Writers are Everywhere!

This past week, I had an interesting experience. It’s our year to host my husband’s office Christmas party (don’t get me started), so I had to have the living room carpet cleaned. As usual the carpet cleaners came in a pair, and at one point, the older man asked what I did. I told him I was a writer–which, as I hadn’t written much in over a week felt a little pompous. His eyes lit up and said, “you’ve got to talk to my son!”

And I did, for half an hour. It was a nice conversation–the young man was a new father and wanted to write a book on self-defense for children. His father was extremely proud of him and supportive; it was  heartwarming to see. We discussed some of the common problems all writers face as they’re starting out (and after!)–namely, the Big Three”: Time, Discipline, and Confidence. They’re serious, daunting, and could kill your writing dreams before you start. But you can vanquish them!

With a day job, a wife and a toddler, the young man faces big challenges in the time department. But he already has a secret weapon: a father who believes in him. Hopefully, his wife supports his dreams as well; if so, he can count on her for a few free hours per week to work on his book. If not, perhaps Grandpa will babysit. No matter how packed with responsibility your life is, you can find those few hours in the day (or week). Our young friend realized that he might have to “give up XBox and TV”; you may have to make similar sacrifices. But you can, and chances are, the charge you get out of writing will more than compensate you.

Once you find that time, use it! One thing I learned from writing for internet clients was the art of working when I don’t really want to. It’s amazing how deadlines can focus your attention. Try setting your own deadlines–and supply yourself with both a carrot and a stick. If, like me, you have a hard time taking self-imposed deadlines seriously, you may want to consider taking on writing assignments for pay. Offer to write a newsletter for a group you’re involved in; put together resumes and cover letters; keep a blog; write for a local magazine, or even for an online business like Demand Studios. You won’t make much money, trust me, but you’ll learn that you can make those words appear, even if you’re not feeling “inspired.” If you want to have a writing career, this lesson is crucial.

Finally, all writers need confidence. We’ve probably all been through our “cocky” stage. Often this occurs in high school or college, when we get those lovely A’s and know, instinctively, that we’re as good as –and often better than–our classmates. However, eventually, we fall off our little self-constructed pedestals. Most adult writers I know are secretly afraid that they suck, and have no business writing a FaceBook status, let alone a novel. If this is your problem, find a way to put your writing out there as soon as possible–whether through a blog, writer’s group, internet work, continuing ed class–whatever you can come up with. In most cases, you’ll find that people like your work. If they don’t, you’ll get constructive criticism to help you improve–and you’ll learn that criticism itself won’t kill you. After all, you’ll need that thick skin when Janet Maslin points out a flaw in your pacing in that NYT book review!

Well, this is my final Museful Monday blog post this year! Hope you find it helpful, and that the holidays bring you lots of writing joys as you look forward to success in the New Year!

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Do Your Research

When I first started writing, at the ripe age of eleven, I wrote what I “knew,” namely historical fiction in the manner of my favorite author, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Because I was obsessed with the 1870’s and 1880’s, I read a lot of non-fiction about the era, and the images in my head were infused with so many random bits of information that it never occurred to me that I might not be getting it right. That magenta notebook has vanished, unfortunately, but I can deduce, from later efforts, that it was not the epitome of historical accuracy!

For years afterward, the story ideas I came up with were all based in history, and one of the reasons why they never came to fruition was that I didn’t have the time or energy to do the research I knew would be necessary. When I read (and loved) my first chick-lit in 2003, it was a revelation: I knew I could do this–write a book using my own experiences–one which wouldn’t require the hours of library research that just weren’t possible for the mother of an infant and a toddler who could most kindly be described as “busy.”

In my new book, however, I’m revisiting my historical roots, and I need research–LOTS of research. And even though my kids are now all in school, this still presents a few challenges.

First of all, when you’re setting a portion of your book in a time period about which you know next-to-nothing, it can be hard to know where to start. You need to know everything, but you can’t know everything. Right now, since I’m setting this part of the book in the town we live in, I’m immersing myself in local papers of the time. This gives me an idea of what people were using, what issues concerned them, their names, current events, and even the language patterns. I can use contemporary people and places as I see fit–but remember–you’re the author. Feel free to change a few physical details to suit your story–I’m sure I will!

