Don’t succumb to self-doubt

Karalee’s Post #68

Generally I feel positive about writing and getting to know my characters and creating a story that needs to be told. After all, like Silk put it, we are storytellers.

But truth be told, right now I’m struggling. I feel lost at the beginning, lost in the maze in the middle and can’t fathom getting to The End. Oh, I have down days and question the rational of following this passion that is sure to be padded with rewrites and rejections, but to be down for any length of time is unusual for me.

I know it’s a passing phase that I’m sure hits most writers on and off. My outline is quite good and I should be raring to go on my new story.

So what is the problem?

Self-doubt is creeping in. It has visited before and I can usually do my research and write through it. But with this story I am expecting more of my writing and I truly want to write an awesome story to support my awesome premise. 

That is taking me to the point where I’m questioning whether I know enough to write about this story I want to tell. I’m not savvy about politics or computers or how banks and the financial world works. How can I make my story believable?

I’m dealing with it by watching mystery and thriller movies and serials. Our family subscribed to Netflix over the Christmas holidays and for the first time I can watch shows ad nauseum at the push of a few remote control buttons. I have been pulled into viewing serial programs and I’m constantly digesting how the plots are set-up and the characters developed and change.

Oh, I’m sure this cloud of self-doubt will pass as I get back to writing. I allowed my routine to be interrupted during the Olympics and I’m taking a winter vacation with my husband next week for a couple of weeks so I’m dragging my tail in my writing productivity.

I will take the advice Joe gave a couple of months ago and RESET.

reset

 

I will make a new To Do list and stick to it:

  1. After morning exercise, apply bum glue in readiness to meet writing goal.
  2. Write until my set productivity is met (scenes with a word minimum).
  3. Reapply bum glue until word count is met.
  4. Enjoy the process.

 

Research is huge for this story and I know that it can be done. I merely need to apply myself, and as my productivity sets in again, self-doubt will once more settle on the back burner and allow my creativity to reemerge.

Happy writing!

 

 

Skiathlon for writers

skiathlon

Silk’s Post #73 – In the spirit of Sochi, I bring you the inevitable post comparing writing to Olympic sports. How can you be surprised?

Getting sucked in to this spectacle of triumph and heartbreak every two years is virtually unavoidable – or it is for me, especially with the winter games. If you love drama, if you’re fascinated by amazing characters, if you thrive on story arcs that soar like the trajectories of those insane ski jumpers, then you just have to watch. And, if you have a blog post to write in the middle of it all, your topic is a no-brainer.

The question is: which winter Olympic sport best mirrors the trials and the glories of the writing life? For me, this was also a no-brainer. It’s the newfangled event (2003) called Skiathlon. If you’re a writer, see if any of this rings a bell:

Skiathlon Characteristics:

1. It’s an endurance event.
The men’s event is a gruelling 30 km (ladies’ course is half that, though if I were a competitor I might easily be talked into acceptance of this inequality). For the metrically challenged, 30 km is equivalent to 18.64 miles. Almost marathon distance. Except you’re doing it with boards strapped to your feet. If you imagine that the presence of snow underneath those boards enables a smooth glide to victory, you’d be wrong. It’s a brutal course with lots of uphill ‘skating’ work, and dozens of other competitors dogging your every stroke. Most Skiathletes collapse at the finish line, heaving and flopping like newly-caught salmon as they struggle for every molecule of oxygen they can gulp.

2. It’s complicated, has two stages, and requires multiple skills.
As sports writer Cathal Kelly noted in her humorous definition in thestar.com, “Increasingly the purpose of the Olympics is to take something simple and make it needlessly complex. Case in point – Skiathlon, a race that is half ‘classic’ (i.e. done along grooves in the snow); half ‘free’ (i.e. that exhausting-looking lunging that weirds you out every Olympics). In between, the competitors will ‘pit’ at the stadium, and switch gear.” The official Olympics description merely calls it “interesting.” Oh, and did I forget to mention competitors get to go around the whole two-stage course twice? Leave your comfort zone at home!

