I am making a transition in my writing life. The reason for this is the complete derailment I experienced in the earlier part of this year. I know that isn’t much of an explanation, but this short version is free of negativity and the temptation to succumb to it. I could go on and on telling you what went wrong and how I allowed it to happen, but I do not want to contaminate anyone’s thought process with my own difficulties. We’re writers; we’ll manufacture plenty of woes on our own without someone spoon feeding suggestions to us.
The good news for me is that my writing passion is starting to return. The stories are creeping back into my head like deer tentatively stepping from the security of the forest into the wide-open unknown of the meadow. It was my own fault they were driven away in the first place, and I must and am taking responsibility for this.
For a short time I did nothing positive toward my writing life. The only connection I maintained to writing was reading. I hid out in books, believing what I did was helpful, but I was living in denial. One piece of writing advice that actually saved me was to do something different altogether. I was struggling anyhow, so why force something that wasn’t coming to me naturally? Instead, I walked.
My husband and I began hiking familiar trails close to home. I welcomed the exercise and fresh air like old friends. We kept at it, and now we look forward to seeking new places to walk. I took pictures with my cellphone during our hikes, playing at the most amateur form of photography. The simple act of creativity spurred my mind. I began to mentally describe what I saw and fashioned one or two-line stories.
My efforts probably don’t sound very constructive to the writing life except for the simple fact that they placed my focus squarely back on writing. I felt like an adult who had successfully recaptured the magical thrill of Christmas morning. All the superfluous baggage that people will try to tell you (or you’ll convince yourself of) is part of the writing life simply disappeared.
Again, I’m avoiding detailing exactly what those bad things were for me so that my followers won’t latch on to them. I’m also cautious in supplying instruction on how to overcome them because too many times we grasp a particular piece of advice as a hard and fast solution to our problems. When it doesn’t work, we become more despondent and depressed than we were at the beginning. In short, you must proceed fearlessly on your own to discover and apply what works for you. Fellow writers can cheer you from the sidelines, but they cannot prop you up nor do the work for you.
With a deep sigh of relief and contentment, I am single-mindedly focused on writing. The scales have fallen away from my eyes, the chains from my hands, and I am free to write.
Writing goals are one of the things I hear debated quite often among writers. For some reason, Stephen King is always mentioned in these conversations. Awestruck statements of, “I heard Stephen King writes a thousand words a day” always leave me a little mystified. I think to myself That’s great if it works for Stephen. Lord knows the man has enjoyed some success and maybe that has something to do with his daily writing goals. Maybe not. Because if we’re saying daily word counts are directly related to the number of books published which translates into success, then Stephen King far outstrips Harper Lee. Yet I doubt anyone would consider Harper Lee a failure.
There is a place in King’s book On Writing where he says something like you have to shovel the shit every day, meaning no matter how bad the writing is keep it up until you reach your daily word goal and edit it later. I don’t want to shovel shit. I’d rather mine for gold.
Why would I purposefully layer word after word, line after line of bad writing on top of something good, or worse on top of something else bad, just to say I’ve reached a daily word goal? I wouldn’t find that at all satisfying. Now don’t get me wrong: my work isn’t so perfect the first time around that it doesn’t need edited. It is, however, very close to my vision for a particular story because I took the time to think it through.
The other thing my method does for me is alleviate the pressure I feel when writer’s block stumps me. Again, I don’t feel the need to put anything on the page just to fulfill an arbitrary number. In doing so, I free myself to explore the rabbit trails that usually lead me to the good writing as long as I don’t force it.
So yes, there are days when my best writing amounts to a single, brilliantly written sentence, and there are days when whole chapters are completed. In either case, I count myself as successful because I’m more of a Ray Bradbury kind of writer when it comes to word counts:
A couple years ago, my friend and fellow writer, S of JSMawdsley, talked me into trying NaNoWriMo. She mentioned it at the writer’s group she facilitates at the library where we worked. At the time, I was mainly a short story writer and dabbled in the occasional picture book. As luck would have it, I had an idea for a novel in mind, and NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect way to get it out of my head and on my laptop.
Being new to the world of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t prepare at all. I just started writing on November first and quit on November thirtieth. I had 50,000 words, which satisfied the requirements of NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t have a complete novel. What I did have was a lot of work ahead of me and the conviction that maybe I really hadn’t won.
At this point, S would probably have told me I needed to outline my novel, but the first thing I discovered from writing such a lengthy piece is that I’m a pantser. I plot a little when approaching my writing, but I love to explore the rabbit trails because that is where I discover my best writing. My opinion on pantsing can be read here: Are You A Pantser?
