Maybe I’m Writing; Maybe I’m Not

Success as a writer depends on many things. When I started writing fiction I didn’t think much about being successful. I just wrote. I wanted to create an interesting story in an imaginary setting. It took me years, but I completed that story, then revised it several times. In some ways it was a waste of time.

Despite all the revising, I knew it wasn’t a good story. It had fatal construction flaws. During those years I also began exploring authors’ blogs and writing sites. That’s when I realized I didn’t know how to write a novel, so I backed off the writing and began reading how-to books.

Since then I’ve written more novels. I’ve even sent off occasional queries and submissions, investigating the possibility of agent representation and publication. But I haven’t persevered. The reasons are vague — partly lack of confidence in the quality of my work, partly reluctance to share with a public audience what seems like a very private part of me.

To be a good writer I truly believe one has to be honest — willing to do what K.M. Weiland so aptly describes in her recent blog post:

“Creating is about sticking your fist down deep in your soul, ruthlessly clawing at whatever you can find, and then dragging it out to be shared in the shocking light of day.”

In the novels I’ve written, I haven’t been digging down far enough. I know I’m a private person, and that has me wondering if I can ever find what it will take to write with complete abandon and honesty.

Does that mean I’m thinking about quitting? No, I love writing too much; but my goals may be changing. Instead of writing fiction, I’ve been inserting other tasks into my free time, feeling the push to complete projects that have been sitting in a corner (literally) for years. One involves gathering bits and pieces of our family history together to finally create our family tree. I’m sure my advancing years play a part in this (I’m appalled at how quickly time passes!) but a dose of reality is redirecting my focus.

I’m interested in your feedback. If you’re a writer, has your writing journey moved ahead without interruptions? Has it ever changed directions? Am I wrong in taking my current approach?

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Written and Photographic Snapshots

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During my blogging absence over the past month I’ve taken an uncountable number of snapshots — hundreds of them — with my camera and iPhone.

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It makes me smile to remember a trip our family took in 1980 when, despite feeling significant guilt, I clicked through nineteen rolls of 35 mm film over the nine weeks’ journey. It was extravagant, but it was unlikely I would ever make that same trip again and I wanted to record every memory regardless of the cost.

Our first digital camera was a gift when my hubby retired in 2003. At first I was inhibited by the limitless opportunity of  amazing photographic freedom. It took a while to accept that I could depress my finger as often as I wanted and there would be no cost attached to any of my ‘mistakes’. One click recorded something; a different click deleted it; a third click printed it, but only if I desired an ‘hard copy’… and because I purchased photo paper in quantity, even that cost was negligible.

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I’ve been told the difference between an average photographer and a good one is in the number of discarded photos. Savvy photographers don’t display their mediocre shots. My laptop’s photo folder says it currently holds 6,874 pictures. On my desktop computer in the office there are 18,246 more, and that doesn’t account for the files saved on disks and memory cards. I don’t suppose a dozen of them are what I would call really good shots, but I keep all their files, just because I can. The only person besides me who likes to browse through them is my eight-year-old granddaughter and she doesn’t seem to care about quality. She likes revisiting the scenes, as do I.

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One advantage of keeping all of them is having a ready source of something to use in a blog post or add to the collages I like to create for inspiration while writing my novels.

Writers have various means of encouraging their creativity. Some have rituals they follow before settling into a writing session — maybe preparing a cup of tea, lighting a scented candle, turning on favourite music, or setting out a particular talisman.

One of my favourite go-to blogs is Writer Unboxed, and recently it ran a post about using a collage to create a snapshot of your novel. It turns out, I’m not the only one whose creativity gets a boost from visual stimulation. For each of my novels I’ve put together storyboards with photos, graphics and other items that reflect aspects of the plot. Some of the references might seem nebulous to someone unfamiliar with the developing story, but there is value to me in the artistic endeavour of assembling the collage. On the few occasions when I begin to bog down part way through the story, I stop writing and return to the collage, searching out new bits and building them into the existing collection until my enthusiasm for writing returns.

It’s almost as effective as taking a walk in the woods or beside the lake or seashore with my camera in hand. 🙂

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If you’re a storyteller, what techniques do you have for maintaining your writing momentum? 

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“He has made everything beautiful in its time.”

[Ecclesiastes 3:11a]

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Awaiting a Transformation: Butterflies, Bathrooms and Books

Butterflies returned to our garden this week. I see them flitting from one bright bloom to another. This one’s favourite spot to hover seems to be the lilac bush beside our back deck.