3. It rewards individual technique and stamina in equal measures.
Skiathlon is not for daredevils – their events are on the big, glamorous slopes. It’s not for artistes – their stunning routines on ice are beautiful but fleeting. And it’s not a team sport – you’re on your own out there. Skiathlon is won by incredibly fit, well-prepared athletes who have mastered all types of cross-country skiing, are capable of changing course in the middle of a race, and have the energy and discipline to stick it out to the end, alone in their agony. That’s discipline and determination. Like all Olympic sports, it starts with a dream and requires a stupendous amount of training and practice. But, as Helga so aptly put it in her post “Unsung heroes – here’s to you!”, the key to winning is steely resolve.

Now, let’s compare …

Writing Characteristics:

1. It’s an endurance event.
I scarcely need to explain this to anyone who’s churned their way through the planning, outlining, writing and re-writing of a 100,000 word novel. Or two, or three. Yes, there are glorious days when you’re gliding across the pages, your fingers flying and the wind in your face. Then there are the brutal uphill climbs where you stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke … and get no glide at all. The finish never comes soon enough for your oxygen-starved brain and your cramped shoulders, and every chapter is a fresh marathon.

2. It’s complicated, has two stages, and requires multiple skills. 
You could argue that writing has more than two stages, what with concept development, planning, research, outlining, writing, re-writing, then the whole can of worms which is marketing your work. But the main events are writing and re-writing, and these require completely different skill-sets. One thing is guaranteed: you will travel the course of your novel multiple times before you have a manuscript ready to pitch.

3. It rewards individual technique and stamina in equal measures. 
Many people have great ideas. Many people are highly creative. Many people are good writers. But most of them never start a novel, let alone finish one – and never mind actually getting published. The ante for a writer to get in the game at all is talent, that’s a given. And no writer gets far without having a burning desire to pursue their calling. But after that, it’s all about technique and skills, along with stamina and endurance. And most of the effort writers pour into their novels is done alone, fuelled almost exclusively by their passion for their work and their belief in themselves. Much else must be sacrificed.

Alright, I admit it. Skiathlon is by no means a perfect analogy for writing. I could have picked at least a dozen different Olympic sports and made a similar case. So call this post an exercise – writer’s practice, if you will.

Because this is what writers do: when we look around us, we’re constantly seeing plots, analogies, character studies, ironies, dramatic struggles, epic tales. We can’t help ourselves. Everything in the world is about writing. About the pursuit of story.

But those writers who successfully challenge themselves to leave a legacy of published work are as dedicated as elite athletes – and as rare. Do I have it in me? Do you?

No matter. Even if we don’t medal, the exercise is good for us. Keep writing!

My Christmas list

santas-list

Silk’s Post #64 – There are only nine more sleeps until I wake up on Christmas morning and find out what Santa has brought me. I’ve been so good all year – well, mostly good, most of the time – I hope he brings me the gifts I’ve been wishing for.

Wishing really hard.

Just on the off-chance that Santa might not be totally tuned-in to the needs of a struggling writer, I thought maybe I should, you know, give him a few little hints. Can’t hurt, right? Especially because the things I’m dreaming of aren’t the ordinary kitchen gadgets, or sweaters. No jewels, please. Don’t even bother with electronic gizmos. In fact, what I want for Christmas isn’t really ‘stuff’ at all.

So here’s my list. Santa has a week to wrap my presents up and get them in that bag of his, and I sure hope he hasn’t run out of any of these yet …

Dear Santa,

1. First of all, I really, really, really want some more time. In fact, if you happen to have seen me be slightly bad at that party (yeah, I know, you see me when I’m sleeping and know when I’m awake, but the song didn’t really say anything about parties) … well, anyway, if you caught my act and, in your wisdom, should decide I only deserve one present this year, please make it this one. I’ll take it any way you deliver it … 28 hour days would work for me. Or an extra month a year would be great (if so, could you make it a summer month?). But if you’re really feeling generous, my first choice would be 8-day weeks. And I promise, Santa, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, that I will spend every single extra minute you give me next year on writing.

2. I’m a little embarrassed to say this, Santa, but I really do need some extra discipline and concentration. Really, it’s the perfect Christmas gift for a writer like me. I almost put it at the top of my list, but then what good is discipline and concentration if you don’t have enough time? If you could just give me a little more of both time and discipline, I’d be damn (oops) darn near unstoppable. And I’m not greedy – I know a lot of writers are probably asking for the same thing – but I hope you have enough to go around. Um … if you wanted to throw in a bonus present (okay, maybe I’m just a little bit greedy), I’d be thrilled with an extra dollop of resolve.

