Hi, I’m back.

siwc2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost momentum.

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

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

Of course there is.

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

Start with this: Where the hell am I?

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

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

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

Next: Face forward.

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

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

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

Get some writing friends.

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

Study craft.

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

Read.

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

Launch your comeback as a scheduled event.

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

Make use of the momentum.

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

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

 

 

Members of the Clan

stanley-park

Vancouver’s Stanley Park

Helga’s Post # 89:  We Vancouverites complain a lot about the weather, mostly to people who don’t live here. The truth is, we want to keep it a secret that Vancouver has some of the most awesome summers anywhere. Let me count the ways:

Two or three months of almost uninterrupted blue skies, balmy temperature hovering around 25C, (77F for non-metric readers), no humidity, no mosquitoes, tons of swimming beaches, perfect sailing waters, barbecues by the ocean, and so much, much more. There is nothing better than biking or walking the scenic Seawall or hiking the 27km of forest trails at Stanley Park ringed by the Pacific Ocean.

In other words, when the sun shines on Vancouver, there are few prettier places on earth. (I should add a qualifier: two of the 5 writers live elsewhere; my comments do extend to Salt Spring Island and the Sunshine Coast, both accessible via a scenic ferry ride from Vancouver). To make the most of it, Vancouverites organize festivals, parties and outdoor adventures throughout the season. They are mostly free and sure to delight, no matter what your hobbies and interests are. You are a music or performing arts lover? Head out to the Vancouver Folk Festival, or the International Jazz Festival. If Shakespeare is your thing, catch ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at ‘Bard on the Beach’ (this one isn’t free).

If there is one event that defines summer in Vancouver, it’s the international Celebration of Lights fireworks competition: three nights of the best fireworks displays you’ve ever seen. Lighting up the sky over English Bay in incredible colour compositions, the annual event has become one of the most prestigious fireworks competitions in the world. Afterwards, head to one of the summer night markets, immensely popular with Vancouver’s legions of foodies and visitors alike.

What has this got to do with writing? In case you are wondering: I have not changed my genre to travel writing or joined Tourism British Columbia. It’s just that I do love my adopted city, having emigrated from land-locked Austria to this west coast jewel many years ago. I still recall my first summer here. I almost instantly turned into a ‘beach bum’, spending time every day of the week at Second Beach, making friends and playing volleyball all summer long.

But there is a link to writing too. One of the events I wrote about in my last blog post is the Harmony Arts Festival at the Millennium Park right at the ocean in West Vancouver. Now in its 24th year, the event is a must visit for artists and art lovers of all stripes and types.

13-DWV-Harmony-SJP_0133-e1400799786443-1024x360Including writers.

After a quick browse through the dozens of stalls offering paintings and innovative handmade jewelry, I made a beeline to the large open-air tent announcing the site of the North Shore Writers Association. About fifty or more people were seated inside, listening intently to authors and workshop leaders. Here, finally, I was face to face with so many other writers in my community as well as local authors.

A special moment.

I did not sit down, as all chairs were taken, but more so because I wanted the chance to talk to the dozen or more authors seated at tables on the periphery, promoting and selling their books. They were eager to talk to me in hushed tones, so as not to disrupt the speakers. This was a golden opportunity to learn about their different publishing experiences.

As you may guess, most were self-published. I had heard only one or two names before, let alone seen title pages of their books. But they had their books out on the table, neatly stacked, displaying decent, attractive covers. They handed out the usual trinkets; bookmarks mostly, and occasionally pretty fridge magnets once they sensed your interest in their books. I chatted at length with most of them. A sociable bunch, eager to tell me about their writing career, their success, and yes, frustrations. As I made my rounds, I picked up some common themes:

Uphill battle (their words), little or no money made yet (and even having spent some of their own to get ‘published’). But all seemed optimistic that their breakthrough would come sooner or later. Their love for the craft came through loud and clear. Would they give up writing even in the face of no financial (or negative) rewards? Of course not! The idea seemed preposterous. I went on to the next issue important to me: What was their support system?

Drum roll…

Most of them belong to a writers’ group! That’s what keeps them going when things get a little tough; when motivation is on the wane; when friends ask them how their ‘hobby’ is going, and perhaps it’s time for a change; when they may not be as fit as some of their friends who go to the gym every day.

It defines them as writers. As members of a clan.

Screenshot2014-03-21at95613AMThere was one traditionally published author present, Cea Sunrise Person, whose bestselling memoir, North of Normal, was released three months ago by HarperCollins – a huge success. Her hardcover book shows her as a child, growing up in the north of British Columbia. Daughter of an unwed 16-year old hippie mom, this is a heart-wrenching story of the eccentric free-spirited life of the sixties and how she survived it. I interviewed her about her efforts of getting published. It took her several years from when she first submitted her manuscript until she found an agent. This agent, based in New York, did nothing much to sell her book, so after a considerable time (I forgot how long, it may have been years), she switched to another, also New York based agent. This one managed to sell her book to HarperCollins in no time at all. At this point she has about 5,000 hardcover copies in print, as well paperback and a Kindle edition. Judging from reviews, she will have many more sold in no time. CPT119184961_high

So, yes, she said, it seemed to take forever to get published. After the first agent, she doubted herself, almost giving up. As it turned out, the book was simply too good.

