Friday, March 20, 2020

Writing in Uncertain Times--A Few Thoughts on the Gift of a Writing Practice Right Now

I looked back in my journal this morning and was struck again at how fast everything has happened.  Like most of you, I've been trying to adapt to a new normal, trying to manage my concern about family and friends, trying to get sleep and outdoor time and some modicum of peace amidst the prevailing anxiety. 

A long-time student wrote me today. She's working on her second book; her first came out last year.  But she's been completely stalled these past weeks, no writing possible. She asked for any thoughts or tips I could share on keeping the writing going during these uncertain times. 

I wanted to tell her, It's the same for me.  I had a call with my agent last Friday to talk about future strategies, and I almost cancelled because it felt so irrelevant.  Then my wonderful writing group met this Wednesday for two hours to workshop 100 pages of my new novel, and again, I had the thought of begging off, which I never do.  I didn't.  I enjoyed both touch-in's, the agent advice (she's so smart!) and the writing group (they are too!), and I also appreciated the real distraction--the opening back to my real life, in a way.

It's hard to make room for these openings, though.  I don't know how you're handling the crisis, personally, but I've had to declare a Facebook, Instagram, and news fast for myself.  Even five minutes online and I'm swamped by despair.  Yesterday, I spent three hours carefully restocking fresh fruit and vegetables--the process of shopping is so exhausting, although our small community is lucky to still have that option, where some are completely without.  I came home, fell into a nap, then only wanted to watch romcom before bedtime.    

But you know all this.  You've been figuring it out for yourself:  how to stay safe, well, and keep your family the same.

I've worked as an editor and coach for decades with quite a few writers who are working on stories of trauma--from war to abuse to murder.  I am not a psychotherapist, but I do understand the creative process.  You can't both live trauma and write about it.  

Here's what I mean:  when we are living through trauma, all our creative resources are tied up in our survival.  Only with some distance can the writing flow again.

But you can journal--and journaling is often an incredible healer, a doorway back to the "real" writing.  

This week, I came across a wonderful three question exercise from blogger Lauren Hubele, a homeopath from Texas.    I get her weekly blog, which always has good thoughts and other help for healthy living.  She and her adult child were talking about the crisis and they discussed three questions.  I took them into my journaling that morning with my spouse, and we discussed afterward.  I tell you, they made a huge difference in how I felt about life and future.  I even found myself back in my writing, tiptoeing into my real life again, after.

The questions:

1. What are the things that really scare you right now? 
2. In what areas are you feeling powerless? 
3. What action or actions can you take to feel empowered? 

I wrote for a good half hour, coming up with things that surprised me.  Narrowing down the scariest fears, for me personally, helped me distance from them emotionally.  David Hanscom, back surgeon and author of Back in Control, has a similar approach with his patients:  to write out what you're most angry about, sparing nothing, then tear up the page and throw it away.  That's worked for me too.   The technique is the same:  get the scary, rage-filled, panicky feelings onto the page, to give them distance and let them release.  

Before this, the regular writing couldn't happen.  At least not for me.

Some of my writing friends aren't this way.  Their writing is their prime sanity and distraction in these times.  One colleague posted an impromptu Nanowrimo-style invite on his Facebook feed:  Who wants to use this month to fast draft a book?  He got 92 responses.  I could see this working well--the urgency gets translated into production.  But for me, I need a few steps before this can happen.  We're all different.

My best wishes for you and your family and loved ones during this time.  Stay safe and well.  Try the journaling ideas above--use what little creativity you feel you have to calm the spirit and bring back some hope.  As a sign on the nearby gym said, We can beat this!

PS  My scheduled writing retreat in Santa Fe is going virtual (March 30-April 3) and I'm getting excited about helping writers distract themselves and make progress on their books via our Zoom meetings and my feedback.  If you're interested in joining us last minute, please do.  I'm offering more benefits in this week than I do in my usual week-long retreats, a lot more one-to-one coaching too.  Link is in the sidebar to the right.

Interview Your Characters: Character Lists Coax Them Out of Hiding

In one of my favorite, easy-read, writing-craft books, Write Away, mystery author Elizabeth George talks about her writing process as she begins a new book.  She first writes detailed ideas about the plot.  She also researches the setting, often with trips to the location she's thinking of using.  And she always puts together a character list.


I didn't know what she meant by character list, but I soon found out they consist of many pages of stream-of-consciousness ideas about each main player in her book.  If you read Write Away (highly recommend), you'll see an example from her novel, In the Presence of the Enemy.  She shows the entire character list for one of her main characters, Eve Bowen.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Are We There Yet? How to Tell When Your Book Is Really Done

Each book I write, I struggle with this question.  And I'm not alone.  Even with many publications behind me, it's incredibly difficult to tell when a book is really done.  

