Pulling Back

Writers

Life is a giant tug-of-war. We do our best to have routines and schedules, certainties that anchor us each day. But kids get sick. Cars break down. Power goes out. Even with routines, things happen that demand urgency, attention and time.

This is likely why no two writers have the same work schedule. Some need big chunks of time to get into a rhythm and make any progress. Others write in snippets of fifteen minutes on the school pick-up line or in notebooks on the bleachers as their kids play sports. Few of us have the luxury of writing whenever we want, and for however long we please. Flexibility is key.

Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to step away from the day-to-day. Sometimes snippets are not enough. That’s why a writing retreat can be a boon.

This weekend, I’m attending a writing retreat with an organization I’ve belonged to for almost two years. It is my first retreat, and beyond the scheduled discussions, meetings and meals, I didn’t really know what to expect. I flew all day to get to Albuquerque, a city I’d never been to, and checked into a hotel by myself. No family, no pets, no responsibilities. I began to relax immediately.

There have been plenty of opportunities to write, walk, swim and rest. The town is charming, the staff accommodating and the scenery inspiring. But the most important thing so far is this: I’m surrounded by writers.

Writing is such a solitary pursuit. We must self-motivate, generate our own ideas and often fumble in the dark with no certainty that we’re doing any of this right. We figure out process as we go, dub our creations “garbage” and constantly doubt ourselves. And we do it all alone.

To be able to sit down and talk with others who go through the same exact thing, who suffer the same struggles you do, who get it, is heartwarming. We are animals. We need our tribe of cohorts to remind us to continue to pursue our goals. The love and support we’ve shared these past few days has given me the inspiration and energy to move forward with my work.

We write because we can’t not write. We push on through the struggles because we love the work. We grab writing time when we can. But if you have an opportunity to pull back from your daily life, become only a writer for a time and gather with other writers, take it. Even if you are an introvert. Even if you are just starting out. Energize each other and remind yourselves you are not really alone.

Though we’ll all return to our daily lives soon, the camaraderie I’ve felt here will travel home with me. Shared ideas will very likely improve my work. But the knowledge that I have a network of like-minded people I can turn to when I doubt myself will support me through my struggles.

Writing is something we must do alone. But it doesn’t mean we are alone.

Advertisements

Finding The Trail

Trail

For me, the worst part of a project is when I write myself into the woods. I’ll sit reading and re-reading what I’ve got, trying to figure out where I went wrong, when the story got lost, and flounder around looking for a way out. Do I create new scenes to address the problem or will they feel too forced? Do I kill half my darlings and weep for a day, then start over? I get so bogged down in what’s there and broken that I can’t figure out how to move forward. This leaves me uninspired and less likely to write. Without a plan, I’m stuck.

Yesterday a friend introduced me to a website. It’s called breadcrumbs, and the idea is this: you read something, you choose a phrase or image from what you’ve read, then you create something completely new from it. At the site, you can follow these creations (the “breadcrumbs”) and read them all. You can also submit your own.

I’ve certainly got plenty of books full of Post-it notes highlighting phrases or quotes that made me swoon. But to take one of these and create something new from it? Brilliant. Even if I am mid-project, I can likely use one of these breadcrumbs to start writing again.

As in life, when looking forward with excitement instead of backward at mistakes, we stay in motion. Can something new help me find my way when I’ve gotten lost and don’t know which way to turn next? Perhaps. At the very least, it will keep me writing. By starting a fresh page or scene with something great in my mind, I can follow that thought and see where it leads.

All writers get stuck. The key is to find ways to shake things up, and play with new concepts that can help us get unstuck.

How do you find your way out of the woods or get unstuck with your writing?

That’s What Friends Are For

Conversation

My life has been rather unremarkable. This would be fine if I wasn’t a writer. But the experts say to “write what you know.” What’s a writer to do if she’s had a happy childhood, has parents who are still married after five decades and has never experienced divorce, addiction or worse?

She steals from her friends.

Last week, I was struggling with my main character’s backstory. I know who she is, where her story begins and where she ends up, but I didn’t know what kind of life she’d led. What was the story with her parents? Her childhood? What made her she person she is today? 