I love a writer’s success story, even if it takes time to get there. And talking to Cea and the other authors, I felt a true kinship. I was proud to be part of the clan. And happy to have my writers’ group.

A delicate balance

Helga’s Post #49 – I’m the last of the 5writers to weigh in this week to share our achievements and challenges since we gave birth to our blog a year ago.

By now you’ve read how this last year has challenged, changed and rewarded four of us, namely Silk, Paula, Karalee and Joe. All have big achievements under their belt with hopes and big potential to see their work published. All have become even closer friends during that last year, giving generously of their time to help each other.

Now it’s my turn to bare my writer’s soul and share with you some personal anecdotes.

Those of you who have read my posts know that getting personal isn’t easy for me. It’s something I avoid. Of the 5writers, I think I’m the most private when it comes to sharing personal detail on the blog. Ditto for social media. Not because I’m introverted or unsociable (people who know me probably think the opposite), but because I don’t assume anyone is interested in my mundane life. I’m not a celebrity (‘not yet’, I would add when I’m feeling optimistic), but a perfectly average person. A writer struggling to get a good story out of me. So I feel reluctant to waste anyone’s time reading about ‘me’.

Fortunately we’re not all the same, or it would be a boring blog-world. I can truly appreciate anyone who has the courage to share their personal life with potentially billions of people out there in cyberspace. It’s just not my forte. But I will try to overcome my trepidation for today’s post.

So, yes, this past year has had its ups and downs. Writing-wise, on a scale of one to ten, I would rate it between a 5 and 7. As you know (see Paula’s posts), I didn’t finish my manuscript. I wrote somewhere between a third and a half of a novel. A work in progress. That’s why I gave myself the 5 on the scale, not more. But here’s the rub: Without trying to sound immodest, I chose to write a ‘big concept’ novel. A topic that requires so much research that I wondered, once I committed to it, if I would ever be able to transform all that into a story. To create a work of fiction that has a potentially wide readership. Why choose such a challenging topic? Here comes my confession:

Because for me it’s ‘all or nothing’. Go big or don’t go at all. Write a compelling story or none. Choose a topic that inspires, informs, angers, amuses, and entertains. Something with substance.

Of course that’s easier said than done. As I found out very quickly, a big story concept has huge hurdles to overcome, especially in terms of story structure. Such as, what is more important: the big concept or the main characters? Readers are generally more interested in what the characters are up to, rather than details of the ‘big concept’. So how to weave the two together without one overshadowing the other? How to actually create synergy between the big concept and the characters? A challenge that I had to face from the very start.

Add to that my aversion to detailed outlining. So I had my research about DNA, chromosomes and telomeres, all neatly filed away in StoryMill. I had filed articles upon articles about Chinese history and the struggle for power following Mao’s death. Ditto with Indian culture. Ditto with the multinational pharmaceutical industry.

I had decided on two main characters and had a pretty good idea what makes them tick. But – here comes the big confession, and I can see a collective rolling of eyes – as I continued drafting chapter after chapter – I still hadn’t made up my mind who the villain was going to be. I had three options in mind but couldn’t decide which would be the best. I figured it would organically reveal itself as the story took shape.

And so it was that by our collective 5 months deadline, February 5 this year, I submitted my partial manuscript, all of 16 chapters, to our group for review and critiquing. I left our retreat in Whistler village with the group’s gifts of wonderful, honest feedback, and many, many valuable suggestions and comments. Things that had totally escaped my attention. Character flaws too. Relationship problems. All manner of things.

I let it all settle, like steeping a good cup of tea. Put the whole thing away for at least a month. Then started ‘thinking’ about my plot before actually sitting down to pick up writing again. That meant planning and plotting during some sleepless nights, or while waiting in line at the supermarket, or while in the shower. That too is part of a writer’s process for getting a story written.

The month of August didn’t bring any progress at all. Not in the writing department, though much on a personal level. My husband and I took a magical journey to Northern Europe and Russia. Plus we spent ten days at the city of my roots, Vienna. That city always creates some serious yin and yang emotions for me. Love for the magnificent city, mixed with guilt for leaving my parents for another continent as a young woman. Love for Vienna’s unique culture and charm, which brings the occasional moment of melancholy for immigrating to the ‘new world’. Luckily, these moments are short-lived.IMG_1951

And now, September is well on its way, which also means the season for writing. I know, there shouldn’t be a ‘season’ but a continuous process of writing. But for me personally, writing at this stage of my life is second to living. Weeks and days are getting more precious as time marches on, and it means balancing and prioritizing.

Time management: that’s one area where I really want to improve. Somehow it was much easier during my working life because there was always a deadline. Now I only have one. That’s to finish my manuscript. Maybe I am taking a huge risk for declaring this: I am aiming to have it finished at the end of this year.

There. It’s out in cyberspace now.

IMG_2143

Evening on The Baltic Sea