Secondly, it can be tempting to quit writing because you need to research some aspect more thoroughly. Don’t. Do. This. If the writing is going well, you don’t want to lose momentum by stopping to find out what color a parlour wall was most likely to be in 1845. If you can’t discover the answer in a quick internet search, mark the section in brackets, leave it blank, and keep writing. You can always fill in details later; right now, the story’s the thing. Similarly, don’t put off writing until “all my research is done.” Because it will never be done. You’ll end up an expert on the years 1852-1869, but your book will remain unwritten. Is that what you really want?

Because a large portion of my book takes place in the past, I’ve decided to devote one day a week solely to research. This has been beneficial in several ways. First, it gets me out of the house! Second, it gives me a general picture of the era, even if I don’t have all the specifics just yet. And finally, it serves as a refresher. If I’ve had a tedious writing week–or a week in which life’s demands have kept me from writing all I should–“research day” gives me new energy, and I go back to writing the next day with new enthusiasm and affection for my characters.

Finally, one of the best things about research is its propensity for giving you ideas for future novels. When you get that hint–that fascination with a person, place, or situation–sketch it out, then give it a place in your brain and let it percolate. When you’ve completed your current WIP, you won’t be lost, not knowing where to go next. You’ll have your new book waiting in the wings, ready for you to bring it to life!

Got any research stories, advice, or dilemmas? Share them in the comments!

Happy Researching!

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Tracks….

Ok, I’m so sorry–I completely forgot last month’s post. In fact, I forgot many important things last month, so many that I started to wonder if senility begins at 40-something. The larger truth is, however, that your brain is like the “bargain brand” paper plate in the old Chinet commercial; the more you try to stack onto it, the more begins to slide off. So I made a few adjustments–one big one, actually–and hopefully my memory will return. The house is already cleaner!

Back to the subject at hand. I was going to make this a post on conducting research but, in my characteristic morning fog, I couldn’t really get a handle on it. So I did what I usually do in that situation and powered up the iPod and popped in the ear buds. Instantly, the gears started turning.

Such is the power of music.

In fact, I rarely write without it anymore. It gets my blood flowing, my emotions revved, and my thoughts churning. While (for me) walking, chores, or some kind of physical activity gets my characters talking, music gives me the pictures and emotions I need to see the scene and set the tone. I have been known to put one song on repeat for a half-hour or more because I need it to get the words down. In retrospect, it doesn’t always seem like the most appropriate music, either. Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and MGMT’s “Electric Feel” for a 19th century reunion between two middle-aged sweethearts? But yeah. It was right.

My current WIP, which I tell people is a mystery but is probably just dark women’s fiction, was jogged into being by a song–two songs, really. I’d had the basic scenario in mind since 1995, but didn’t really know how to approach it. Every once in a while, I’d take it out and look at it; it always seemed viable, but vague. Then one afternoon in February, I was stacking laundry and picking up toys in the upstairs hallway, Pandora cranked on my phone as always, when two back-to-back songs slammed the book into reality. They were Deb Talan’s “Rocks and Water,” and Gregory Alan Isakov’s “The Stable Song.” I won’t give anything away but, between them, those songs scrambled and reformed the heroine into someone completely different than I’d imagined, and all of the story details began to fall into place around her. Even now, if I’ve had to spend a few days away, pulling up those tracks and several like them (Bon Iver, anyone?) bring her world back.

Obviously I’m not the only one who writes to music. You probably do, too, and if you check out the blogs kept by your favorite authors, you’ll probably find a few posts about songs that inspired them; some even put together particular playlists that remind them of their main characters (/www.readreactreview.com/2008/09/14/your-favorite-authors-and-her-favorite-song/). How about you? Do you write to music? What are your best writing songs? Are there songs that remind you of your favorite characters? Share in the comments!

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Percolating….

Like many writers, I’ve been at it since childhood; I was eleven when I first attempted a “novel,” and before then was obsessed with writing ridiculous short stories which appealed to my mom and the two other people in the world who shared my quirky sense of humour. Back then, I wrote constantly, but always on the fuel of pure inspiration–the fun kind, the kind that just smacks you on the back of the head, makes you grab the pencil and scrawl as fast as you can, to keep up with the words, the ideas, the pictures. The best kind, actually. When I was a teenager, that kind of inspiration was everywhere and, since I had loads of free time (even during classes), I could indulge it. I thought it was the best, the only, way to write.

