Putting it in writing

Karalee’s Post #123

I willI’ve missed a couple of weeks of blogging. Sometimes unexpected things happen in life that changes your perspective and stuff that seemed important really isn’t. These things change one’s perspective and even one’s view of the subject matter in one’s writing.

This has happened to me. I’m making adjustments in my writing too. My short stories may take on a completely different bent from my norm of mystery, especially murder mystery.

I’ve committed to 5 short stories in 5 months. Five in five. Sounds quick. Almost easy. Go ahead, say it. Five in five. It has a good ring to it. Sounds almost lyrical. Must be easy. Right?

It’s easy to write down. But, once it’s down, well, it’s in writing! Suddenly it’s a stronger commitment than a thought kept between the ears immersed deep in my grey matter where no one but oneself has a clue about it.

That got me thinking. Putting something in writing can easily be a one-liner (unless you’re a lawyer, and I believe that’s an impossibility). What that one-liner can represent though, can demand a HUGE amount of work behind the scenes. HUGE.

Here’s what I mean:

Things that are easy to jot down:

  1. I will write a novel in 5 months.
  2. I will write 5 short stories in 5 months.
  3. I will run a marathon.
  4. I will quit eating sugar.
  5. I will visit my mother for a week.

What those things really mean:

  1. I will sit at my computer for hours, HOURS, making stuff up; outlining; mind mapping; researching history, science, backstory, and character development; PLUS manage all the other aspects of my life like a job, cooking and eating and doing the dishes; PLUS actually writing 1000 words a day of good stuff that adds conflict and character development and moves the story forward.
  2. Ditto for 1 above x 5 minus the big word count.
  3. Starting 3 to 4 months before the marathon I will run 4 days a week building up time and distance slowly to a good 4 hour run 10 days before the race; work on interval and weight training the other days; eat properly which means more time shopping and cooking and doing dishes; and get a proper sleep every night. Oh, go to work every day too!
  4. This is a mind and body game that can drive a person mad. Substituting with salads and other good home-cooked meals means more shopping, cooking and dishes. Distracting oneself by writing, reading, gardening, watching TV, sitting on one’s hands, or training for a marathon to remove oneself from temptation can take hours of time.
  5. This one takes lots of prep. Phone calls, multiple times to arrange and remind said mother. Then there’s organizing my house affairs to leave, packing clothes and dogs, driving 14 hours, visiting and spending all day helping sort my mother’s house and garden, looking after the dogs, driving home again only to get my house back in order.

See what I mean? All these activities started out as a simple one-liner. Each represents an immense amount of work.

In conclusion I must say that the moral of this post is that when you put something down in writing, make sure you are a lawyer so you get paid for it!

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Short Story Progress:   I’m thinking of themes and am inclined to write outside my box.

Perspective Photos:

Vancouver fog

 

 

 

 

 

 

airplane landing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing.

 

Welcome to the 5writers5novels5months reprise

555-redux

Silk’s Post #137 — Day three already. Paula threw down the gauntlet on our second 5 month challenge on (appropriately) September 5th – the very date we began our original crazy venture in 2012.

The clock is already ticking. Quietly right now, but it’s bound to get louder. And louder. And LOUDER. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting theme in The Telltale Heart. WRI-ting. WRI-ting. WRI-ting.

It’s exactly what I need right now.

Maybe you do too? If so, please join us in the challenge and check in with your progress in the comments space. To date, all the original 5writers have signed up for either a novel or, in Karalee’s case, a series of short stories. Plus we have at least one visiting writer who’s committed to hitchhiking with us. It’s more fun with a crowd, so feel free to jump on board any time!

I have a kind of dark plot in the works. Murder, jeopardy, quest, high emotion, moral dilemma, and a little gallows humour thrown in to wash it down with. My kind of story.

If you’ve been following the 5writers5novels5months blog for a while, first of all: Thanks! Especially those of you who’ve stuck with us over the past year or so while we floundered around producing … well … not very much novel writing, and a rather erratic schedule of blogging.