So, did I win NaNoWriMo or did I cheat? I started at about the last one-third of the novel because I had the most information for writing that portion. In short, I learned the valuable lesson of researching before you write especially if it’s for a contest such as NaNoWriMo. You don’t want the added stress of trying to conduct research while keeping up a word goal.
I pressed on throughout the year editing what I had written and creating the rest of the novel as I wanted it to be. I researched more thoroughly and ended up chucking quite a bit of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo. Again, part of that was my fault, but I also wondered if one 50,000-word novel every year is what I wanted. Is that what the creators of NaNoWriMo want?
I suspect and sincerely hope the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep people writing because that’s what I did. Before I knew it, November had rolled around again, and with it NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t finished with my first novel, so why on earth would I abandon it for the added pressure of creating a new novel. Admittedly, I had no new ideas at the time, and I didn’t want the burden of coming up with one. Also, there was no time to research even the slim ideas that passed through my head.
Instead, I cheated, and I cheated grandly! I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and without a single ounce of shame, I re-entered my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Dr. Welles’s story was almost complete, but I needed a little motivation to finish the missing chapters and tie it all together. NaNoWriMo provided this inspiration by keeping me on track with a daily word goal, but it also became a beneficial editing tool. If I edited my daily word goal, I counted it along with any new writing.
What I achieved wasn’t another half-baked novel, but rather a well-written, well-edited novel with which I was extremely pleased. A titch more editing after the fact, and Dr. Welles was ready for the hands of beta readers.
I took a couple years off from NaNoWriMo, but the point of the contest was always close to my heart. I knew I couldn’t devote time to a new novel and make The Secrets of Dr. John Welles all I wanted it to be. Then there is the fact that when story inspiration comes to me, I have to begin which sometimes means starting before NaNoWriMo starts. Yes, there is Camp NaNo, but my heart belongs to the original taking place in November.
When NaNoWriMo rolled around this year, I was already a little over halfway through my current novel. During the month of October, I had to set my writing aside to prepare for my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. When I was ready to restart, good ole NaNoWriMo once again came to the rescue as a means up jumpstarting my writing. Although I didn’t sign up with the official website, I created a spreadsheet to track and tally my daily writing goal. I’m using it to finish the current novel, for which I am prepared research wise, as well as for any writing I do that can be published including my blog posts.
Yes, that’s cheating because it’s not a single new novel of at least 50,000 words. But again, I have to believe the heart and soul purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep writers writing. That is what I am doing.
Last week I read the chapter in Heather Sellers’s book, Page After Page, where she compares the source of one’s great writing to a compost heap. That seemed apropos because there are days when I feel like my writing is… well, you get the point.
Anyhow, if you haven’t read her book, I highly recommend you do. There is a reason I keep returning to it as a source of inspiration unlike any other writing book I’ve ever read. Rather than expound upon those reasons again, simply search my blog for posts where I mentioned Heather Sellers and/or Page After Page. Back to the compost.
According to Mrs. Sellers, our life provides the best source of writing material because we keep it hidden beneath layers of time, and like compost, it ferments to the place where the events become less painful and/or incredibly memorable. It is then that we should till the compost of our existence, digging deep, to dredge a great story. How profound.
But I don’t want to write about the time in third grade when two friends, with whom I thought I shared an amazing friendship, passed notes saying they’d rather not hang with me. I intercepted one such note. Or the time my dad gave my dog away on my birthday and packed me off to my cousins’ house to spend the night while he did so. Or the time my mom accidentally put my guinea pig out to graze right after my dad fertilized the yard. Or the time my first real boyfriend trounced my heart with my former best friend. You get the picture.
Just so you don’t think I’m poor-mouthing my life, or parents, there are great memories, too. One that springs to mind I don’t actually recall, but I’m told I gushed, “I love my daddy; he lets me ride my horsey,” after I received a hobby horse for Christmas. Then there are all the wonderful memories of my mother as Troop Leader during my Girl Scout years, especially when she took us to COSI.
What concerns me as a writer is writing about myself and/or writing myself into a story. Several people who have read different pieces of my work say things like, “Oh, Prudence Mayfield is so you,” (The Secrets of Dr. John Welles) and, per my husband regarding my current WIP, “Yeah, the mother in that story is totally you.” My son also says this about the daughter in the same story. And once, my mother said, “I recognize what happened in this short story as you in high school.”
These comments surprised me because I wasn’t consciously writing myself into my work. I suppose subconsciously, I was dredging through my compost. So much the better if it makes the writing great. But to intentionally write about myself and experiences? I’m not so sure about that. There are some dark, dank, compost-y places in my head and heart that I believe should just stay there.