3. Now, I know I’m lucky to have both a left brain and a right brain, and don’t think I’m not grateful. But maybe this Christmas you could bring me an upgrade to my mental operating system so all my brain parts will work in coordination with each other. You know, get my imagination functioning when I need it … keep my curiosity from wandering off into Wikipedialand … keep my internal editor under control … activate my organizational mind when it’s time to plot. Surely someone up there in the workshop has been busy getting the bugs out of writers’ brain software? Well I’d really love to have the latest and greatest version.

4. I’m not the kind of woman who likes to wrap herself in mink, but I do wish I had something else to wrap myself in … namely, a thicker skin. I mean, I can roll with the punches – and my dear 5writers friends can throw them sometimes, believe me – but with all this extra time and discipline I hope you’re bringing me, I’m absolutely sure I’ll have a third-draft manuscript ready for market before you know it. And you can guess what comes next. The queries. And the rejection slips. So, just thinking ahead here, I would really love you to bring me a little extra padding. Not rhino hide – I mean, I still have to maintain some sensitivity, right? And definitely nothing warty. But just a little bit thicker skin would be lovely, thanks.

5. Santa, if you’re still reading this, I’m gonna go for broke here and ask for one more gift. I know that genies and magic fairies and the like usually draw the line at three wishes … but hey, you’re Santa Claus! The greatest and jolliest old elf of all, right? And the most generous. Also quite handsome. So, uh, here it is … I wish you would bring me some courage. Now, if you’re watching me all the time like they say – checking out whether I’ve been bad or good, etc. – you know I’m no shrinking violet. I try to stand up for myself and for what’s right. Some people have actually called me ‘assertive’. Cute. I know I already have the courage to succeed, I have a decent track record on that.

What I need now is the courage to fail. Success is child’s play compared to failure. And people my age (that is to say, the age when we start thinking of ourselves as ‘old enough to know better’) seem to think that failure is for kids. We like our comfort levels and our status quos, see? Maybe we swallow down our hunger – our passion – just a little bit. And maybe we … well, we pull our punches sometimes. Pretend this second-career writing thing is really just a hobby. Who wants to step into the heavy traffic of brutal competition when you don’t have to? You could get killed out there!

So that’s what I need the courage for. Courage to fail, and not care. To keep stoking my own fire anyway.

So that’s it, Santa! I know I’ve given you a bit of heavy lifting here, but I hope you’ll agree I’ve earned it. Okay, what I haven’t earned yet I’ll pay you back in future good behaviour. With interest.

Thanks Santa, you’re my hero.

Love, Silk

PS – Just to make it a little easier, you don’t need to wrap all this stuff.

Hell is multitasking

iStock licensed image

iStock licensed image

Silk’s Post #56 – As you may have already surmised from other 5writers’ posts last week, our October meeting to plan a new collaborative project took us in an unexpected direction. Oh, we had lots of good ideas … some great book concepts that I hope do get written. But as we kicked them around the room and imagined the logistics of how we’d actually, specifically, functionally write a book together, it turned out that the best idea of all was not to. At least not right now.

Dodged a bullet, I’d say.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my handful of writer friends. We’re probably as close as any writers’ group anywhere. And even though we have much in common, I think one of our great strengths is that we’re all so different. It keeps us from becoming an echo chamber. But it also means that a writing collaboration might well turn out a Frankenbook, or possibly  occasion a mass murder.

The good news is that instead of nailing our collaboration project, we hit a different bull’s eye altogether – one that better suits our collective and individual needs right now. And what we all really need is simple enough: get the projects we’ve already started finished and polished, get them out into the marketplace, and start new projects. Duh!

So we’re all going to start the clock again on 5 new books after the New Year. But instead of holing up in our writer’s nests and crashing them out in secret, then submitting the first drafts for critique, we’re going to marshall our collective resources to overcome the pantser’s worst nightmare: the outline stage. Yes, we’re going to critique outlines, for the love of Mike. Probably as weird an idea as collaborating on a novel, but – like many emerging writers – we all find plot and structure to be among our biggest challenges.