If you actually followed our 2012 original challenge to each write a novel in 5 months, you’ll remember that I was the tortoise. While swifter 5/5/5 members sped by me, words flying on the pages and pages flying off the printer, I plodded and plotted on. The way that was supposed to end was with “slow and steady” winning the race.

But that’s not what happened, I’m afraid.

I got the “slow” part down pat, but never quite got the hang of the “steady” part.

Here’s what I did get out of it though, and I don’t regret a moment:

  • I made it halfway through a manuscript that I still think has some good potential. I just need to  hook it up to some electrodes and wait for a good electrical storm to jolt it back to life (but not this time around).
  • I learned how to design, write and maintain a blog (or our “lite” version of one anyway), and now consider it to be the equivalent of learning typing in grade 7: an absolutely essential skill that has now become instinctive and, thankfully, I’ll never have to learn again.
  • I got to know and love and work with an extraordinary, talented group of 5/5/5 writers who have (in turns) cheered on my writing, supported my efforts when they flagged, beat me about the head when I wrote crap, pushed me when I was unproductive, and soothed my bruised ego when needed. They are my angels.
  • I met a whole community of dedicated writers online and realized most of them are going through the same struggles I am – some more successfully, some less. Here I found yet another layer of unexpected support from our blog readers, and from the generous writing gurus who share their knowledge and experience with the rest of us through their own terrific blogs.

So … now that I’ve had nearly two years of (I’ll admit it) writing in circles without much to show for it, I’m ready to take up the challenge again. The question is: can I rev up my productivity, get my groove back, and keep my enthusiasm up for 5 months and complete a whole first draft this time around?

It’s a long journey.

My second blog post in September 2012 was titled “Arithmetic for Writers”. That’s where I first calculated (after already committing to the challenge) what would need to be actually done to produce a full length novel in 5 months. It was scary as hell.

The rough math: 100 days of actual butt-in-chair writing at 1,000 words a day average.

That’s four pages a day. Doesn’t sound so intimidating at the outset, does it? Piece of cake! A monkey with a typewriter could manage that.

But just wait until October, when the calendar shows how many suns have set without 4 pages having been produced that day. Wait until November, when the catch-up panic starts to rise in the craw like acid reflux. Wait until December, when the holidays greedily gobble up time.

I’ve called myself the 11th-Hour Queen, and my post on procrastination, “Wasting Away in Mañanaville”, elicited an astounding 6,000 comments on the Linked In Books and Writers group page. But there comes a point in a long project where you just can’t catch up fast enough to meet your deadline if you’ve fallen too far behind. And that point is much earlier in the process than the 11th Hour.

So my pledge this time around is simple: DON’T FALL BEHIND.

And as much as I resist scorekeeping, I’m going to resort to a tick-tock report in my blog posts during this new 5/5/5 challenge, like the dreaded weigh-in at a Weight Watchers meeting. Ugh.

So here goes for this week:

Words written:  4,568 (yes, I got a head start)

Blog posts written:  1 (a day late)

What I’m reading:  Light of the World by James Lee Burke; Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

Best new thing:  Stephen Colbert is back

Thought of the week:  If you’re planning to write a whole novel, you better fall in love with your story first. Like head-over-heels in love. Otherwise it will someday live in your unloved, unfinished novels drawer and haunt you.

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.

 

How to get the Big Mo on a small scale

momentum

Silk’s Post #87 — See if this sounds familiar. You’re pushing the shopping cart down the supermarket aisle when a friend sidles up to you and gives you a hug.

“So how’s the book coming?” Your friend is smiling, genuinely interested, maybe even proud to have a friend who’s writing a book. This isn’t a challenge. It’s an affirmation.

“Um … good, good.” You grin and shrug. “Not quite as far along as I’d like to be, but … you know.” It feels like a challenge.

“I can’t even imagine,” your friend says. “Where do you find the time? It would take me a year!” Your friend obviously thinks this sounds like an extravagant (and maybe ridiculous) time commitment, little knowing that many writers would kill to turn out a finished book in a year.

“Well, you just have to chain yourself to the desk and grind out that thousand words a day,” you say. At this point you’re hating yourself. A thousand words a day? When was the last time you did that for a week straight?

