On Writing Drunk

writedrunk

“Write drunk, edit sober,” is a quote often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. And though his family members dispute the idea that he ever said it or even practiced this method, the attribution has persisted. Many critics gripe about this, saying it glorifies addiction and perpetuates the myth that creativity is something whimsical rather than real work.

But as a self-proclaimed plotter and one who rarely drinks, I say there’s something to the concept.

I’m not saying alcohol makes one more creative. Like Hemingway, I write best in the early morning, while I’m still in a relaxed, hazy state. When the details of day-to-day living have yet to bombard my senses and require practical thought and action, the fuzzy, “what if” sensation of possibility we gain in dreams is still driving my train of thought.

The two historical novels I’ve worked (and am working) on had extensive spreadsheets precede them. At least a third of the time spent creating them went into research alone. The books are accurate, detailed and well-planned.

Then there’s this contemporary women’s fiction book I wrote during National Novel Writing Month some years back. With nothing more than a bunch of character sketches in my head and a vague story idea, I sat down every day for thirty days and wrote 1,800 words. Plot complications came in “aha!” moments. Voice flowed effortlessly. And once I was able to let go and allow my characters to make bad choices, there was no stopping me.

Now I’m trying to edit the thing into submission and, ideally, submittable form. I liken the task to knitting with a pair of live eels. But.

The story is one of the most authentic, emotional and fun projects I’ve created. I never get tired of reading or working on it. It makes me laugh out loud. The characters feel like my friends, and I can’t wait to share it. And I wrote it in a time-crunched, don’t-think-just-write, race to the finish state of mind. In a way, I was drunk on the idea of reaching my goal of 50,000 words in thirty days and refused to let logic or planning cloud my vision.

My point is, abandoning rational thought and letting yourself succumb to a state of drunken freedom with your writing is a great idea. Like alcohol, it can reduce your inhibitions and make you feel powerful, daring and willing to try things you wouldn’t otherwise try if you thought about it too much.

The results might surprise the logical, sober you. And without any regrettable texts or tattoos to face the next day.

Lightening the Load

rejection letter

Writers have baggage. We’re human, after all. It’s great if we can use it to bring our prose some authenticity. But more likely, baggage weighs us down, trips us up and makes us doubt ourselves. Artists are their own worst critics.

Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, puts it succinctly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

We write, edit, rewrite, fall in love with our words and the next day, delete half of them. It’s a painful business, but easier to handle when I’m the only one reading my words. It’s when it’s time to share them with others that I falter. Great critique partners can be a godsend, and I’m lucky to have several. But while they can help me prepare my words for agents’ scrutiny, they can’t prepare me.

When those query letters go out into the world, they lay bare the passionate work of  years of writing. Suddenly I am a child again, holding my best work before an esteemed adult, looking for affirmation. Pride and fear swirl inside me that they will deem my efforts childish, dull, worthless.

Rejection is hard to take. And while I understand that form rejection letters serve several purposes (relay the message; save the agents time; are short and polite without being critical), they’re still disappointing to receive. But you get used to them after a while.

So when I had the opportunity this week to receive personal feedback on my query letter and first ten pages from an agent, I leapt at it. Even if it was only one agent’s personal opinion, it would give me some insight into how my work is seen by these professionals.

I was so excited, I missed a step in the submission requirements. “Well, that’s that,” I figured. This agent was likely so overwhelmed with queries because of his generous offer, I told myself, that my misstep would surely garner me nothing more than another form letter.

But I was pleasantly surprised, on several accounts.

First, the agent wrote back within a few hours (practically unheard of). Second, he did give me personal feedback, despite my inability to follow his instructions. But best of all, his words were kind, praising and specific about what he loved and what, for him, did not personally fit. It was the first time I’d read a rejection letter and smiled.

It wasn’t soul-crushing.

It didn’t leave me wondering why someone didn’t want my work.

And it didn’t add to my baggage of self-doubt. In fact, it left me so optimistic that I got right back to work.

When negative news is balanced with support and positive feedback, it can change someone’s entire outlook. This is what I’ve got with my critique group, what I received from this agent, and what I wish for every artist out there who struggles with self-criticism and doubt.