Now, all of us have always sketched out our stories in some manner, and Paula had a good experience with her first outlined novel last year. But at heart, we’re all more like NOPs than OPs. For myself, outlining has always felt too mechanical, like training wheels. I want to get to the fun part – the words. However, I’m now acutely aware that a wonky structure is hard work to fix once a book is all written, no matter how good the concept or the characters or the prose.

Life is for learning. So this time we’re going to try building the bones of five great stories before we put flesh on them.

The objectives: No blind alleys or dead ends. No forgotten characters left up in the attic, never to reappear. Less sag to the middles. Stronger character arcs. Fewer “huh?” moments. More satisfying endings. Above all, fewer rewrites. And – who knows? – having good road maps may actually free our creativity, since we’ll hopefully avoid the constant angst of getting lost too often in a bad neighbourhood.

There’s only one problem with this plan: it means that over the next few months I will be multitasking three different books at different stages. It’s going to be like doing a triple mountain climb on three different continents.

First I have my 5writers challenge book to finish, a mystery-suspense, working title Catch and Release, starring my feisty protagonist, Sunny Laine, versus a very creepy antagonist. Yeah, I know. The first draft was supposed to be complete last February, ready for the critique in June. Well, it wasn’t. Too much procrastinating and writer’s block last winter, and too much travel this past summer. I’m slogging my way through the dreaded middle now. Getting to “the end” is my first priority.

Second, I have to come up with a new story concept and draft outline for our next writers’ retreat in February. I already have a few concepts in my file to mull over, but that’s the easy part – the part that puts a smile on my face. The outline will be the root-canal part – the part that makes me scream for mercy. I guess the good news is that if I can’t make the concept work in outline form, I will have spared myself the future pain of writing a whole book that doesn’t hang together.

Finally, I have my first novel, Saltspring Bridge, to rewrite. It’s now been idling on my drive for a year, and my file drawer still hosts a two-inch-thick folder of month-by-month critiques to review, weep over, heed and learn from. This is the book that was in my head for 15 years before I wrote the first word. I rewrote the first 30 pages 10 times during the three years I was sniffing around the writing life … going to writers conferences and wondering whether I was really a writer, or just someone who liked the idea of being a writer. It’s the book I took the plunge with, and it’s totally a pantser effort. It’s flawed as hell, and maybe in the end is nothing more than a practice book. But it’s my first baby and I can’t abandon it. Gotta finish it, which will require a serious rewrite.

In my long first career in design and advertising, I did nothing but multitask, and I got pretty good at it. I was somewhat famous among my staff as the Queen of Spinning Plates (birthday and Christmas presents at work often picked up this theme in myriad amusing ways). I must admit I’m feeling a bit out of practice, but I seem to recall it required massive amounts of energy, a rapier-like memory, a high tolerance for tedium, a keen sense of timing, an unnaturally thick skin, and eyes in the back of my head.

Hellish, in other words.

iStock licensed image

iStock licensed image

Each of my book projects is like a greedy, squawking fledgling in the nest, craning its scrawny next past its siblings with mouth open wide to get the first worm. “Feed me!” they all cry at the same time. Feed me your time, your ideas, your talent, your life – just gimme everything you’ve got. And now! Feed me first. Me, me, me. Feed me or I’ll die.

Alright, already! Having been, as always, inspired and energized by our 5writers meeting – and the prospect of starting something new and exciting – I will muster my multitasking skills and start digging up worms.

With luck, and not too many diversions, I will keep all three projects alive and healthy and growing until they’re strong enough to fly.

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.”

One endless year wiser

desk-insetSilk’s Post #51 — One year ago today, as the DW (designated writer) of our critique group’s first post, I clicked “publish” and 5writers5novels5months launched itself into the crowded blogosphere.

“Let Us Tell You a Story …” introduced our crazy, self-imposed challenge of each writing a novel in five months, and our even crazier hope of getting at least one of them sold within a year.

It’s now 365 days and 245 posts later, a good time to reflect on our journey. What have we accomplished? What have we learned? And what are we going to do next?

5writers-9-5-13

Accomplishment #1 – happy anniversary to us

First and foremost, we’re still together. Through all our individual personal changes, challenges, triumphs and frustrations this year, the 5writers are (in today’s parlance) still committed to a deep and meaningful relationship with each other. We held an anniversary meeting on September 5, 2013 to celebrate, re-charge our batteries, and plan a new group literary venture for 2014.