There is an end point.  Truly.  Part subjective, part objective. But it can be confusing or depressing en route to that place.  One of my students recently questioned whether her book could ever be ready. "Some ideas may not be worth the effort or the money," she told me.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Benefits of a Writing Group or Writing Partner--How They Can Improve Your Writing (and What to Watch Out For)

Some writers create in a vacuum.  But most artistic types need human contact, if only for reality checks.  Writing groups and writing partners have been a foundation for my creative life for decades.  If you don't belong to such a collaboration, consider it!  It's nearly impossible to make serious headway as a writer without constructive feedback.

This morning, I met with one group of collaborators--all published, all dedicated in our different genres.  We meet by conference call once a month and two of the four writers workshop their essays or chapters.  The writer stays in the "writing box" during the call, taking notes and keeping silent, while the three others share feedback on the piece, read before the meeting.  I always come away with much to ponder, excellent ideas for improvement, and vast encouragement.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Reading Your Writing Aloud--How It Gives You the Necessary Distance for Revision

Revising a book requires distance.  Ideally, the writer has to detach enough from the emotional content of the writing, or the love of her characters, to "hear" the story as a reader would.  

Revising without this distance usually means we repeat ourselves.  We run the same track over and over.  

Maybe words get tweaked.  But  the overall sense of the story doesn't change that much.

I needed to revise a new chapter to send my writing partner this week.  I tweaked words, I adjusted sentences, but I could tell I was running that familiar track of what I already knew.  Something wasn't singing yet.  I also (sheepishly) knew there were scenes not holding their weight, which I kept because I liked them.  My chapter, after all, right?

Friday, February 21, 2020

Staying Authentic with Your Intentions as a Writer--Not Always Easy?

I had a very lucky and much too fast beginning as a published author.  My first book, now long out of print, was a huge success--the press's best seller and winner of a prestigious award.  I was in my twenties, busy with a new  relationship and a new business, and fairly ignorant about what was happening.  It was just a fast train, I was on it, and I didn't know the writing life could be any different.  That first book landed me an agent who helped me with several others.  Out of it came a nationally syndicated column and good income for a number of years.

Some writers fall into success.  That's not to say we don't work hard, but the ride we're on might not align completely with our deepest intentions.  I was too young, truthfully, to care back then.  

Friday, February 14, 2020

Really Good Creative Writing Prompts--for Exercising Your Inner Author

This week I've been teaching on retreat at MISA West, Tanque Verde Ranch, in the beautiful Rincon Mountains outside Tucson. Along with the workshops and coaching each day, I always offer creativity-stretching sessions before dinner. A perennial favorite at these retreats is freewriting hour.  

We gather before dinner to write from selected prompts.  Each gets ten minutes, and writers are encouraged to let the flow take them wherever it will.  Sometimes, the best ideas come from freewrites.  Even whole books can be born from a single freewrite.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Setting Writing Goals for the New Year: Three Different Approaches

I'm a goal setter by nature, so I enjoy the chance each new year to look at what I've accomplished in the past twelve months and think about where I'd like to be with my writing in the next twelve.  I've learned not to be too rigid with my writing goals: I don't know what I don't know, after all, and I may need to correct my direction if new ideas or information arrives midcourse.  

First thing in January is traditional for review and goal setting, but it usually takes me until February to really get a sense of what I want for the year.

This year I have a book with an agent, trying to find its home; another that's going to be re-released in a second edition; and a third in revision.  I sat down this week and envisioned what I wanted from each this year. 

Friday, January 31, 2020

Too Slow? Too Fast? How Are You Communicating? (And How to Tell When Your Pacing Is Off)

Storytelling is all about communication, right? You, the writer, have something to say. Ideally, you present it in a way that's authentic to you but also communicates to your readers exactly the meaning you're after. 

If you "talk" your story too fast, readers can miss the point.  Just like in real conversation, they may start to get confused or irritated, or disconnect entirely.

If you "talk" too slow, same problem.  They'll skip sections.  Ever do this yourself, when reading?  You know what I mean.

So skilled writers (communicators on the page) find a "pace" that fits their stories.  When the scene is tense, the pace speeds up.  When we're absorbing meaning, it might slow down.

Friday, January 24, 2020

How to Help Your Manuscript Submission Stand Out--Being Part of a "Discourse Community"

I often refer clients and students to Jane Friedman, clearly one of the most savvy publishing gurus out there today.  Friedman is the former publisher of Writer's Digest magazine, and author of The Business of Being a Writer, a primer on publishing that every hopeful author needs to read.