You’re doing great. Don’t stop. We need your beautiful work in the world. Please, do whatever it takes to get it out there. Persevere. We’ll be here, anxiously waiting.

Sensitive Creatures

grief

I am a mom of boys. This is something I hoped for since I got married–that I would have boys–because I get them. Boys don’t say one thing and do another. They are not manipulative. Sneaky, maybe, but not manipulative. I’ve never heard of “Mean Boys”.

Plus, with boys, there’s no drama. No “he said/she said” play-by-plays of the soap operas of teen social life. Boys are pretty black and white, practical and logical. I can handle practical and logical.

My firstborn was just as I imagined he’d be. It was as if he’d read the AAP textbook on child development milestones to make sure he’d hit each one right on time. He napped like clockwork and was as predictable as one could imagine a baby to be.

Then we had another boy. It soon became evident that the only thing the brothers shared was anatomy. My youngest was emotional and teary, sensitive and touchy and seemed, to me, very needy. He’s matured as he’s grown, and things became much easier when he was able to communicate with us. We could explain thing rationally, apply logic, and reason with him. But too often, I still think, “this is what it would have been like to have a girl”.

But here’s the thing. I have never laughed harder than I do with my youngest. I have never felt pain, sadness, futility or frustration deeper than with him. Lately, I find myself crying over news stories of victims of all kinds of atrocities and wrongdoing, and these are people I’ve never met. My practical side has been chipped away. I’ve become less practical, more sensitive.

Thankfully, this isn’t an ongoing condition. In fact, when it strikes, I mine the feelings instead of running from them.  When grief, despair and compassion sneak up on me, I reach for my pen to write down how it feels, what it’s doing to me inside. When my heart is breaking, I bottle the emotion so I can share it later through my characters.

When I read a book and get to know characters, I want to really know them. What makes them cry? Laugh? Snort derisively? How much can they take before they crack? That will be telling of their strength, intelligence and personality.

When creating characters, practicality isn’t enough. Thanks to my sensitive son, I can finally create characters that feel all the feels so that my readers will be able to as well.

In The Thick Of Things

In the thick of itWhen I read about the writers in days of old, I marvel at their output, their commitment and their complete and utter focus on their work. Sometimes days go by when I don’t write a word, but not for lack of trying. Family management, I’ve learned, is a thing, and it comes pretty close to being a full-time job. I manage the school work, extracurricular activities, long-term projects, medical needs and general care and feeding of two young humans, as well as the needs of a dog, a husband and a fifty-year-old house. I’m also trying to teach a workshop and write books.

And now that the holidays are upon us, preparation for family visits, out of town guests, gift shopping, baking and extra volunteer time gets added into the mix. Today I’m working with headphones on as the plumber cuts pipes in my bathroom. I can’t help but wonder: how did the writers of old do it?

They had help, of course. Tutors and nannies for the children; cooks for the meal-planning and preparation; doctors who came to the house and wives who did everything else. Come to think of it, many of the great female writers of history were either young and single or childless. But that’s another blog post for another day.

The point is, even when it’s not holiday time, we writers are always in the thick of things. It’s life, and it’s what gives us material to write about. It’s also what our readers look to escape from when they pick up our books. So today I’m going to try a new tactic: do some administrative tasks, then set the timer for an hour and write until it goes off. Then I’ll break for lunch and read over what I wrote, maybe answer some emails, and then do it again.

As easy as it would be to let the day get away from us, every day, with the demands of life and the call of social media, we owe it to our readers to schedule in time to write the books they’re waiting, itching, longing to read.

Letting Go

byebyeballoon

I’ve read of many writers who abandoned projects that were two-thirds finished, or had been edited and re-edited extensively and still didn’t quite work. Worse than killing your darlings, the idea of putting years of work into a project and then admitting defeat and moving on to something new broke my heart.

But this week I’m doing just that.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Many of my beta readers have enjoyed the book immensely. They’re eager to hear more of the story and they love my characters. They’ve told me how pleased they are that I’ve written in another genre and done so successfully. What writer wouldn’t stick it out, if only to garner more admiration and joy from readers?