Then, of course, I grew up. I went to college, and could no longer afford to do whatever I wanted during lectures. I’d worked since 16, but now the hours were longer. If I blew off a paper to do my own writing, I risked losing my scholarship. Inspiration showed herself much less often, and when she did, I wasn’t always in a position to take advantage. Eventually, writing fell victim to real life, buried under jobs, bills, family, friends, romantic entanglements and general exhaustion. Because, you know, when you grow up, you don’t really get to do whatever you want.

Because I had only learned to use the “shot of inspiration” mode of writing, most of what I produced, even as a teen, consisted of single chapters, pages of brainstorming, and 4 lengthier works in which the endings rarely proceeded rationally from the beginnings. When I started writing again, seriously, at the age of 41, I knew I would have to do things differently. I was simply not going to be able to put down everything as it flashed into my head. For awhile, however, that’s what happened–lots of flashes–blinding, exciting–and forgotten before I could put them down on paper. It was very frustrating.

Then I discovered how to percolate. Like coffee. When you write for a while, you eventually realize that, for whatever reason, many ideas that seem wonderful never actually go anywhere. You can’t connect to the character, the story stalls, you stop caring what happens next…and what seemed perfect remains fragmented. I’ve learned, over the past year, that I can keep an idea in my head, and let it build and develop–without putting much of anything on paper. If the idea’s good, it stays, absorbing the water of imagination, gradually becoming more real as time passes. My first book, which I still hope to revise and salvage, is full of people who are real to me, but who only started living and acting as I put them on the page. In contrast, my new book, which has been percolating in earnest since this past winter, is populated with much more full-bodied characters. I understand them more deeply. I know how they think, how they live, even how they die. Soon, I’ll be ready to pour them onto the page.

So, how about you? How has your writing process changed over time? Let us all know in the comments!

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Summer time….

…and while the living may be easy, the writing sure isn’t! Why? Because I now have a house full of kids, not all of them mine! But this time, I was prepared. I have learned over the past couple of years that, while I can (usually) produce the web content I write for pay while surrounded by tattling, demands for popsicles, long expositions of pokemon plots and the blip of video games, I cannot write anything that requires any emotional engagement; in fact, I can’t do that if anyone else is in the room. Initially, I found this frustrating, and was more than a little grumpy and resentful about it. But then I reminded myself that, after all, this was the family I wanted, so perhaps I should grow up some and come up with a workable solution. Because I quickly learned that my ability to meet job deadline was going to be seriously affected by the aforementioned popsicle requests, I knew that I was not going to be able to write my fiction at night. Instead, I was going to have to go on hiatus. This has ended up being very beneficial. WIP 2 requires some extensive historical research, which is quite possible to conduct when lightsabres are clashing all around you. I also need to rethink the problematic plot for WIP1, and decide, once and for all, how much WIP 2’s subplot can carry the book (making it no longer a subplot). This is all fun stuff, stuff I can do any time, any place, and under almost any circumstances. Then, come mid-August, all three children will be in school all day, for the first time ever. By then, summer’s percolation will be complete, and the new ideas ready to pour onto the page.

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Go There

Most people who know me well know that I am a weenie. I may talk a big game, but I tend to avoid confrontations, I am scared of heights, bridges, highways, semis, spiders, centipedes, and tonight I asked my husband to take the dead lizard out of the bathtub. But I’ve always thought I was fearless when it came to writing. Then came Chapter 17.

I thought I could handle Chapter 17. In it, my heroine has to deal with the experience of her father’s stroke. I had done the hospital chapter, including the ER and waiting room, without a hitch, and I was happy with them. But then, my heroine had to think about what had happened. She had to think about her father, her life, his life, what changes, what happens in your head when you first face human frailty, mortality…and you see it in your dad.

I thought I was well-equipped for this. You see, my own father died after a 5-month battle with a brain tumour when I was 16. During that time, my family adopted a policy of being very direct and honest; and so I can talk about what happened, and its consequences in a fairly detached, clinical matter. It was what it was.