“Hey, I’m dying to read it,” your friend says. “When do you think it will be published?”

Aaaaarrrrrrrgh!

Since there’s no answer to that well-meaning – but loaded – question, you find yourself suddenly attracted to the two-for-one sale on industrial size cans of plum tomatoes at the end of the aisle. Better to rush off with apparent purpose than to get yourself deeper in this charade, or slink away ignominiously like the fraud that you are.

And you know that your encounter is not likely to prompt a wildly productive writing session when you get home with the groceries. It’s more likely to prompt the consumption of an entire tray of brownies. You skip the plum tomatoes and head for the bakery section.

Every writer, I assume, has had such moments at one time or another. You’re in a trough. Forward progress on your current project has slowed, or stopped altogether. Your partly-finished manuscript sits expectantly on your computer drive, awaiting your return and giving off what looks like a faint radioactive glow every time you walk past the door of your dark office.

You’ve lost the Big Mo – the elusive and magical momentum that feeds on itself and keeps the words flowing.

How do you get it back?

I’d love to tell you I have a sure-fire recipe. If I did, I’d have at least three finished third drafts out there hunting for glory in agent land – instead of one sprawling first draft that needs a lot of work, one half-finished first draft that might have some promise, and one new story concept with a (pretty good) opening chapter. Oh yeah, and approximately 85,000 words of blog posts.

But since this is a problem I’m trying to wrestle to the ground myself right now, I’ll throw out some ideas anyway. Maybe some of them will work.

The first thing is to try to understand what the Big Mo really is, and where it comes from. Originally a sports term, it refers to “behavioural momentum” that comes from victories or other affirmative experiences, and confers an advantage on the team (or political party, or economic cycle, or social movement) that has apparently “caught fire”.

The Big Mo is both real (delivering actual results) and ephemeral (in that it seems to be sustained by nothing more than confidence, hope and belief). It can be a powerful force one day, and the next day collapse into a pile of ash when it burns through all its oxygen. But sometimes it persists for a long cycle and, if continually reinforced, momentum can become resistant to change.

Newton's Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Newton’s Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Like Newton’s Cradle, it can appear to become perpetual.

Generally, the phenomenon of Big Mo has been thought of as a large scale mechanism, something that applies to collective behaviour. Psychologists have studied it, even developing a methodology for calculating its impact. Economists have based market theories on it. Politicians have built campaigns around it. Technology has created the social media tools to both stimulate and record Big Mo. Even physicists have gotten into the act, likening it to aspects of quantum field theory. And some of the most hilarious and quirky superstitions in the world of big-league sports arise from players’ attempts to keep their Big Mo streaks alive (never more charmingly portrayed than in the movie Bull Durham).

The question is: can this “networked” phenomenon be achieved on a small scale? Like for an individual writer? Well, why not? “Behavioural persistence” theory is apparently now being used in the development of drug rehabilitation programs, harnessing momentum to counter the prospects of relapse. (Okay, it’s not a pretty thought, but there are probably some uncomfortable parallels between addicts and writers that I won’t go into right now.)

So … since writers seem to love putting things in lists, here are my completely unproven but patently reasonable suggestions for writers who need some momentum. Warning: some of this is harsh. But you want to finish that book, don’t you?

Silk’s Top 10 Strategies for Getting Your Big Mo Back

1. Purge the filler. Examine what you actually do every day (besides writing) and make a list of your personal time wasters. I know you have them. Everyone does. Angry Birds. Television. Web surfing. Anything even slightly obsessive, even cleaning. Find ’em and just stop doing them. Or put yourself on a time-waster diet. An hour or two a day, tops. Wow! Now you suddenly have all the time you need to write!

2. Try, try, try to write on a regular schedule. This, for many of us, is the hardest thing to achieve. But most of us work (or once worked) at something that required us to be somewhere every day at a certain time and place to do a certain thing. This is no different. If we’re honest, there are three main reasons it’s hard to schedule writing. First, we put other’s needs and demands ahead of our own; we let everything in the world crash our writing schedule. Second, we don’t really think writing is an imperative, or at least not more important than, say, washing the windows or catching the latest Anthony Bourdain. Third, we use every possible excuse to avoid writing when we feel secretly afraid of failure. Okay, maybe this is just me. But you have your own hang-ups, I bet. Writing on a regular schedule is not a cure for them. But it’s a trigger for momentum, purely through discipline.