I used to think that putting a project aside was an admission that it was a waste of time, a failure. That it was something only an amateur writer would do. But I was wrong. Rather than breaking my heart, the plan has brought me a great deal of relief. Not because the project was so flawed that it couldn’t be saved. In fact, I’m not burning it and saying goodbye forever. I’d put it away once before, then returned to it and worked it for several months. But in this process, I’ve learned several things about myself as a writer. In order to move forward with a project:

  1. I must have sustained excitement about the book. I’m choosing to put this project away again because, while I’ve had moments of enthusiasm for it, they don’t last.
  2. I must be passionate about the characters and their story. Learning about my characters as if I’ve entered into a new friendship with them makes me eager to know more. Give me a glimpse of their story and I become the nosy busybody who will dig for every relevant detail.
  3. I must be transported by research. The project I’m putting away again was the first book I’d ever written. But the first one I finished and am now shopping is historical. It involved months of painstaking research and personal edification. Yet whenever I was away from the process, I longed to return to it. I’ve never felt that with the first book.
  4. I must learn something about the world. I love to learn, no matter what I’m doing, whether it’s reading or talking to new people. Historical fiction is what I read. It’s what I know best and where I find the most enjoyment as a reader. That pleasure has only been equally prevalent when I write historical fiction.

I’m pleased that I recognized these things about myself early enough to make a change. The current WIP is contemporary. I already know the characters, and their lives are not much different from mine. I want to time travel. I want to live in far flung societies in grand houses, governed by laws that need to be challenged, among people who break the rules.

It’s good to know that I have the ability to write across genres if I want to. But it’s even better to know where my writing time is best spent. I’m certain this knowledge will play a big part in my success as an author.

Writing is a constant learning process. We must understand what time of day we do our best writing, what planning process works for us and how to make our plots, dialogue and character arcs stronger.

But beyond learning the craft, we must also understand ourselves as writers. Only when we discover and admit our weaknesses to ourselves can we overcome them to do our very best work.

How well do you know yourself as a writer?

Checking Your Pulse

emotions

Sometimes I think I’m part robot. While this can be useful for getting things done and standing one’s ground in the face of emotional, back-talking teenagers, it doesn’t help when writing characters.

I’ve taken workshops with the inimitable Donald Maass, and he often talks about emotion in manuscripts, specifically how little he sees of it. During a class with him, and in subsequent critiques of my WIPs, I realized this is what I struggle with most in my writing: emotion. My characters do things and go places and stuff happens to them. But what are they feeling when all this occurs? Do we really need to know?

Yes, we do.

Emotion is what connects us to the characters we read. It is, in fact why many of us read. We want to make a connection with the protagonist so that we can empathize with her as we travel on her journey by her side. But if we don’t know what the character is feeling, how can we feel a connection? And if there’s no connection, why do we care what happens to her, or whether she overcomes her struggles?

There have certainly been books I’ve tried to read and had to put down. Books that were bestsellers or were recommended to me surprised me when I realized I just couldn’t read them. At the time, I presumed it was the voice I didn’t care for or the writing style or the density of prose. But on reflection I see it was often that I just didn’t connect with the main character. I didn’t like her or care about her enough to want to keep reading.

Author Darynda Jones suggests first creating empathy for your main character, and then letting her misbehave. This will ensure readers stay on for the ride. She offers a few ways to do this:

-Put them in jeopardy

-Show other characters liking them to make them likeable

-Give them power, either super or as an everyday hero

-Use humor

Darynda suggests using at least two of these, and then gives writers permission to go ahead and torture the character.

Reading is certainly subjective. Anyone who has queried a novel in search of an agent can attest to this. What’s right for one person won’t be right for another. But aside from writing the best book we can, one sure way to increase the odds that our book will be loved and widely read is to make the reader feel something. Whether it’s anger that a character would do something so stupid, or sadness that a character has suffered a terrible loss, a connection needs to exist. Emotion must be elicited or the reader may as well read the newspaper.

How do you evoke emotions from your characters and readers?

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.

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?