or write a suspense story based on a simple plot and lots of action rather than interesting, three-dimensional characters. But he would be hard pressed to ‘open a vein and bleed’ in his writing.

Another writer lives a life full of contradictions. She has glimpsed heaven and hell in equal measure (or better yet, has lived through more hell than heaven). She has suffered difficult relationships, has experienced delirious happiness when falling in love, and felt the heart-wrenching agony of losses when she was abandoned or lost a loved one to illness. She has experienced financial calamities as well as betrayals. She has a checkered past that would make Lady Chatterly blush and therefore hasn’t shared it with anyone, even her closest friends. But she has no regrets. Everything she does, she does with passion, or she won’t do it at all. She has learned from mistakes, of which there were many. Instead of wallowing in misery and turning bitter she has chalked them up as necessary training ground to become stronger and more independent. She leads a roller coaster life without ever a boring moment.

Who has more to give to their readers? Who is willing to open a vein and bleed profusely, making it part of their story?

All this is self-evident. So, what’s the point?

For one, it’s a great tool for readers to choose quality books. Books that not only entertain while we are reading them, but that stay with us long after we have read ‘The End’. Sometimes years after we’ve read them. Books that have the potential to change us, that’s how deeply they touch us. Stories that we can’t stop thinking about, because their characters are so real we feel we have met them in person. Relationships between them have depths of emotions we may never have known exist, let alone experienced. Or else we have experienced something similar to the story and can relate to the author’s version, remembering and identifying with our own past. With our own bleeding vein.

When choosing your next book to read, take a look at the author’s bio. Does he/she know about their subject matter from their own life experience? We are all familiar with Hemingway’s illustrious life and how he managed to mirror that in his writing. Or, take Sean Slater, a bestselling author and personal friend (in fact he was the original founder of our writers’ group). A police officer in real life, his books are brimming with events that ring true because many of them are. He has lived them and he effectively weaves  them into his stories.  Another example is one of my pet authors, John LeCarre. He has lived the life of a spy, so he knows how to write about it with authority and authenticity. It helps that he is a man of great intelligence, passion and awesome writing talent. He is well in his eighties now but you wouldn’t know it from the way he writes those wonderful love stories that are always an important part of his books.

I think these are pretty good criteria for selecting your next good book. (Depending of course on what kind of reader you are). Better yet, why not write one? If you are reading this blog it’s likely that you too have chalked up a lot of interesting life experience that can be mined for your next writing project. And if you are not in a hurry to get published so you can pay your next months’ rent, you will add more material to your arsenal for later use. Meanwhile, live those passions that we so love to read about, regardless of your age, because we are never really too old for that.

Oscar Wilde got it right when he said, ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.’

 

James Scott Bell on 7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel

JSBJoe’s Post #147 (though it shouldn’t count as a Joe’s Post) — Every so often, I take a few moments to read some of my most favourite inspirational writers. My mentors, if you like. Yesterday, I re-read something that really struck me by James Scott Bell (via Writer’s Digest.) Please check out his entire article as he tends not to be all blah-blah-blah preachy, but does what all good writers do. He entertains us. Plus, you can pick up a free download on how to write a novel). So, without further boring-Joe commentary, here’s James Scott Bell’s 7 things not to do, and my thoughts. Enjoy.

7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel (and How to Avoid Them)

By: | June 5, 2012 – Writer’s Digest

inspirationOh, my goodness, this is a hard one for me not to do. I honestly think it’s the difference between pro writers and wannabes. Pros get it done, day in and day out. Like taking fish oil every day. Or eating kale.

Simply put, they make inspiration happen by sheer force of will. Or they will find a way to get inspired. For me, that way is often by reading, but I need to readjust my thinking on the whole ‘waiting for inspiration’ thing.

2. Look over your shoulder.

Bell writes about the inner critic here and that inner critic is born from fear. Of all the things I have to overcome, this one is the most difficult. I love writing, but hate rejection. It’s like a hockey goalie loving to be a goalie but hating to get pucks in the face.

To be a writer these days, we need to be like the old school goalies, like Gump Worsley one_worsley03who never wore a mask and took a lot of pucks in the face for something he loved to do.

Insane? Maybe. But aren’t writers, by definition, insane?

So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put up his picture and look at it every time I get all ‘fraidy cat about sending out a query. I mean, he took pucks in the face and his mom had named him Gump.