3. Every time you get a good chunk of writing (or outlining or research) done, reward yourself. If you’re able to get into the habit of writing on a regular schedule, that means you deserve at least one reward per day. This isn’t a game. We all need that positive reinforcement. It’s what builds Big Mo. Make it something that counts. Today I rewarded myself by registering for the Surrey International Writers Conference in October. Tomorrow, maybe all I’ll get is a brownie, but that’s okay. I love brownies. (I recommend against rewarding yourself with a full bottle of wine every day; see earlier reference to parallels between addicts and writers.)

4. Amplify your momentum by being part of a larger group. Big Mo is described as a group phenomenon for a reason: we get energy, positive reinforcement and contact highs from other people on our team. (Isn’t this what sports, politics and religion is all about?) Writing is an isolating profession. Even if you’re an introvert, even if you think your work is “not good enough”, even if there are all kinds of obstacles to doing it, you need to commune with other writers. Find a writers group. Can’t find one? Start one. (If it weren’t for my 5/5/5 friends, I probably would have given up long ago.) Go to workshops or classes or seminars and rub elbows. Go to writers conferences. Yes, they’re basically trade fairs that sell books and advice (and hope) to writers. Go anyway. (Surrey International Writers Conference, here I come for the 7th time!) You’ll meet people like you. You’ll come home energized. I guarantee it. Writing requires faith. Become part of a writing congregation.

5. Read, read, read, read, read. Reading is never on the list of time-wasters. Reading is learning. Reading is like drinking water for a writer: you can’t live without it. Read about writing. There is so much in print and online it isn’t funny. Even if you don’t always learn something new, you may see something you already “know” differently, and reading about writing will keep your head into writing, simple as that. When you’re not reading about writing, just read good stuff. Your favourite authors. Different genres. Fiction. Non-fiction. Everything. Learn from it all, good and bad. When you just can’t face writing your own stuff during your “scheduled” writing time, read instead. It might inspire you.

6. Cultivate your curiosity. Curiosity is an attitude of openness and engagement. It feeds imagination. It keeps your senses constantly on the lookout for novelty, insights, revelations and surprises. It stimulates the brain and the heart. It keeps you from getting bored, and boredom is a momentum killer. Incurious people are dull, and dull people don’t write interesting things.

7. Practice flexibility and adaptation. If you have to have a certain chair and a certain coffee mug and all your pencils and pens lined up north to south before you can settle down to write, you’re in big trouble. Many books encourage writers to set up their writing space to suit their work style on the theory that this leads to higher productivity. Can’t argue with that. But then there’s what I call the “bomb shelter problem”. If you’re not home when the bomb drops, your shelter is useless. People have busier, more mobile lives than ever. Keeping a regular writing schedule is harder – sometimes much harder – when you’re away from your own domain and daily routine. So you have to learn to adapt without fuss. Write in the hotel room or the airport or on the boat. Don’t wait for things to get back to “normal” to resume your writing schedule, because by then the Big Mo will be down the drain, like your tan.

8. If you really hit a wall with your main project, write something else. Writer’s block is real. So is burn-out. Sometimes your brain just needs to fall back and re-group before it’s ready to scale that particular wall. But keep writing anyway. Do a blog post. Write an essay. Try a poem or a short story. Write in your journal. Just keep writing. Attack the book again after a rest from it. A short rest.

9. Make your peace with your non-writing friends and family. Some people who are close to a writer are incredibly supportive, both in word and deed. Then there are the more normal people who want to be supportive … as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them too much. Living with a writer can get lonely. People understandably get a bit testy about missing meals, say, or having to build their own schedule around your work. Maybe they’d like a little more of your attention, or would appreciate your calling more if it resulted in some published books and income. It’s hard for a non-writer to understand what drives us, and to share our solitary writing life. Everyone’s situation is different, but two goals are pretty universal: that the people closest to you feel they have some personal stake in your writing, and that you don’t neglect their needs and wants. Fair’s fair.