Can’t tell you more now. Very hush hush. But watch this space for details of our next ridiculously idealistic and ambitious scheme in the new year.

The writing life is no place for realists. Much too hazardous to their sanity.

Accomplishment #2 – OMG, we’re actually blogging

A couple of our 5 had a bit of blogging experience. I wasn’t one of them. This whole blogging venture was – let’s call a spade a spade – a total crapshoot. Could we organize 5 different writers in 5 different places with 5 different lives to create a blog with any kind of continuity, and somehow sustain their efforts week after week? As 5 of the millions of unpublished writers out there, did we really have enough to say that people might be interested in? Could we attract any followers? Could we keep them?

As it turns out, we could. Okay, we’re not a trending phenom, but a few hundred of our valued readers keep sticking with us, and we promise to keep working hard to make it worth your while.

So, our sincere thanks to you. You keep us going, and hopefully we help you do the same.

Accomplishment #3 – over 323,064 words and counting

If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that only 2 of the 5 finished their first drafts by the designated target date of February 5, 2013 (Joe and Paula). By the time the 5writers got together for our big Whistler critique fest in June, Karalee had finished her first draft, and Helga and I submitted partial manuscripts. As a group, we got over 300,000 words on paper, and critiqued every one of them.

And now, of course, we’re changing probably 150,000 of them, and adding another 300,000.

Ugh. Math. A writer’s least favourite subject.

My big, fat, life lesson

Personally, I’ve learned as much about myself in the past year as I’ve learned about writing. And that’s a lot.

Though I’ve been writing pretty well all my life, I came to fiction late and with great trepidation. I thought I had my eyes wide open by realizing at the outset that it would be a steep learning curve. I knew I knew how to write, but I didn’t know if I knew how to tell a story.

I not only underestimated the expected storytelling learning curve, but I was blindsided by all sorts of other learning curves I hadn’t anticipated. Like the extra determination it takes to start a whole new career when you’re 60. Not a hobby, where success is measured purely in terms of personal satisfaction, but a career, where success is also measured by satisfying an audience.

Let’s face it, most writers will never be published. There. I’ve said it. But if you’re writing to be read, then publication is the goal. And for me, the reality of what that really means finally sank in this year. It means:

  1. I have to actually finish the first draft.
  2. I have to then figure out what’s wrong with it (there will be lots), and polish it to a level that outshines the gazillion other unpublished manuscripts out there as I compete for the attention of an agent, editor and publisher.
  3. I have to go through the torturous snakes-and-ladders process of finding and selling to the abovementioned gatekeepers, which also means …
  4. I have to have another book, or more, in the works immediately.
  5. I have to repeat ad infinitum to feed either the slush pile or the bookshelf, depending on my degree of success.

Okay, we all know this stuff. We’ve read it. It’s been hammered into us by experts at conferences. We’ve discussed it ad nauseum. But internalizing the reality of this commitment – making it part of one’s life mission, because nothing else will really suffice – is another thing altogether. I had a long, long list of things I was eager to do when I retired from my “real” career. This year I had to realistically face whether writing was to be one of many pleasant pastimes, or would become another “real” career.

Everyone who writes has heard the famous writer-at-a-cocktail-party story, broadly ascribed to a lecture given by Canadian lit queen Margaret Atwood:

A brain surgeon meets a writer at a cocktail party.

“So you write?” says the brain surgeon. “Isn’t that interesting. I’ve always wanted to write. When I retire and have the time I’m going to be a writer.” 

“What a coincidence,” says the writer, “because when I retire I’m going to be a brain surgeon.”

I’ve been harbouring the secret suspicion that I’m really just a naive “brain surgeon” who thinks writing is easier than brain surgery – something to keep me amused and purposeful in my retirement. This year’s 5writers challenge has forced me to come to grips with my ambitions. What kind of writer am I – really?

My decision: I’m still teetering. My heart says, “career”. My head asks, “do you really want to work as hard as you did during the 40 years you had your nose to the grindstone?” Because that’s what it will take to become a writer who gets published, gets read, achieves commercial success.

Like the majority of that huge community of unpublished writers out there, I haven’t really committed yet to writing being my life’s absolute, number one, top priority. But, like many of them, I thought I had already made that commitment. This year taught me that I have not.