3. Ignore the craft.

I don’t do this. It’s not one of my issues. I read about it, have a critique group and constantly look at other writers to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

4. Keep a chip on your shoulder.

voodooEver have one of those friends who call you on your bullsh*t? You kinda hate it at the time. You may even get mad at them and threaten to pee on their petunias or make a voodoo doll of them and stick that doll with a million needles, then light it on fire, then toss it in a tub of acid while screaming at it, “I hate you, I hate you.”

Everyone does that, right?

But Bell’s right. I have to let go of the chip on my shoulder. So what if agents don’t get back to me? Why should that stop me from getting another query out? (Hint – the answer is this is really masking fear, again.)

5. Write for the market only

I’ve only done this once. And I did it this year. For an open call from TOR. Otherwise, I’m like an anti-market writer. I don’t write to the latest trend. I’m not even sure what that would be, to be honest. I write what I write.

But Bell also talks about voice and that’s something I’ve worked hard on. But here’s the odd thing. I think I have several voices.

Ok, stop looking at me like that. We all hear different voices in our heads, right? Right?

I love my noir voice that I used for my Lou Rains novel and my WW2 mystery set in the Netherlands. I love my goofy-Joe voice that I use for blogs. I even love my YA voice, but I seem to be the only one who does.

See, for me, voice comes a lot from character and genre. Part of the fun is playing around with voices, seeing what I can do. Like trying on a different style of underwear to see what fits. Bikini briefs, not so much. Boxy boxers, nah. But a nice pair of boxer-briefs, yah, I don’t put those back after trying them on.

But of all of all my voices, the goofy-Joe blog voice may very well be my most authentic.

6. Take as many shortcuts as possible.

This really applies to self-publishing, a route we 5/5/5 may be taking soon. Read up on what Bell says. It’s gold.

7. Quit

never quitAlthough some days, the days I look at my stack of rejections and think, hey, maybe I just don’t have the skill to be a writer, I admit, I do think about quitting.

But I don’t. I’m really not sure why. Overwhelming evidence seems to suggest that I’ll never be able to make a career at this. So why continue?

I write because I need to write. It’s a part of me. Like Gump needed to be a goalie and probably would have been happy to play even if he was never picked up by the NHL. So, if I continue to write, continue to persevere, continue to improve and combat all the how-not-to-succeed things inside my head, maybe one day I’ll make it.

*****

megan foxAnyway, that’s it from me, today. Going to take down that picture of Megan Fox fixing her car and put up Gumpers. Going to finish off my 30 pages for submission to my writing group. Going to get in the headspace of a successful writer and write me some writing.

For anyone interested, here are a few awesome links to writing guru’s you should check out. Other than Mr. Bell.

Donald Maass (on character)

Hallie Ephron (supporting characters)

Nancy Kress (writing flashbacks)

These are all short, fun articles. Easy to digest. But you can also follow-up on those writers a bit more and see what other bits of advice they have to offer.

Also, if anyone would like to post their comments on what JSB had to say, let me know.

Hugs.

 

 

 

Writing through adversity

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Silk’s Post #132 — After all that rah rah excitement and recommitment to writing generated by our terrific writing retreat only two weeks ago, here I am finally getting to my Monday post on Wednesday. Do shots of enthusiasm last only a week? What happened?

The Mother of All Colds, that’s what happened. It’s so exhaustingly, frustratingly miserable that I’m tempted to regard it as something higher up the food chain of infections … bronchitis, pneumonia, some kind of exotic flu that has a name so long it’s known by its dreaded acronym.

But no. It’s nothing fancy. Just a cold. Something that doesn’t really impress anyone because we all get them, and then we all get over them. I won’t gross you out with the details, but the consequence of this (so far) 10 days of mind-numbing, energy-draining phlegm production is that I’ve been working at about half speed, at best.

(Newsflash: my husband just walked in and told me that, after careful research down in the village – otherwise known as local gossip – he thinks what I have is the latest plague raging around our island, a new mutation of the old Hong Kong flu from the 1950s, or 1970s, anyway sometime last century. Apparently it lasts a month. Goody.)

But no matter. It all started me thinking … what if I really did have some awful adversity to cope with, something that wasn’t going to go away anytime soon? Or maybe ever? Am I in any way prepared to overcome that, to write through it?

The truth is that I’ve had a reasonably easy time of it since I’ve been here on Earth, as lives go. My improbable chain of luck – one that statisticians will tell you beats the odds at a lottery-winning level – began with being born in the first place. All those competing sperms, and mine won the race! Of course, if you’re reading this, you can also count yourself a winner from the get-go for the same reason.