10. Stay healthy. Be happy.  All that advice they give you about a healthy lifestyle applies double to people who spend a lot of time in front of a computer thinking their brains out. Eating right, keeping your body moving, spending time outdoors, getting some R&R, sleeping well, having some fun, maintaining your relationships and social life with emotional intelligence. You’ve heard it all. Take it to heart. I can’t remember which writer it was who claimed he wrote every single day of every single year, except his birthday. Somebody successful, rich and famous. I’m in awe of that level of obsession. But most of us need to have an actual life to keep up our Big Mo as writers. So, besides being good to the people around you, be good to yourself.

Zen and the pursuit of the elusive flow state

McArthur-Burney-Falls-SP

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

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

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

Yeah, I think I have all of those.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the word is Love.”

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.

50 hour report: a penny for your thoughts

bye-bye-penny

Silk’s post # 21 — Yes, 50 hours to go. For those of you who believe in arithmetic, rather than miracles, let’s get out our calculators.

If Helga writes two pages per hour, or 500 words, and Paula writes three pages per hour, or 750 words, how many words can Karalee write before the deadline, if she writes at Paula’s speed for two-fifths of the time remaining, and at Helga’s speed for the other three-fifths?

I’m kidding, I’m kidding!

I hated those stupid problems. It’s probably what drove me from math to English, and thence, eventually, to writing novels.

Besides, who has time for math when there are only 50 hours remaining? In fact, who has time to write posts, for Pete’s sake?

Of course, because I have not been subjecting myself to random drug testing … I mean to random word counting … none of you actually know how many words I’ve written thus far.  And don’t expect me to tell you now. All I can say is that my tally is still in the two figures. That could be anywhere from 10% to 99%.

But the numbers that count now – to me anyway – are how many words I’ve written in the past week. The correct answer is eight-thousand. And that includes two full days in transit from Maui to Saltspring Island. I’m on a roll. (But I also realize that this reveal will allow my 5 writers buddies to calculate, after receiving my meagre submission on Tuesday at midnight, how pitifully few words I got on paper over the first four months and three weeks of our challenge, although I urge them not to tax themselves doing the math).

Math is cruel.

For example, today is a particularly sad day for those who still believe that a penny saved is a penny earned. Because today, the Canadian penny died. Literally.

Rest in peace.

Yes, this is the last day Canada will issue pennies. Each penny cost something like $59 to make. That’s an exaggeration, but you get the point. It just didn’t make sense anymore. As I said, math is cruel. It just killed the penny, for godssake.

Let’s all think of each penny in this world as a word. Put 100,000 of them all together and you have $1,000, or one novel. So now you see why the penny has reached the end of its useful life. Who’s going to bash their brains out writing a 100,000-word novel for $1,000?

Well, many of us, as it turns out. In fact, we write them for $0, plus a hope and a prayer. And love it.

Just a little math lesson to celebrate Deadline Eve.

And now back to writing. Every penny counts!

Writin’ in the rain

NASA image

NASA image

Silk’s post #18 — Okay, you really have to put the title to music to do this subject justice.

I’m wri-i-i-tin’ in the rain
Just wri-i-i-tin’ in the rain
What a glo-o-o-orious feelin’
I’m … (click heels twice here) … ha-a-a-appy again …

And so on. You can’t see the words without hearing the melody, can you? And you can’t hear the melody in your head without seeing Gene Kelly, fedora awash, splashing through puddles in a Hollywood downpour … tripping out on those unbelievable dancer’s feet of his … twirling himself around the lamppost, his face to the wet sky and his arms flung wide.

Now there’s a powerful image. One for history.

And why is this scene so infectious? Because no one, but no one, has ever managed to portray pure inner joy on the silver screen better than the squeaky-clean-but-oh-so-sexy Mr. Kelly in Singin’ in the Rainwhich is the reason this exuberant, if somewhat fluffy, movie has endured as one of the world’s best loved classics. There are lots of terrific, memorable scenes in the film, but its undying appeal is all about the dancin’-in-the-rain scene.

It’s a joy so big and bright, it laughs at rain.