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I’ve been hovering out there a lot, too, escaping the dust and noise of the bathroom renovation inside. Not that it’s been a negative experience … the renovation has been going smoothly, well supervised by the cheerful and very efficient contractor. It’s the disruption of our usual household routine, having people coming and going every day, and trying to maintain separation between our curious Labrador and the busy workmen.

This weekend, as work winds to a conclusion, we have a second Labrador here — we’re dog sitting — and she isn’t so much curious as she is affronted at strangers being allowed in our house. We keep shushing her barks and assuring her that they are no longer strangers to us, and they’re creating something new and beautiful out of our twenty-five year old bathroom. Like the butterfly, it has undergone a metamorphosis. (You’re going to be subjected to photos next week.)

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Metamorphosis is a fascinating process (at least, in butterflies, although there are similarities with our bathroom).

First, an egg has to be produced, the larva or caterpillar has to hatch and be nurtured. Then it must pupate while the transformation takes place. And finally, after about a month, the adult butterfly emerges.

In our bathroom metamorphosis, the seed of an idea was first produced, followed by a period of planning, researching products, and finding a contractor. Then we watched and waited as the actual transformation happened. Finally, almost a month later, we’re about to reveal the finished room.

Interesting … it occurs to me that writing a book is a whole lot like this same process. Granted, a book takes me considerably longer than a month to produce, but in due time it comes to fruition. Now, if I could always ensure the end result would be as lovely as my bathroom or the butterfly, I’d be content! 🙂

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Reading for writers

I hear it all the time. If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader. It’s logical, but apparently not considered necessary by some aspiring authors. I’m not sure how a person can know how to write or what is worthwhile to be written if they don’t read extensively. But what should we read, and what’s considered extensive?

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I included the above photo in a 2011 post, displaying how-to books from my bookshelves on the topic of writing. Did reading them make me a better writer? A successful writer? I don’t think so. I learned what other people said I needed to know and do. Trying to apply what I learned — trying repeatedly — has been a step in the right direction, but it’s hard work, and I still have a long way to go.

More than craft books about writing, what’s important to read is well written narrative by successful authors … in any genre, but especially in the one we are trying to write. We need to be able to recognize good writing before we can hope to produce it.

Reading isn’t an option for writers, it’s a requirement; and it isn’t an either/or thing. If you read at the expense of actually writing, you’ll defeat yourself before you start. You don’t have time to do both, you say. Make time. Yes, I know it’s hard, but nobody promised being a writer would be easy.

An article on Hugh C. Howey’s blog earlier this week talked about the dream of becoming a professional writer. In “So You Want to be a Writer“, he suggested the goal is attainable — that a lifestyle of “sitting in your underwear, hearing voices, talking to people who are not there, mumbling to yourself, Googling how to dispose of bodies and the firing rate of an uzi submachine gun” can be achieved, provided we’re willing to do certain things.

There are ten points Howey offers as priorities we need to consider if we want to be successful at writing, and perhaps make a living at it. I wish I could reproduce the whole article here — it’s that good — but, of course, I can’t. Here’s an excerpt:

“…here’s the #1 secret to success and a career of working in your underwear: You have to work harder than anyone else. Period.

“Look around. What are other aspiring writers doing? That’s your ground floor. Your minimum. That’s where you begin. Double that. I promise you, this is the easiest path to success. What follows is specifics. But this is the general rule: Work harder than anyone else. If you don’t have this as your benchmark, you are going to have to rely on too much luck. And this blog post isn’t about the luck, it’s about how to minimize your required dosage.

“Let me tell you about my luck. I was lucky in that I started writing when a whole lot of people were working a whole let less. The amount of effort required to make it as a writer today is in some ways greater, even as the tools of access have lowered the barriers to entry. Yes, barriers are down. And yes, the castle courtyard is now more crowded. So you’ve got to do more than your neighbor. [Below], I’ve ranked the priorities I believe you should have and how to approach them. Anyone who follows this list has a great chance of making a living as a writer. I don’t say this as someone who saw it work for me; I say this as someone who has studied the hell out of this industry and profession, who has taken a very large sample of those trying to make it and those who are making it, and finding out what the latter group has in common and what separates them from the former.”

The rest of the article contains the other nine priorities, and I highly recommend you click over — here — to read the rest. I’m going back to read it again myself. I think it should be compulsory reading for all aspiring authors.

