Flow in Writing & Life

I’ve been reading Ursula LaGuin’s blog posts No Time to Spare in book form on my Kindle. I’m interested just now in reading about aging…I’d like to write about it, too, and I’m trying. It’s a challenge, but I love when writing presents a new challenge. We’ll see how it works out for me, although LaGuin does a beautiful job. She has a way of making the profound seem like common sense.

The other thing I’m doing is writing with my Florida group. There are ten of us this year. Our leader gives us prompts and we write a page or so. Everyone reads aloud. This week’s prompt “A Memorable Teacher” was particularly difficult for me. I’ve been thinking about it since Friday, so five days. When you get to my age, especially if you love learning and seek it out like I do, you’ve had a lot of teachers, good ones and bad ones, horror stories and terrible bores.

What seemed obvious to me was that life is the best teacher. Marriage and children are profound teachers, too. I actually learned how to stay married (after two failed attempts) because of my sons. I didn’t want to put them through another divorce, so in spite of sometimes wanting to give up on my third marriage, I stuck with it. Because I loved my boys more than I’d ever loved any other human, I learned to compromise, forgive, and stand up for myself with a husband. I also learned how becoming a grandmother expands the capacity to love beyond limits.

Finally, I thought of who or what helped me and taught me how to maintain sanity and happiness through rough times. The best lesson I ever learned. My favorite teacher. The runner up taught me how to teach and how to love Shakespeare. That was a lot! The winning teacher was Brian, my yoga teacher. He wasn’t my first and he won’t be my last, but he was absolutely the best because he taught me how to truly inhabit my body.

Brian’s best lesson went something like this: “Close your eyes during practice. Don’t look at the people around you to see how they are doing the poses. Don’t compare your body to anybody else’s. Make this time about you and your relationship to your body, mind and spirit. Flow your own way through the poses. Find your own edge. Remember to breathe. Be grateful for your body and your breath.”

I was, by far, the oldest person in Brian’s class. I had the biggest belly. My hair frizzed and I didn’t wear make up because it would just melt off. I had to get over all that, and it was easy to do once I really understood what Brian was saying. It clicked in pretty quickly and I was good there with all the young and lithe yoginis. I was in my 40s when I went to Brian’s studio. Now I’m in my 60s. I still take his advice every day. Not comparing myself to any other is such a relief. Accepting my own limits is humbling and freeing at the same time.

Brian’s advice goes beyond yoga. It has helped me in other ways. Like with writing ~ I don’t compare my books to other authors’, I don’t compare sales, or calculate at what age others achieved success. I pay no attention to what level they’re at or how I do or do not measure up. I’m in my flow of writing and life and you’re in yours. It’s all good. Namaste.

First Sentences

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I don’t write my first sentence last like some writers suggest. I write my books in chronological order, even first drafts. So, lots of revising, but I kept the original first sentence of my last book. Kept it through many rewrites. Was never once tempted to change it. It’s still there, the only first sentence I’ve kept all my writing life. I just went and looked at it. I still like it very much. That’s why I kept it.

I dislike clutter, both in my life and on the page. Every day, I bring order to chaos. This happens in a variety of ways. Some days I dust and vacuum and do the dishes. Other times I notice what’s not flowing in the room around me. Maybe the furniture arrangement is unbalanced or the collection of framed photos on the mantle looks jumbled. When some such disarray snags my eye, I do my best to smooth it out.  

I’m no homemaking queen. Far from it. I spend a lot of time escaping my surroundings by reading and writing. Reading for pleasure and writing for another kind of fun. Writing is the way I make sense of life. I figure stuff out through stories. Fiction writing is like acting that way. You have to think like the character, even if the character is nothing like you.

Good writing is what comes after discarding words over and over again. Which is why that first sentence of my last book is such a miracle. It survived! That almost never happens. My first draft of this page began with “only the good words.” Then: “I keep good sentences.” Okay, closer to what I wanted to say, but not there yet. I erased maybe six opening sentences that didn’t quite work. And so it goes with every sentence, every word, every page. I far prefer this kind of creating order from chaos than any other. Especially housework.