What I needed were fresh eyes, and the input of people who’d lived different lives that I had. So I turned to my friends. I described my character, her personality, struggles, flaws and growth. Did my friends know anyone like this? What could cause someone to make such choices?

I’m happy to say that they came through. They had thoughts and ideas, memories and stories. As we exchanged questions and information, I finally felt like I could see my main character as a three-dimensional person.

Your friends might be big readers, or they may just have fascinating, complicated lives of their own and plenty of anecdotes to share. Talking to them is the best kind of research because you can ask questions and posit circumstances. When you get what you need, there’s no fear of alienating relatives who might recognize themselves in your novel.

Your book will be read by real people with real problems. Just because you haven’t personally experienced those problems doesn’t mean you can’t write about them. Tap your friends. Chances are they’ll be more than happy to contribute. Just be sure to thank them in the acknowledgments.

What research methods have worked for you when you’ve gotten stuck?

Jack of All Genres

Jack of all trades

Over the last fifteen or so years, I’ve had my writing published in various forms: editorials, poems, book reviews and feature articles. As my desires and ideas changed, so did my writing. I researched how to write in each new form, then gave it a try and eventually got pieces published. Then one day I got it into my head that I wanted to write a novel, and figured I had nothing to lose. So I did it.

The idea for the book (humorous women’s fiction) had been rolling around in my head for years. One November, I finally bit the bullet and participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It was great fun, and I surprised myself with my commitment to writing over 1,600 words every day. Then I put the book in a drawer and didn’t think about it for a while.

Fast forward three years. I had an idea for a historical novel that would not leave me alone. So I did more research, both on novel writing and for the book itself. Then I wrote it. Two years later, I began sending out query letters in search of a literary agent.

But the truth is, I haven’t given up on my first novel. As I wait patiently while the slow wheels of publishing turn, I have gone back to that first manuscript. I’m working on it again, putting all I’ve learned about novel writing in the interim into an updated draft. Friends ask me, “How will you sell this if it’s so different from your other book?” and “Are authors allowed to write in different genres?”

I had the same reservations when I started the historical novel. But historical fiction and humor are my two favorite genres to read. I’d written across genres long before I started writing fiction. Why should I let the new format stop me?

Publishing has changed a great deal in just the last ten years. Just as no one should ever start writing a book so they can become rich or famous, if you have stories from different genres that you need to tell, you shouldn’t let the question of marketability stop you.

How have you stretched muscles in your writing life?

Don’t Just Face Your Fears, Write Them

Fear Sign

Have you ever known someone who has an excuse for everything that goes wrong in her life?

“If only it hadn’t rained that day, I wouldn’t have gotten stuck behind that truck and been late to the interview. I’m sure that’s why I didn’t get the job.”

“Was it a good job?”

“It was a great job. It would have paid me enough money to solve all my problems. I’d probably have met my future husband at that company too.”

And you can’t help but wonder what force of nature caused her money problems, her relationship problems, and so on.

Of course we’ve all known someone like that in our lives at one time or another. And it’s pointless to tell them that, since it was raining, perhaps they should have left the house earlier for such an important interview. Or not bought those three new pairs of shoes that they didn’t really need. Or, or, or.

The fact is, life is mostly a culmination of the choices we make and their consequences. As we mature, we understand this and learn, from experience, to make better choices if we want better outcomes.

I’m currently writing about a character who is forever getting in her own way. She is smart about some things, but she learns other things slowly. She has no faith in her abilities and is therefore never surprised when things go wrong. Instead, she has an excuse. A person like this would drive me crazy in real life.

The secret is, I used to be just like her: a vulnerable mess, full of excuses and problems. I’m often glad I grew up before the Internet so I could keep that embarrassing part of my life to myself. So the idea of writing her scared the crap out of me. What if she irritated everyone around her, as well as readers? What if they recognized me?

Natalie Goldberg said, “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

Well, I did it. I wrote her in all her messy, sad, annoying glory. I exaggerated her weaknesses and her eye-rolling audacity. And you know what? As a character, she is probably the most fun I have ever had writing.