Rain – the ultimate in dreary, depressing, debilitating, demotivating, creativity-destroying downers.

Oh yeah? Not according to Seattle author Timothy Egan and a few of his crazy writer friends. Mind you, Mr. Egan’s best known book, The Worst Hard Time, is about the Dust Bowl of the Dirty Thirties, so you can see all this Pacific Northwest rain hasn’t exactly turned him into the writing equivalent of Gene Kelly. But still …

In a January 10th op-ed piece for the New York Times, “The Longest Nights,” he decides to test an idea about the relationship between crappy wet weather and writing productivity on a few of his literary friends. Here’s his opening manifesto:

In early winter, when the heavy rains come to the Pacific Northwest and we settle under a blanket of sullen sky, something stirs in the creative soul. At the calendar’s gloaming, while the landscape is inert, and all is dark, sluggish, bleak and cold, writers and cooks and artists and tinkerers of all sorts are at their most productive.

At least, that’s my theory. As a lifelong resident of a latitude well to the north of Maine, I’ve come to the conclusion that creativity needs a season of despair.

Well, I’m with him on the weather description. And the lack of light. Very well observed. And I feel his pain. What this hasn’t resulted in, for me anyway, is the gush of creativity he mentions. I would be hard pressed to call this my “most productive” season. You might have already suspected this, since I have studiously avoided sharing a page count for my novel-in-progress, like all my show-off writing buddies.

Opinion among Mr. Egan’s colleagues was divided. One claimed that, rather than “being crippled by clinical depression, bending toward the light like a dying tomato plant,” he actually found that the murk of a winter day caused words to “pour out” of him – so much so that he had produced “enough excellent writing to fill a large tube sock.” What another writer found “more depressing than weeks of drizzle” was “unrelenting sunshine,” which apparently robbed her of the proper melancholy required to write.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, one bestselling Seattle author confessed that the best he can do is “put my fingers on the keyboard and hope that the muse can find me beneath Seattle’s heavy gray cloud covering.”

Now, let’s just take a look at the brightly coloured map of the Pacific Northwest at the top of the page. It does look cheerful, doesn’t it? I’d like you to notice, however, that the red-shaded area represents the zone which received between, say, 200 and 250 millimetres of rain during the first week of November in 2006. Yes, that was a wet one, wasn’t it? But things did, it must be said, dry out by around June. I happen to live just on the right edge of that big red blob hanging over Vancouver Island in the upper left portion of the image.

The cause of all this is something called the “Pineapple Express” – a sub-tropical jet stream that sucks up all the moisture out of Hawaii and delivers it right to our door every winter. Unfortunately, we haven’t figured out a way to get actual pineapples to be delivered in the same manner, although that might be a bit messy.

So, back to this business of Writin’ in the Rain. I actually do have a plan to tie all this together. Really.

Here’s the thing: I need to get my writing mojo working properly again. Given that the annual Pineapple Express is likely to deliver Hollywood-style downpours for much of the next several months, I could take my cue from Mr. Egan’s scientific motivational research and try to channel my inner Gene Kelly.

Dance through it. Revel in it. Let the joy and the words flow like pineapple juice.

Yeah. That sounds good. Powerful stuff.

Or … I could follow the route of the Pineapple Express back from whence it came. To sunny Hawaii, where I never have to put on my gumboots to tromp out to the woodshed to fetch wood to feed the woodstove. Where spam is associated with tasty pupus, and the first Aloha Writer’s Conference is about to start. Where I can tap away on my laptop while the breeze wafts across the lanai and waves caress the sand in a gentle rhythm. Tap tap tappety tap.

Another mai tai, please, I’m running a little short on melancholy.

Well, if you were facing a deadline for your novel’s first draft in less than a month, with no actual possibility of writing, say, 70,000 words between now and then no matter where you plant your keyboard … what would you do?

Yeah, I thought so.

Aloha everyone! My next post will be from Maui.

All the help I can get

zane-and-zoey

Silk’s Post #12 — Five minutes ago I suddenly realized I had to write a post for tomorrow morning. What distracted me? I am happy (oh so happy) to report that I’ve been too busy writing my book to worry about blogging.