If you liked my first sentence enough to read on, and that’s the work of a first sentence, purchase Lily White in Detroit. And thanks for reading.

Revision & Research

 

My favorite part of writing is the first draft. It’s like flying on a magic carpet inside my mind. I do not bring my inner critic along. I know she’ll be back for revision, when I need her. I finished that fun first draft in November. December I took a month off to enjoy the holidays. It’s difficult to be a friend when I’m in writer mode. My closest friends understand, but many people don’t get why I am out of touch. Here’s why: I shut myself off for hours every day and come out exhausted, my mind spent. I can do mindless things like cook dinner, sip a glass of wine, and maybe watch an episode Madam Secretary. But I do need time for the magic carpet to land before I’m worth much more than that. Lucky for me, my husband understands.

In November, I saw very few of my friends, as I worked to finish a first draft of new novel. I did take Thanksgiving Day off, but I worked harder than usual the rest of the month. It’s joyful work. I really love that first draft where a story unfolds itself onto the screen from my willing fingers dancing on the keyboard. It’s a party for one, that first draft. But, like all parties, it leaves a bit of a mess to clean up. In December I avoided my messy first draft and saw all my friends, some more than once. I went out to dinner, to parties, to lunch. I shopped and gabbed on the phone. I was the social version of Cindy. I didn’t miss writing because I still got up every day and wrote morning pages which is pen to paper and a habit I love. I do those pages while having tea. It’s a wake up ritual where I sometimes plan my day, sometimes complain, sometimes make a gratitude list. 

Come January, I was ready to revise. I take revision in steps. First there’s the big picture. Is my plot tight with just the right amount of digression to make it quirky but not too much to bog it down? Are my characters fully realized? Is there conflict? Does my murderer have motivation, means and opportunity? Do a few other characters have some of that too? Are any important characters stereotypes without their own personality and flair? Yes to all the above. It happens every time. That’s okay. I figure out which characters need work and the rest of it, too. 

With bad guys, they need to be really bad and their motivation has to be more than “he’s a psyco” ~ Motivation needs to be personal and complicated, like people are complicated. Murder is seldom random. Seldom committed by a stranger to the victim. It happens. But not in my books. I want the killer there in the midst of the characters, hiding in plain sight. The other thing I do with my murderer is write his story of “why” and “how” in his own words. That doesn’t show up in the book, but it helps make the book better, just because I know exactly what the killer knows. I like research, so I bought a few books to help me with the two characters I knew needed work in the new book. The first was my villain who really is not “superbad” as he needs to be. So Sasha Black, I’m counting on you to clue me in.

img_5102The second character I knew I’d glossed over because the reader only sees her once. She’s an FBI agent involved with a main character and I kind of wanted to keep her hidden because I did so much research on police detectives and procedures plus everything about being a PI in my last novel. So I felt like hell no I don’t want to research the FBI. But really I couldn’t have the book I wanted without doing the work. I didn’t have an easy time tracking down any FBI books. I was ready for FBI for Dummies but found this instead. I’ll be reading both of these books and fleshing out these characters as the next step in my revision process.

Funny how a first draft flies for me. I can literally write one in a month. But it takes a year or more to revise that first draft. That wonderfully chaotic and rushing world will change, gain depth, but still keeps its boyant fervor. First drafts take a month, finished drafts take a year. Or more. I love every single part of the process. Even fully rounding a previously flat FBI agent.  

What’s Next?

The writers sit around a kitchen table. There are four of us and we take turns hosting. The host provides breakfast and then we get to work. We are all novelists and have been together for 7 or 8 years. In that time, all our members have published, most of us several times over. And as Bob remarked at Saturday mornings’ meeting, we’ve all become better writers in the process.