But thoughts are different. They’re even different from the feelings involved. They’re more complex, tapping deep roots in the soul. I needed to access them for Chapter 17. But in the end, I couldn’t. I didn’t have the guts to go there.

Writing demands a lot from us. It wants our time, our energy, our imagination, devotion, and every ounce of our skill. It wrings us out and leaves us dissatisfied with the effort. But it wants more than that. It wants us to go as far as we can into our own depths, and expose them on the page, to make it true. We know when others have done this, because we’re gripped, and if we try to explain why, we can’t quite describe it. These are transcendent moments, when the writer gives us more than the words and pictures of story, and we all want to achieve it, at least once.

I backed off from Chapter 17. I just typed those two words on the page, left a one-paragraph description of what should happen, then moved on to the aftermath. Now, the revised version of the WIP has evolved to the point that Chapter 17 isn’t necessary. It’s still out there, however. Maybe as Chapter 32 in my next book, or Chapters 2 and 19 in the third. I’ll have to go there. Writing demands nothing less. Be ready.

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A Room of Her Own

Virginia Woolf famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” She did have a point. I imagine my writing life, in both fiction and non-fiction, would be much easier if I had a staff to take care of all of my housewifely jobs and errands, and a window-lined office filled with books (and an ocean view) to repair to for 8 or more hours every day. The total immersion! The productivity! The bestsellers! The masterpieces!

Ha.

I’m writing this while we’re on spring break in Chicago (yes, I know, but it’s close by and has museums). I had very high hopes for this vacation. My day job has kept me very busy for several weeks;  I could feel the well beginning to run dry, and my dream of writing solid fiction slipping further away. Once you hit your 40’s, that’s not an exaggeration. I planned to use this trip to get to the root of what’s missing in my WIP, put a few chapters in the can for book#2, and start building a platform for book #3. The kids go to bed at 8:30, so this seemed achievable.

Except I forgot one thing.

When I was a kid, I could write under any condition–in school, in the car, on the bus, in a crowded playroom–all I needed was pencil (or crayon) and paper, which was good, because in a family with fourteen children, privacy is nonexistent. Over the years, however, I’ve lost that skill. Now, writing fiction in the presence of people who know what I am doing is tantamount to public nudity. Well, guess what? There’s no privacy in a hotel room, and when you’re Mommy, you’re not going off by yourself anywhere anytime.

But we determined writers don’t give up, do we? I found my space, and so will you.

First off, I had to remind myself, it’s not like I have an office at home, anyway. I write at the kitchen table, surrounded by clutter and jobs that need doing. I try to chase people out, but I can only get away with that so many times before I have to feed them. Most of my writing, both fiction and non-fiction, gets done in the three hours that everyone is at school and the hours between 9p.m. and whenever a.m. That’s my “space.” Quite vulnerable to invasion, but it works. Occasionally, if deadlines are pressing or I’m unproductive, I haul my everything over to Panera, where anonymity builds four effective walls. If you think about it, you probably have some time when no one is around, or if they are, they’re unconscious. Train yourself to grab these moments with both hands and use them to full advantage. It won’t be easy at first–I struggle with it, actually–but apparently it can be done, and done by regular people who are not named Nora. If you live in a small space, surrounded by other people, do what you can to get out, even if it means writing in your car, or outside on the apartment balcony. Don’t own a car and share a basement hovel with five other people who never seem to leave? Then do all you can to invest in some kind of music player and a good pair of earphones. I no longer need a room of my own–I can start writing in my own “coffee shop” the instant I put in those little buds and hit “play.” Remember how your parents used to yell at you to “take those things out of your ear and join the family”? They had a point. And now that teenage offense can be your writing salvation, taking you into your own private world even as your roommate babbles inanely into her phone, or your son comes down to “inform” you that Nicholas isn’t picking up his fair share. And really, wouldn’t you rather be in your imaginary world anyway?

Virginia Woolf was an extraordinarily talented woman, but she was wrong. Both male and female writers struggle with balancing their writing needs and desires against the more prosaic requirements of daily life. And creativity can find its way in the least nurturing of environments. All it needs is a persevering mind to coax it along.
What are you waiting for? Grab that crayon and crank it up to eleven!

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