She makes me laugh out loud and cry at the next turn. I feel sorry for her, I want to help her and I want to hang out with her.

Though I don’t know how she’ll be received in the world of readers, I see now it doesn’t matter. She is real to me. She’s vulnerable and exasperating and has helped me face my fears. She has split me open, and I feel I’m a better writer because of her.

What do you most fear? Are you willing to write it?

Be Accountable

ToDo List

The other night, I was marveling at how incredibly productive I used to be during my kids’ nap times. Honestly, while they napped for two hours, I would get more done than I did for the rest of the day. Cleaning, laundry, cooking, writing–I was a whirlwind of efficiency. But now that my kids are in school all day and I have roughly six hours of time, the opposite is true. Why? What has changed?

A friend asked me the other day, “Are you aiming to have your second book done by Thanksgiving like you did with the last one?” That made me realize what’s missing in my schedule today: assignments and deadlines.

I’m very bad at goal-setting, but I’ve always thrived in work environments. When I had an assignment (goal) imposed by another (boss/colleague) and a deadline (2pm/Friday/First of the month), it got done, often before it was due. Now that I’m my own boss, I need to give myself assignments and deadlines. And I haven’t been doing that.

While it’s easy to say that ‘life got in the way’ or ‘some things came up and I couldn’t write today’ that’s really a cop out. I would never tell that to my boss. So while I need flexibility to allow for a sick kid, family emergency or sudden home maintenance problem, I can still set weekly goals for myself and work toward them a bit at a time, just as I would do for an external boss. And I need to hold myself accountable, just as any boss would.

Admittedly the relaxed schedule of summer made it easy to slide away from strict schedules. But I now have a website and a blog in addition to my current novel. Just updating those sites every other day and giving myself a word count goal each week would be enough. And I’m targeting Thanksgiving to have a completed first draft of my current WIP.

How do you get motivated to write? Do you wait for the muse or are you a goal setter?

The Idea Well

parachutist-333879_640

When I was in my twenties, single and working and feeling a lot like Bridget Jones, I bought a book on writing. One of the author’s suggestions was to write daily, ‘Morning Pages,’ a fifteen-minute free-writing session about whatever came to mind. This is a great way to get ideas going. The brain is fresh and rested, the day’s demands have yet to intrude and the page–and presumably one’s mind–are wide open to possibility.

I recently came across those morning pages. I should have called them “moaning” pages. How embarrassing to find that, in retrospect, I *did* resemble Bridget Jones, whose diary I just re-read. That is, the writing was all rant and worry, gossip and fear. It’s no wonder no story ideas came from those exercises: I was so self-absorbed with my own life and insecurities that I couldn’t see beyond them.

I was too poor to do anything exciting like travel or skydive and mistakenly believed that without wild experiences, I had nothing to write about. But life is often difficult. How do we get past the daily frustrations to write something worth reading?

In the intervening years, I traveled, married, had a family and left the corporate jungle. Suburban home life is not only drab, it’s unoriginal. My younger self might think I had even less to write about. But what I discovered was actually the opposite. As I settled into my routine life of raising kids, I had more writing material than ever before. How, considering I rarely left the house?

I began to examine how the events of my life impacted and changed me. 

I wish I could go back and tell my young self that writing isn’t about what you do but how it feels. Becoming a parent is nothing new. Readers want to know how your character handled it. Did she rise up and become a domestic goddess, start a parenting group in the neighborhood and ultimately go back to school to become a chef/child psychologist/parenting coach? Or did she crumble under the weight of expectation and fear, crawl into a bottle and barely cope? Did worried neighbors call CPS? Did her husband leave her or did he get her the help she needed?

In fact, if Bridget Jones was able to handle all the work and relationship dramas she went through with charm and grace, her diary would not have been the best-seller it was. Who wants to read about perfection? We want to read about characters who go through the same things we do, feel the same emotions and fears we feel. Show us how they handle them. Make us cringe, help us cope, make us laugh. If your characters feel real and relatable, even cleaning the toilet can be something worth writing about.