Three-fifths of the way through our 5 Writers schedule, I think I’ve finally gotten traction on my novel. Finally.

Regular readers will have realized already that I’ve been dancing, dodging, diverting attention from the fact that I have actually written practically nothing so far. Might as well fess up to it, painful as it may be. I’m in awe of Joe and his 220+ pages. Of Helga and her progress after making major changes to her whole concept. Of Paula, labouring over her outline then surging past it into glorious prose. Of Karalee, who has been a bit quiet about her progress, but I suspect is ahead of all of us.

For me, it was ever thus. I am the world’s champion procrastinator, forever spoiled by my (far from admirable) ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the 11th hour. I managed to get through high school that way, and as much college as I could stand after discovering I’m allergic to academia. And I built a successful design/advertising agency that outlived most of the competition for 30 years by making sure we delivered strong creative concepts on skin-of-the-teeth deadlines. You can see I’m trying to psych myself up here, can’t you?

Because sometimes you reach into the hat and the rabbit is already long gone. All you have in your hand is a fistful of the raisin-like pellets he left behind.

This ignominious fate must be avoided!

That’s why I need All-The-Help-I-Can-Get to perform the trick of typing “The End” by February 5th. The arithmetic is tilted steeply against me. By my calculations, I now have to write something like 1,500 words every single day up to and including February 5th. Even Christmas Day. Wow.

Fortunately, I have an actual plot in my head (a big advantage over the first book I wrote, which evolved in such an organic manner that it continually threatened to turn into compost). And I have solid characters, each one with a name, a picture, a past and a future. I also have my viciously competitive instincts and my deep well of Protestant guilt to drive me on.

But most important, I have my cheering section.

I find that my cats, Zoey and Zane, are a tremendous help. They like to lie atop whatever’s littering my desk at a given moment and keep it properly anchored down. They bring a generous warmth and a patient calm into my office with them, at least once they’re asleep. I also have my patient husband, who brings me a cocktail at just the right moment and doesn’t seem to mind dining on frozen pizza at 9 pm.

I also have a shelf full of wise and inspiring books on writing, the authors seeming to speak to me from across the room like a Greek chorus. The introduction to one of my favourites, If You Want to Write,  joyously penned by Brenda Ueland in 1938 and still in print, begins with this paean by Andrei Codrescu:

There are two kinds of instructional manuals: the kind that are written by well-meaning techies who mean to make you understand how to connect all the parts to the whole; and the other kind, written by angels to instruct you in the achievement of impossible things.

Impossible, indeed. Brenda wouldn’t have thought so. Or even if she did, she wouldn’t have cared. She would have said to me (as she said to her long-ago writing classes at the Minneapolis YMCA, which were filled with ordinary people who wanted to learn to write simply because they had stories to tell):

Work freely and rollickingly as though you were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters. 

She was the ultimate cheerleader, Brenda.

But finally, and most importantly, I have you – whoever you are, reading this blog. I know I can count on my 5 devoted writing friends to read it, and this is my late-night letter to them with thanks for their constant presence. And I’m grateful for every reader who spends a bit of their valuable time with my words. You could be doing anything right now – hiking up a mountain, doing the laundry, playing Angry Birds, making love. But you’re reading what I’ve written. Thanks.

Because, let’s face it, writers want to be read. And although I’ve been slow off the mark on my novel, I’ve probably learned more about writing by contributing to this blog than I have from a conference worth of classes or a stack of good books on writing.

I’ve learned what it means to be read, and oddly enough, that changes everything.

The last word shall go to Brenda:

No writing is a waste of time – no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good.

Shaking the hook

Silk’s Post #11 — My subconscious tried to rescue me from writing purgatory this weekend. It happened in a rest stop just south of the Canada-US border on Interstate 5, about an hour before the dreary November day gave up and went dark.

But let’s back up a bit. We had exactly one week between the time we got our renewed passports and the time we needed to be back home today (Sunday) to fit in an overdue family visit in Lodi, California. US Thanksgiving seemed like the perfect occasion to visit with David’s 91-year-old mother and a number of other assorted relatives.