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What’s your philosophy about writers and reading? What have you read lately that is helping to make you a better writer?

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Runaway!

We saw a good number of hills and highways while travelling over six mountain passes on our Christmas trip. Lots of curvy and sometimes steep roads, most of them slick with either packed snow or ice. I was thankful our truck was equipped with good snow tires … but I know it takes more than good tires to navigate a challenging road.

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Periodically we encountered heavily loaded transport trucks heading up or down the mountains, their hazard lights flashing a reminder that they were moving at a very slow speed. Professional drivers understand the risk of steep grades, particularly going downhill. They know that if they accelerate over a specific speed, they could end up with an uncontrollable, runaway truck.

Highway construction over mountain passes provides for that possibility by building in ‘runaway’ lanes — easily accessed escape routes. They are practical, necessary safeguards to get a runaway vehicle under control.

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They led me to think about how authors cope with runaway stories, and with characters that seem to take over and speed away in unintended directions.

Does this ever happen to you? Perhaps if you’re an extensive outliner or a dedicated plotter, you manage to keep those renegade characters under control, but I’m not always successful. Secondary plot lines balloon into independent stories; unimportant characters keep reappearing in too much detail; scenes pop up without any purpose. Words ramble on, covering a page but saying little.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

In principle, I want to give creativity free rein and worry about tidying up  the messiness during revision. In fact, too much freedom often turns my story into a runaway vehicle — one that crashes and burns and cannot be salvaged. In a Hemingway-kind of revelation I’ve learned I have to maintain some kind of control during the journey. At some point I must pare down my wordiness to the basics of good structure and make every sentence carry the story forward at a controlled pace. During revisions I can elaborate and decorate as might be needed, but during the initial writing I have to stay focused on reaching my destination. There won’t be a suitable runaway lane to rescue me if I let my writing speed out of control in a pointless direction.

How do you control your storytelling and keep it on track? 

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Saying goodbye to favourite seasons and characters

Now that the windstorm has died, we’re left with bare branches. I can envision their earlier colour, once burgundy, then scarlet, now strewn as a blanket beneath. The forecast is for frost tonight.

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This is the part of autumn that makes me wistful. I love all the weeks of lingering warmth and glorious colour, and am always reluctant to see them end. Mind you, there have been compensations. We enjoyed a toasty fire in the family room fireplace last night for the first time in months. I’ve also been cuddling into a cozy afghan while writing this week. Oh, and the bins of winter wear came up from the basement recently and I’ve re-discovered my favourite sweaters.

Nevertheless, I hate saying goodbye to what has become familiar and comfortable. I’m SO not an adventurer, at least not in real life. In fiction it’s a different matter. A new season suggests jumping into a new story, and that aspect is always exciting.

But am I the only one who hates to say goodbye to make-believe characters when their story comes to an end? After creating them and spending months being an integral part of their lives, loves, and struggles, it’s hard for me to cut them loose and send them off into the world on their own. I want to follow them.

That has to be why sequels and series are so popular. At least in a sequel I could continue with my favourite characters into their new adventures and conflicts. So far, my stories have all been the stand alone kind, but there’s a growing community of people within them that wants to return. During this month’s NaNoWriMo endeavour, I’m trying to finish another independent novel, but I’m already thinking ahead.

There are whispers on the wind from earlier characters, begging me not to abandon them. Hmm … something familiar to help disperse the chill of the approaching new season. 🙂

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To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven”

[Ecclesiastes 3:1]

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Starting another new month, and NaNoWriMo

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There’s nothing realistic about the premise of National Novel Writing Month, i.e., that “the world needs your novel”. No, it doesn’t. It isn’t likely to need the 50,000 words that will spew uncontrolled from the chaos of my less-than-organized mind.

But I need them, and I need NaNoWriMo. I need the discipline to force those words out of my head, onto a page, into a manuscript where they can then be rearranged and revised into something resembling the story I’ve been imagining.

So now that November is here, I’m once again committed to participating in NaNoWriMo for a month of BICHOK (the acronym for Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard). My name on the NaNo website is Wildwood Gal, if you’re looking for a buddy. I may cheat during this first week because I have a completed manuscript that requires another read-through and minor revisions before I’ll be ready to start something new; but you can be sure I’ll be working on words every day, all month.

What’s your project during this new month? If you’re writing, are you taking part in NaNoWriMo, or do you have a personal goal? 

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