I was also lucky to be born where and when I was – a wealthy country in the 20th century. There were no bombs falling (although we were, we thought, all prepared in case some did by having air raid drills in elementary school). People weren’t running around shooting each other, at least not in our neighbourhood. There were good drugs around (like antibiotics and polio vaccines), but not many bad ones (like crack cocaine and meth). And even though we ate stuff that everyone now knows is horrible for you (like Twinkies), and all the adults (including virtually everyone on TV) smoked like chimneys, we were pretty healthy. At least compared to the many countries in which children, we were told whenever we pushed our perfectly good spinach or lima beans to the edge of the plate, were starving (and, no you can’t send your leftover spinach to them, just eat it).

I grew up “middle class,” (Hey, remember those good old days when there was a big one?) Yes, I realize not everyone in the United States and Canada had the same lucky experience, and that’s just my point. Even my lifetime circle of family and friends has been, generally speaking, stable and supportive. Sure, a few heartbreaks, but nothing truly devastating. My health (apart from this #@%*&!!! cold) is also pretty much in the middle of the spectrum. Not perfect, but not dramatically debilitating.

In other words, I have little experience coping with real trauma. With life-changing adversity. With fear and terror. With displacement. With truly painful, chronic, disabling or life-threatening illness or injury. With abuse. With addiction. With stifling prejudice or oppression. With hunger or poverty. With war or threat of war where I live. With untimely, gut-wrenching loss of loved ones. With natural disaster or devastation.

No. My drive and determination can be slowed to a crawl by a simple cold. What a wimp.

It made me think about the incredible hurdles writers and other creative people have had to overcome to produce their art. There have been some true heroes, though they’re rarely celebrated for their bravery and persistence in the face of adversity.

It’s almost shocking how many famous authors are said to have suffered from dyslexia or a similar learning disability, for instance: granddaddy of fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson; novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Cannell; legendary American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald; children’s author (Captain Underpants), Dav Pilkey; Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer, Richard Ford; Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright W.B. YeatsFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe author, Fannie Flagg; celebrated American author (World According to GarpJohn Irving; prolific British author, Bernard Taylor; and Madame Bovary author, Gustave Flaubert.

The grande dame of cozy mysteries, Agatha Christie suffered from a related disability called dysgraphia, which is described as “a writing disorder, characterized as a learning disability in the category of written expression” whose sufferers may have difficulties with certain letters, often will write the wrong word when trying to formulate their thoughts on paper, and have problems with both motor and orthographic skills and spelling. Apparently, she couldn’t even balance a chequebook.

There’s also a long list of authors who are thought to have struggled with what we now recognize as ADD/ADHD. One of them was George Bernard Shaw, who wrote more than 60 plays and won both a Nobel Prize and and Oscar for Pygmalion. Science fiction pioneer and godfather of steampunkJules Verne, who had trouble in school and reported having a hard time focusing, was also thought to have undiagnosed ADD or ADHD.

Of course, there’s an even longer list of writers who have famously suffered from depression, from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice and Stephen King. Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, who today is probably the world’s most commercially successful writer, was once a suicidal 20-something single parent and struggling writer. She sought help for her clinical depression and obviously overcame this writing hurdle in spectacular fashion. Not so fortunate was poet Sylvia Plath, whose treatment with antidepressants in 1963 began, it seems, too late to stop her suicidal compulsion.

When it comes to authors who have overcome physical adversity, addictions, personal tragedy, poverty, abuse and a whole spectrum of other obstacles, a whole book could be written. But here are some extreme examples that make me feel ashamed of myself for being distracted from writing by my own insignificant hurdles.

There was Irish author and poet Christy Brown, for example. His famous autobiography My Left Foot documented his struggles as a cerebral palsy victim who was incapable of deliberate movement or speech for years (except, of course, his famous left foot). His family life no doubt toughened him up, as he was one of 13 surviving children out of the 22 born to his Catholic parents.

French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, once the editor of Elle, suffered the rare neurological condition known as Locked-In syndrome after coming out of a coma after a heart attack. While his mind was normal, his entire body was paralyzed. In the last two years of his life, he “wrote” an entire book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he composed in his head and dictated one letter at a time to a (very patient) interlocutor, by blinking when the letter he wanted was reached in a repeated recitation of the alphabet. His book was published two days before he died.

And do I even need to mention the deaf, blind, prolific author Helen Keller?

Well, that’s made me feel so much more ambitious and less sorry for myself that I’m going to just blow my nose, swig some cough syrup, and get back to work.