And that, ironically, is real progress.

I’m acutely aware that I’m part of a generation that wants it all – a ridiculous impossibility. Time is a cruel taskmaster. To do something really well, you have to feed your dream with your blood, sweat, tears … and time. You have to give up other things.

I am a writer. I will write for the rest of my life. Because, as Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”

But the question remains: what kind of writer will I be? My “5writers year” has been endless. That is to say, I’ve not yet typed “the end” in the story I began on September 5, 2012. When I do, I can make a new beginning.

Hopefully by then I’ll be wiser about what kind of writer I am.

 

 

 

Balancing writing and babies

Karalee’s Post #36 — No, I’m not a grandmother (I’m definitely not old enough, or should I say feel old enough). What is happening though, is my daughter and her boyfriend are nesting. They bought their first apartment two months ago and last Saturday they’ve brought home an eight week old puppy, Bruno the Airedale.

BrunoYoung people are, well, young. Full of energy and sometimes not so practical. For instance, my daughter works in the landscape business and her boyfriend is in construction. Full-time work, plus they have their own company and work an extra three to four hours after their regular job. Plus weekends. It is awesome to see young people work so hard, but a puppy?

Practical they aren’t. They have no time to look after a puppy. And, it’s the busiest season for both of them. Why didn’t they get a dog in the winter? I don’t know. That would be more practical.

But when I think about it, I was running a full-time physiotherapy practice when I had my first, then second and finally third child. I had no family in town to help child mind, and really didn’t have ‘time’ either.

We make time. Prioritize.

So, I’m the fall out puppy-sitter. I don’t really mind except that my two dogs’ noses are severely twisted and I’m on a deadline of reading and critiquing. What about the house and garden, and my son’s graduation in two weeks and all the grandparents here too?

Timing is everything. In real life, and in fiction writing.

This week (and I’m sure the next couple of months will too) reminds me of my story I sent to my fellow 5Writers for them to critique, and how it took persistence and super attention to details to get my ducks to line up for the climax.

In comparison taking care of Bruno is easy. I’ve already figured him out: run him around for 45 minutes and then I can get 1.5 hours work done. Repeat. Repeat.

Bruno

Bruno

If only raising children and writing novels were as easy.

Happy critiquing.

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

Thoughts about POV

Karalee’s Post #34

I was walking my dogs on Jericho Beach in Vancouver last weekend and a yellow kayak was pulled up onto the rocks and sand, its owner somewhere on land.

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At first it almost blended in with the scenery.

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kayak2

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Then it was a definite part of the scenery.

kayak4

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And closer up, it became a major part of the scenery.

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kayak5

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Even closer, it is the scenery.

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Of course this made me think about writing and what we have our characters actually focus on in the scenes we write.

In general, the less intense the scene is the more of the surrounding world (as opposed to the close-up view) our character can be aware of. That said, if a sniper is on a building a block away, a long-shot view can be very intense indeed.

No matter the focal point, the world is seen through the eyes of the point-of-view-character. I’m blessed with the ability to envision that perspective with vivid imagery in my head. My tendency is to be too precise, too focused, and not bring in the outside world enough to capture the sounds and smells and all the other senses of where my character is.

For some reason this walk on the beach drew my attention to how the world really does look different at a distance versus closer up and all the in-between stages. Now, take two characters in your book on the same walk and they would each see their world differently. To me that is the essence of developing our characters; how they view their world depends not only on their physical characteristics, but also through their past experiences and how they have dealt with them.

Of course I already knew this, but don’t we all have those “aha” moments when the obvious becomes, well, obvious? It’s fun too, to look at the world and know that you know how to describe it from various points-of-view. Every one of them will be right, but only one will be the right one  for the scene we’re writing.

Now that is where the skill of a writer lies.

I read a blog http://www.livewritethrive.com and the author addresses the topic of Shoot Your Novel. It’s a good read. Topics the author includes are :

Sometimes just taking a walk with no expectations (other than to enjoy the beautiful sunshine and watch my dogs have fun) allows the mind to wander and notice things a bit differently. Now I can use that yellow kayak in my mind’s eye as a vivid reminder of who is focusing on what in my writing. Then, as a more experienced writer, I will ask myself if that point-of-view is the right one for the scene or is there a better one?

Happy writing.

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.