Through a process of reasoning that now escapes me, we decided to drive. Two days of driving south, three days of ping-ponging around multiple households and jerry-rigging a paper-plate turkey dinner in Mom’s tiny senior’s apartment, and two days of driving back north.

The first thing I packed was my computer, along with assorted files and the ever-present books on writing. I’d make the best of it. Maybe I could write in the shotgun seat while David drove. Maybe I could write in the evenings. Or early in the mornings.

Don’t worry, I won’t go into details about this trip. I bet you’ve done one very like it yourself.  Every moment was filled with conversation, transportation, or mastication (a disturbing percentage of the latter at fast food restaurants). I didn’t write in the car. I didn’t write in the evenings. I didn’t write in the mornings.

But inside, I was thrashing with anxiety. My writing pals have pages flying out of their printers like … well, like flying pages. (You can see what I’ve been reduced to, writing a sentence like that). Lord love a duck, Joe has 200 of them (pages, that is)! My book loomed over my head like a Seattle raincloud. Each night it followed me into my dreams the moment I dropped my head on another strange pillow. As important as the trip was, I was chafing to get home where I could settle down alone and churn out some heavy wordage.

Sunday (today) was to be my Brand New Day. The start of a dedicated writing schedule with renewed enthusiasm. No more travel until the new year. A daunting list of ‘must do’ obligations mostly checked off. I was full of eager anticipation (or possibly panic).

Now let’s return to that roadside rest – the last one before the Peace Arch crossing, where Canadian shoppers have a time-honoured tradition of stopping to discard packaging that identifies the new stuff in their trunks as ‘imports’. We didn’t buy anything, but we had to stop to dig out our passports, which were in my computer bag.

The computer bag that was … omigod … NOT in the car.

Gulp.

A frantic call to the motor inn where we had stayed Friday night. Had anyone turned in a black bag, maybe in the breakfast lounge? Yes. Is there a laptop in it? Yes. How about a couple of passports? Yes.

I started to breathe again.

We didn’t even discuss what to do next. (In fact, there was a distinctly chilly silence in the car that lasted several hours). There was zero choice involved. At three o’clock yesterday afternoon we turned south and headed back to the place we’d left at eight o’clock the same morning: Eugene, Oregon. And my Sunday? It would now be reduced to a re-run of Saturday in a butt-numbing version of the “Groundhog Day” time warp.

One whole day scratched off the calendar, 14 hours of driving, and a lot of gas guzzled – all because I was subconsciously trying to shake the writing hook.

Oh, I could blame my not-quite-as-sharp-as-before memory. Write it off to a seniors’ moment. But that would be too logical, too easy. Incidents that defy explanation, that just leave you shaking your head, that make you cringe just to think about them … these incidents BEG for interpretation. If no deep and enduring meaning can be found, perhaps at least an interesting neurosis or a hidden fear might be unearthed.

There’s an old adage that when you inadvertently leave a personal item behind somewhere, it’s because you secretly want to go back to that place. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s one of those things that sounds ‘truthy’, and besides it’s a handy way to excuse yourself and compliment your host at the same time when you leave your hat at a friend’s house after a wine-drenched dinner party.

On the other hand, it could be that you secretly don’t really want that hat.

So, did I subconsciously leave my book behind in Eugene? Leave behind the growing angst of the galloping calendar and the blank white pages? Try to shake the hook that writing has sunk into me?

I didn’t fully appreciate, when I bit at that shiny lure, how sharply the hook would bite me back. Writing reels me in, plays with me, then lets me run free as though I’m not on the line. But the tug always comes again, hauling me back, painfully sometimes. Maybe I secretly long for the time when I could just stare blissfully at a sunset without thinking how I’d recreate the experience in words (without backstory, adverbs or too much tell tell tell).

But it’s too late for all that. I’m caught now. If my subconscious thinks it can shake the writing hook by sneakily leaving the dreaded computer 350 miles down the road, it has another think coming. So, this week’s stats:

Miles driven in the service of writing: 700

Words written this week: I’d rather not talk about it

Pies eaten: one slice of Thanksgiving pecan pie with ice cream