Luck played a part in the four of us coming together, because we each have different strengths. It’s helpful that we are two women and two men. Also helpful that our spouses all encourage us in our meetings. Indeed, Tom at one point was working long hours, didn’t have much time to write, and considered quitting the group. His wife would not allow it, telling him he needed us. We are grateful because we need him too.

We have a routine with the coffee and chat at 9 am, then breakfast, then work (we go through a chapter or scene received a week prior page by page). After we’ve finished the critiques, which include side discussions of plot or other big picture things, it’s noon or later. This past Saturday we got into a writerly conversation after the critiques. Basically we went around the table with the question “What’s next?”

When we started only Bob was retired, now everybody is except Tom. We write books, yes, but that’s our pleasure. We are doing what we couldn’t wait to get to. But things have changed through the years and we’re each facing new challenges. Vernie is on the last of her four book fantasy series and she’s near the end. Tom has begun a promising novella, but work stops him from writing as much as he’d like. Still, with each session, he moves the plot forward an inch. Bob is revising an old manuscript we’ve all read before, and I’m revising my St Pete novel. None of have any idea of what we’ll do next.

I know a few things. 2019 will be the last year I’m able to meet regularly with my group. In 2020, Al and I hope to spend six months in Florida and travel, too. We have two houses: one too big and one too small. So we’ll be looking to sell both and buy something just right.To my surprise, I am fine with ending my book writing career, if it proves too difficult to continue in this next chapter of real life. Writing a novel takes several hours a day for several months in a quiet place. I’m not sure I’ll have that when Al retires. He’s worked at the same place for 47 years, so retirement will be a big adjustment for him, too.

I’ve been writing novels for a long time too. Several practice novels and then the published ones. I feel like it’s okay to stop now. I’ve written my share of books. If I include my poetry chapbook and the writing manual, plus this novel I’m going to polish before Al retires, it will be an even dozen. I’m satisfied, ready to move onto the next chapter of my real life. I know writing will always be there, even novel writing, if I want it. I plan to keep blogging and the website will be here. I may write flash fiction and just publish on the website. That’s my idea for “what’s next?” right now.

Anything can happen, and it will. Life is an adventure. Everything I think I know, every plan I ever make, shifts in some ways before it ends. Adventures, like novels, are always unpredictable. That’s the fun of it all.

January Blues

I’m struggling today. With some things I can’t say, some burdens I can’t share, and, frankly, with the new block style here on Word Press. Last week it was fine. Not sure what’s up but it’s just another thing. Like the thing where my Word for Mac software is no longer compatible with my laptop’s operating system. I could upgrade, but I think I’ll try Pages. I gave Pages a go when I first got my Mac but was in the middle of a book project and had no time to figure it out. It seemed quirky after ten years or so with Microsoft Word. I tried to learn Pages for about five minutes then installed Word for Mac. That was back when I still had my very own Apple Genius to help me with everything.

This post is my second attempt to say something and get the Word Press block gods to listen and interpret correctly. I trashed a real sob story, but it’s probably for the best. I’m feeling gloomy and out of sorts, although on the positive side, I got my new scene, the first in a new POV, out to my critique partners. I’m called the WIP “St. Pete” and sometimes “Jane” because that’s the setting and character. I managed to work this magic with the floundering software by force quitting Word and rebooting the laptop. Every time I use Word for Mac I have to do that. So. Pages. Has anybody tried it? Does anybody swear by it? I am hoping for mass enthusiasm.

Just to say about my so-called burdens. We all have them. I’m a lucky duck, mine are minor when I look at the big picture. I have a great husband, terrific friends, a good life. My kids are rock stars and their families are humming along just fine with the grandkids sparking joy a million times a day. It’s just the January blues. I know I’ll feel better when Al and I hit the road in a few weeks for Florida. My dad is there and I can’t wait to see him and all my wonderful Florida pals. So, you know, don’t cry for me, Argentina. I’ll get over this day, the dirty snow, the bleakness, the cold. It isn’t that difficult if you sit by the fire with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate.