Happy Writing Holidays

Stephen King does it every single day, sometimes including Christmas day. So does Nora Roberts. What is “it”? Writing. Some of us can’t go even a day without pen and paper or a keyboard. Unless we get our writing fix, things just don’t feel right.

That’s true for me, too, but I am not wealthy and I don’t have assistants to help me get ready for the holidays. Al is working more hours than God, saving up for the big retirement…so I alone must clean and shop and wrap and cook. And also bake cookies with Ben!

Since my own retirement from teaching, I’ve started most days with morning pages, and if I can’t work on my novel, those tide me over, like a snack before dinner. Or photos of my grandchildren until the next visit. But yesterday I had the whole day and I used it. Tucking laundry duty into yoga stretch breaks, I read and revised my entire manuscript.

It took about ten hours. I cut about ten thousand more words and didn’t add nearly as many back. But this morning I noted in my morning pages the holes in the plot that I need to fill. I have already filled Ben’s stocking and wrapped all the gifts. I just got back from grocery shopping for cookie ingredients and Christmas dinner.

I’ve got some final organizing to do tomorrow. Like get the guest room ready! I’m not sure when I will write those last few scenes, but I’m not worried because I know where I need to go and I’m almost ready for Christmas. I keep checking my calendar…can it be true?

Will Al really be home forever in one week? We have waited a long time for this. Even though friends think we’re in for a bumpy ride, I cannot wait to begin the next part of our life together!

And to all my friends, I wish you a heart full of love this holiday season. ❤

Improv for Writers

Writers have much in common with actors. We mine our own emotional experiences for words on the page and actors do the same with faces on the screen. Recently, I received “Improv for Writers” as a holiday gift, and the book goes even further than my analogy does.

Still slogging away deepening my character’s arc, I wanted to know more about her son. He lives in New York, he’s just married, he’s 31. But why is he living in New York? Because I wanted two adult children living on opposite coasts away from their mother. That serves my main character well.

But. Isn’t it expensive? What kind of job does he have? Oh, he works on Wall Street. Oh, he is one of those guys who writes computer programs that work so much better than humans in picking out winning stocks. Okay!

What these brilliant math coders figured out is that taking OUT the emotion is what makes an algorithm so much more accurate than a human at choosing winning stocks. Because humans have emotion. Computers don’t.

So now I have a way for Jane to interact with her son as they seek to find resolution to a complicated family tragedy. He is all about taking the emotion from the equation. Her daughter (his sister) is nothing BUT emotion. That took me maybe a half hour of improve on Saturday morning to figure out.

On Sunday I got the book, Improv for Writers, that claims to help me “generate infinite ideas” by “letting go of control as a creative person and trusting your imagination to create.” I already knew to trust my imagination, but I am not always so great at the initial letting go of control.

But. Work needs to be done. Original and creative work on Jane’s arc. And Jorjeana Marie promises that the “real power behind letting go of control as a creative person is trusting your imagination and ability to create.” Yes, please, I’ll try some of that.

The book is full of prompts both light and dark, both funny and tragic. And Chapter 14 is all about character. I didn’t count the number of prompts just for digging deeper into character, but there are many. Simply turning to that chapter made my writing juices start to flow.

It’s that kind of book. You can skip to what you need right away if you seek a specific kind of help for your story (like I do) or if you are totally blank for ideas, let’s say for a blog post (like I often am on Monday morning) you can start at the beginning or anywhere else that grabs you and says YES. THIS.

I’m beginning to suspect there is no writing occasion or situation that cannot be improved with improv. And particularly at this busy time of year, when writing hours are in short supply, I love the timed writing suggestions for freeing up creativity around character, plot and setting ~ and so much more. Even blogging. 🙂

Character Arc

In three weeks, Al, my husband, is retiring from his career of 40+ years in the same building, with the same company. We’ve been married 35 years, so as long as I’ve known him, he has gone to his job every day. In that time, I’ve changed jobs six times. What this means is that I am not good at working for others. I dislike anyone having authority over me. Al is the opposite. He thrives in his work community and the bosses love him.

How will this play out in real life for us when he is finally home and does not have a place to go to that makes him feel secure, special, important and needed? His job does all of that, because he’s made himself valuable to the company through the years. Now I’m going to have to help him find similar rewards in retirement. I know it’s really up to him, but what’s a spouse for if not support and love? I gotta be there for him.

Books demand the same thing. You gotta be there for the book every day for many days, many hours of every day. Unlike Al, I take a day off writing once or twice a week, but it’s kind of like eating sugar. If you eat sugar one day, the next day you’ll want it again. If I take a break from writing one day, the next day it’s easier to take another break. Then another. So for me, I need to write (almost) every day or I lose the flow of the novel.

I have only recently realized the full extent of what a big deal this is, for both of us. Before this realization, I assumed Al would be like me, happy to be away from the grind, better as the boss of his own life, a better life having fun (finally!) with me. And he still might surprise me. He has so many projects he’s put off over the years, begging for him to start. Being together as a couple is the biggest project of all. Al has more often than not worked six or seven days a week.

We are in for a major adjustment. Ironically, my main character is in the midst of an even bigger adjustment. Her husband died unexpectedly and she went off the rails a bit, retiring from a job she loved, selling her house, moving from Detroit to Florida. She’s really not dealing with any of it, because, well, there’s a murder she has to help solve.

I set my deadline to finish this book as December 31, 2019. That’s Al’s retirement date. Three weeks. And I just finished my final chapter. Should be perfect timing. Except. I just chopped 20K from my manuscript. Why? Because they were boring. They didn’t move the plot forward or build character arc. In fact, my character’s arc is flat. I have not yet gotten to the heart of my character’s inner story, which has a major effect on her outer world.

How can an arc be flat, you may wonder. Well, it’s called avoidance. My character has some difficult changes to adjust to, kinda like I do in my own life. Many of them involve dismantling her former idea of what her life had been. She got some things wrong and now she needs to fix them so that her life can go on, better than before. That’s character arc. For a book to be satisfying (at least to me) a character has to grow, change, and learn something about herself during the course of the novel.

I pretty much skipped those parts. I write crime novels and my focus has been on the murder and whodunnit. I’m not sure I’ll write another 20K words in three weeks. I’m not even sure my character’s arc plus the subplot around it (which I also gave short shrift) needs to be 20K. I won’t know until I write it. The book will be as long as it needs to be for me to get that satisfaction of my character gaining wisdom and being happier for it.

Maybe writing my character’s arc will help me with my own major life change. Wish me luck! And have a happy holiday season.

Writer, Are You Reading?

Sometimes, certain kinds of readers become writers. They are the type of reader who walks through the snow to read every book in their local library’s young adult section before begging the librarian to let them check out adult books. They do this while devouring the Nancy Drew mysteries their mom buys them and also dipping into Mom’s Taylor Caldwell family sagas and Dad’s Mickey Spillane. Okay, that’s just me.

It wasn’t that I loved school. I couldn’t wait to graduate and start living my real life. But in that real life, I continued to read. A lot. I read many of the classics before I finally decided to go to college and get a couple of degrees in literature. I mostly read fiction. Short stories and novels. Anything I could get my hands on. Even while the babies napped and my husband thought I should be cleaning house.

We’re divorced now. Are you surprised? He didn’t like me writing, either, something I’d done since junior high. Poetry and diaries for a long time but finally when I got up my courage I tried fiction. I even got some short stories published, back when print ruled and magazines still paid good money (my early stories earned $500) for fiction.

I wrote a few practice novels before I finally felt like I had one I could send to New York. In between all that I got married to a guy who thought my being a writer was one of the most interesting things about me. 35 years later, I’m still married to him. And I’m still reading instead of cleaning house.

True confession time: I read more than I write. Way more. My writing schedule, when I’m working on a novel, is five or six days a week for as many hours as I can go. I get up, make a cup of tea, and start writing. I warm up with morning pages, and can tell when my story juices start flowing because I tear the page out of my notebook and open my current WIP document. Sometimes I have other things to do, but I usually write for at least a few hours and try for four. Six writing hours is a really good day.

This type of full-out writing only fits into my schedule sometimes, but I really try to string as many days together as possible so I stay in the flow of my story and I keep getting ideas to make it better. Life (and laundry) often intervene and occasionally I take a day off to read. I also read every night. Novels, biographies, Buddhist philosophy, blogs, even a little light science. (I love astrophysics.) I still read short stories, too, and book reviews and the Washington Post. But mostly, I read novels.

Writers often say (and it always surprises me!) that they “can’t read much” when they’re writing. What??? I don’t understand that. I can’t give up reading for even a day without feeling something in my life has gone amiss.

I’m writing a crime novel right now. I just finished the last chapter today, and there’s still much still to do with the third revision, so I’m not doing a happy dance yet, but at least I can read crime novels again. Because when I’m in the thick of a book, and the writing is humming along, I do tend to stay away from reading books too much like what I’m writing.

My friend Jaye Marie recently published a crime novel, Silent Payback, and I really want to read it, but worried I’d inadvertently lift a plot point or some clever little clue, so I have been waiting to read it until I finalized the plot in my last chapter. Meanwhile, I’ve been going through Christmas romance novels like crazy and another friend writes dystopian fiction, so I’m reading her new one. It’s so good. Blackthorn. You should read it!!!

This is JMO but I think writers, especially newer writers, need to read. A lot. And it shouldn’t feel like a chore. Writers should love reading so much that they have to take a day off from writing once in awhile just to read. Writers who say silly things like “I don’t have time to read” puzzle me. I don’t get it. I don’t know how I’d ever have gotten here (12 books published) without having been somewhere else first reading a good book. Reading, I one hundred percent believe, makes me (and YOU too) a better writer.

Author Mission Statement

I wrote my author mission statement awhile ago, as suggested by Colleen Story. It’s good to know what you really want from writing because it saves time and trouble. Your journey as a writer in the world will become less about the shiny next thing and more about what will serve the unique writer you are and want to become.

“I am motivated by creative fulfillment. The tougher the work, the more diligently I seek transcendence. I’ve gained emotional resilience by traveling into the world, observing all I see and distilling the essence into story. My writing features strong women tested by tough circumstances.”

Since writing out this statement, I’ve looked at it often, and it always centers me and settles me back into what is most important, in writing and in life. Every writer will have a different mission statement. It feels like I always intuitively knew this about my writing self, but I couldn’t quite put it into words until now.

Thanks, Colleen!