Another reason why this whole thought process intrigues me is because I have a major complaint against writers who vehemently insist that the story wasn’t about them. Then you read their biography and, just as you suspected, it reflects their life so perfectly, they might as well have used their real name.
Now I know there is a small part of every writer that is written into his or her work even if it’s just his or her preferences regarding food which his or her protagonist just happens to like as well. Even hopes and dreams can reflect who the author is. Writers – quit trying to deny this. So, I’m left with the questions: how much of myself do I intentionally write into my work? And, if asked, do I confess that I wrote a passage so well because I experienced what my character(s) did? Or do I turtle my head into my coat and swear it wasn’t me?
I already believe that I serve my heart upon a platter for dissection, AKA public opinion. All artists feel this way. Rather than becoming caught up in trying to determine how much of me is in the story, just enjoy it, and trust that I have quite a bit of compost from which to grow new tales.
Today’s post falls into the category of Research Road, however, the information I discovered didn’t make it into my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, or more correctly, it was removed. The reason for this underscores my admonition to always check your facts. Whether you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy with factual details familiar to the known world, it’s important to present the particulars accurately.
In an effort to entice potential readers once my novel is published, I have familiarized them with characters and situations through the food I featured in the story. Recipes for these meals can be found in Edible Fiction. Last week, I wrote a post for an apple pie eaten in a scene relaying Dr. Welles’s first trip into the town where he decided to spend his later years. For this particular pie, I chose to use Paula Red apples. They are among my favorite pie apples because they have an old fashioned flavor and become sauce-like when baked. I thought a little history on the heirloom apple would make for an interesting blog post, and that’s when I learned my mistake.
According to several websites devoted to antique apples, Paula Reds were discovered as a seedling in Sparta, Michigan in 1960 by Lewis Arrends. The apple, named for Arrends’s wife Pauline, was a happy accident that appears to have descended from the humble McIntosh. Why is this important you ask? Because the scene in which a Paula Red apple pie is eaten by Dr. Welles took place in 1958, two years before their discovery and ten years before they hit the market. Perhaps my favorite apple wasn’t as vintage as I first believed.
There are those, my mother among them, who will argue that this is a minor detail, one that wouldn’t be discovered by the casual reader. But as I’ve stated before, I’m not a casual reader or writer, and these details are important. How can I expect my readers to have faith in what I say if I don’t conduct thorough research? (Who is in Your Details?)
I know readers are expected to suspend some belief at times and trust their favorite writers, yet I can’t allow that one person who could nail me on the facts to be disappointed any more than I could tell blatant lies. Obsessed with the facts? I think so! In closing, I hope that another writer will benefit from the information presented about Paula Red apples. At the very least, I hope I’ve prompted writers to check their facts.
By the way, if you want a great recipe for an apple pie, check out the post All-American Goodbye.
The creation of art can be a wonderful and dreadful process at the same time. Some of the struggles I’ve encountered with my chosen art form of writing include writer’s block, doubts and fears regarding my abilities, the evil query and rejection letters, comparison, envy, impatience, and the list goes on and on. But every now and then, there are lamps along the tunnel as I travel toward the light at the end. That’s when it’s wonderful.
As an outlet for my frustration, I began to tag along with my sister-in-law when she took photographs. She’s really quite good and a patient teacher as well when I asked her questions on how she approached her shot. One of the ways she explained the process was to hand the camera to me. I declined the opportunity to even hold her camera, which looked far too technical and expensive, but in addition to being a great teacher, my sister-in-law is mildly insistent. There was no way I was getting off the hook.
So, I snapped a few pictures as she taught me what the various dials and buttons on the camera do. She talked me through the procedure, and by allowing me to make mistakes, I learned quite a bit and became addicted to photography.
Here’s where the wonderful part happened. After setting up an account on ViewBug for my photos, joining challenges, and voting on other peoples’ pictures, I earned a free tutorial on landscape photography. Even though I don’t own a camera, I watched the video with the hopes of gaining more knowledge and possibly impressing my sister-in-law.
The lesson on photography will help me hone my skill, but what truly impressed me was how much of what the instructor said could be applied to writing. For starters, new experiences are good for you. Even if you’ve been writing for a while, keep in mind that every time you start a new piece, you’re taking yourself someplace you’ve never been with a different location, characters, style, descriptions, etc. And even if you’re working on a series, you have the power to make something new happen each time. Then there is your unique perspective. You are going to see things differently than anyone else in the world, so write them from the perspective that you alone possess.
As for equipment, writers have the luxury of keeping it simple, and I strongly suggest you do. A well-sharpened pencil and single-subject, college ruled notebook is all you need to create literary brilliance. Know the basics and fundamentals of your technique. Scouting a good location is important for a writer because distractions, even in the home, will keep you from your goal. Timing is important for the same reason: determine when in your day you are the most productive and stick to the schedule. And when it comes to composition, that’s where your personal style will shine through.
So now it’s time to address your process. The instructor on the tutorial called it a mind process and used words every writer knows. He started with subject. Identify what deserves to be written. Don’t forget POV. Take a small bit of advice from a photographer, and don’t be afraid to explore multiple POVs at the same time. What it does for photography will not be lost on writing. The formula for determining exposure translates into plotting, pantsing, or a combination thereof for a writer. Again, don’t be afraid to experiment. Next, decide what you’d like to focus on. Once all of this is determined, work that composition.
When you show your photographs to other people, they don’t know what else is going on around the scene you’ve captured or how you felt when you took it. Writers can combat this issue by providing essential backstory at the appropriate time. But just like a photographer, you don’t have to show it all. Leave a little mystery, a little something to the imagination, and your reader won’t feel led around by the nose. Write about the most interesting parts because that’s where the story is, and you’ll capture a good picture. A mental picture in this case. Remember that the objective is not to capture one big picture of everything all at once, but rather a frame that tells a clear story. You are the director, you choose the content.
Don’t fall in love with the first thing you write. Investigate your characters’ surroundings and discover what else you can do with it or them. Walk through their world. Return many times with breaks in between. Take another look at your subject, and decide what else you can do with it. Then apply your creative style in a way no one else has thought of.
Add vibrant but well-written details and structure, and a sense of order will emerge. You can do this on different levels of your writing whether writing on a grand scale, intimate stories, or the minute particulars. Keep in mind that your ideal and the reality won’t always match, but don’t let this discourage you. Work with what you’re given, seek inspiration, and the great story will come.
As for filters, they apply to the writer during the editing stage. You’ll be able to filter out the bad in your own writing after you’ve set it aside for a couple months and return to it fresh. Beta readers provide some of the best filtering toward your writing goal, seeing things you didn’t, and offering advice from their own perspective.
With a few modifications, the guidelines for taking a great photograph apply to writing with stunning clarity. I mentioned this at my writer’s group and was told by a poet that this is known as the rules of the creatives. They are a set of standards that transcend one artistic form to positively influence another. Hanging with the poets a couple of times a year has already lent valuable insight to my writing. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that my newfound hobby would as well.
There are so many artistic pursuits that crossover to supply inspiration and encouragement. Already I’m viewing the story ingredients in my mind and trying to figure a way to bake them all together so as to produce a perfect word painting. I suggest you do the same.
Writers are an odd lot. We’d be the first to admit it. Writer’s post things like “That moment when you finish a book, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives as though you didn’t just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback.” And because we’re writers, we’re also readers. At least we should be.
We reading/writing types are deeply and emotionally attached to the characters we read about. They become real for us in a way that often defies description. The closest I can come is to say that when I finish a well-written book, I feel as if I’m leaving behind great friends. Non-readers may scoff at us, suggesting that we simply re-read the book. That is an option, but what we want as readers is to move forward with our favorite characters, possibly gathering them all together regardless of genre, entwining them in our lives. That may seem a titch odd, but what can I say? We’re artists; perhaps this is why we write.
The interesting thing I have discovered as a reader/writer is that just like our real friends, we each have different criteria for which fictional characters we will allow in our lives. What first brought this to my attention was when I learned that my friend was reading Gone With the Wind for her classical literature book club. We discussed the book over lunch during which I admitted that I pushed myself to read it and could barely make it halfway through. I hated every minute of that piece of vintage literary fluff which actually surprised me because it came so highly recommended. After Margaret Mitchell’s endless declarations about the quaint South and dreary passages of battle scenes, the book was incredibly mediocre. Yet it wasn’t the writing that ruined it for me.
Scarlett was. I hated her. Each self-centered deed and word I had to endure at the hands of Scarlett made me want to beat her with a stick. I rooted against her at every turn and rejoiced when she didn’t get her way. Throw in spineless Ashley and sickening Melanie, and there was no way I was going to finish this book. I simply cannot stand annoying people in my real life, so why would I waste my time enduring three fictional nuisances? My friend, on the other hand, found Scarlett to be funny in her total self-absorption. Maybe my friend is more patient that I am.
Then Dale came to mind. She’s a character from Joanna Trollope’s book, Other People’s Children. Dale was every bit as self-serving and manipulative as Scarlett and more so because she possessed a psychological hold on two other characters. She was evil, she was brilliant. I hated her with a passion and seriously considered writing Mrs. Trollope to request a sequel in which Dale was killed off slowly and painfully.
So what was the difference? Well, I’d never willingly allow someone like Dale in my life, but I wouldn’t hesitate to take her head on either. Whereas pathetic, annoying Scarlett wouldn’t earn a second glance from me as I ignored her in the most obvious ways possible. However, we’re dealing with the fictional realm, and in this world, Scarlett would never be able to compete with Dale as a worthy opponent and one that would engage me as a reader. Where Margaret Mitchell failed with Scarlett, Joanna Trollope succeeded with Dale.
In addition to the writing behind amazing characters that have the ability to evoke great response from the reader, our desires and tolerances make them appealing to us whether they are the protagonist, antagonist, or peripheral character. These factors combined determine who we will welcome into our minds. The beauty of this is that your choices don’t have to be all pleasant ones. You can fall for the bad character without any harmful side effects unlike real life where allowing the wicked person into your life may destroy you. It’s quite brilliant, really, and I wonder why more people don’t read.
Today’s Writer’s Soul blog post is going to be a bit like tap dancing on a landmine. Per the suggestion in Page After Page, I’m going to explore my parent’s influence on my writing life. When I first read the exercise, I thought to myself, “There isn’t enough red wine in the entire world to make me do this, especially when both parents follow my blog.” Yet here we are.
I don’t believe either of my parents ever aspired to be writers, although I do remember mom jotting down an occasional poem during my childhood. That’s okay because neither resisted the idea of writing or being an artist of any kind.
The funny thing is I don’t really consider either of them to be readers. Well, not on the same level that I hoard and consume books anyway. Mom admits that she came to pleasure reading as an adult when she read The Wind in the Willows. This still surprises me because she was always reading to me and my brother when we were little. In fact, I credit Mom with instilling in me a love for books as I mentioned before. (My Love Affair With Books)
I only remember my Dad reading Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days and John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Otherwise, my only memories of Dad reading were the gigantic manuals and/or books he studied when testing to make rank on the police force.
To what degree did my parents influence my writing? Mom is extremely creative in areas of decorating, cooking, hosting, and crafting. Perhaps I’m drawing on these genes when I write. From Dad I learned that whatever I do should be done well and completed. I mention the completion aspect because he has always complained that Mom has thousands of dollars of unfinished crafts and too many tea sets. I think Dad doesn’t understand that creativity is ongoing.
Both of my parents are hard workers, and while Dad would probably say that he did what he wanted to in life, Mom would wistfully admit that there were things she would have liked to have done and didn’t. I know she wanted to own a bed and breakfast or tearoom. Her dreaming is what prompts me to keep writing even when things seem hopeless and the self-doubts arise. Dad’s successful career causes me to worry about making money at writing. I believe this stems from the fact that he conveyed to me and my brother the need to get jobs that supported ourselves but didn’t necessarily allow us to follow our dreams. This is the type of influence one would expect from a provider.
With these perspectives on working and following dreams in mind, I am better able to understand why I vacillate between the thoughts of “Will I make any money at this or am I just chasing a pipe dream” and “I really want to write and be published more than any other creative endeavor.” There’s a lot of pressure that comes with such thoughts, but as an adult, I’ll own them.
If Mom and Dad aren’t the driving force behind my writing, who is? The first people to come to mind are the countless writers behind the Little Golden Books Mom bought for me. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume, and L.M. Montgomery float to the surface of my memory. I could go on forever listing all of the authors and books I discovered through the years, but I’ll just say that my love of writing was birthed from my love of reading an excellent story.
What makes a great story? Great words. I admit, I’ve been caught reading with my lips moving, but if people would step closer and lean in, they would hear me reading softly to myself. When a passage is well written, it begs to be read aloud. My friend, Eleni Byrnes, would understand my obsession with words. She keeps a notebook of words she likes as she comes across them. It’s why she writes so well.
So, I’ll start with Eleni in my writing family tree and make her a sister. I’ll add Billie Letts and Wally Lamb as grandparents because they are excellent story tellers, and I’m all about the story. Isabel Allende will be my exotic aunt, and David Mitchell and David Liss my quirky cousins. Tim Gautreaux and Charles Frazier are favorite uncles.
Again, there are too many brilliant authors who have influenced my writing, so I’ll direct you to my Authors I Admire board on Pinterest and Goodreads to see who they are. Together, they make up my writing family tree and neighborhood.
I encourage everyone to explore who influences their writing or chosen art form. You’ll discover an extended family you never even knew you had.