The Way Writing Works

I am no artist, but I do find it helpful when writing a novel to sketch out the main area of action for easy reference. Location in mysteries is important. Where was the body found? Where do suspects live? In my case I can’t keep an entire condo community that includes a bayou and nature trails and who can see what from their condo window all in my head.

I use watercolors my artist friend Ali sent me for Christmas a few years ago for two reasons. One, the use of color quickly locates the pool, for example, or shows orientation from one building to the others. I only put four condo blocks in my imaginary community just to keep things simple. The other thing is color cheers me up, no matter how sloppily applied to the paper.

At times, it’s nice to just switch over from writing to drawing. I spent a bit of time on the above masterpiece, as I used Prisma colored pencils as well as a regular No. 2 pencil before the final wash of watercolor. The Prismas make colors and shapes step a bit boldly to the forefront of the watercolor. Can you find my gator in the bayou? Top left corner. LOL this is NOT what I was going to blog about today!

So, back to writing and how to do it book after book year after year. You have to start and it won’t be pretty. I read an interview with Jerry Seinfeld and he said looking back on his early jokes, they weren’t very good, but those early words were the bridge to get him to where he is now. (Rich and famous.) He actually has a new book, a memoir, and he calls it a writer’s book. Because he shows how the placement and construction of his words make the jokes work.

So you need to start on one side of the bridge to eventually reach the other. Every day, writers open their notebooks or laptops and start at the beginning of the bridge. What helps is to have some little sliver of something in mind. I often wake up with a sliver and bring it to the bridge. It can be anything. Part of a conversation. An image. I usually know a little bit about where I’m going, and that’s all I need to cross that bridge.

Because when I start with that sliver, there is some kind of mechanism I don’t understand (maybe magic, grace, imagination, or all of them) that takes my fingers and types words. 3-5 pages a day on my very good days. The more you show up with your sliver, the more good days you will have.

This bridge/sliver/magic feels like flying. Not in a plane, or even like Superman, but just sort of your floating mind zipping along, keeping pace as your fingers cross the cosmic bridge. Does that sound fun? It is. That’s why I do it. It is SO fun. After 3-5 pages I blink and feel a long rush of deep pleasure. I did it again! And then it happens again and again, as long as I show up with my sliver and laptop.

It’s more complicated than it sounds. You should have a plot map of some sort for mysteries. Mystery Writing Plot Map may even even pop up on a search engine. If not, many many books show you how to make them. Characters, setting, murder details, clues help you dream up the sliver.

Then there’s the other thing. Every scene has to have a purpose. Either move the plot forward or show character development. Twists are good too, but not too many. I don’t worry too much about my scenes having purpose in a first draft. Reading through a completed draft, I check every scene. Does it need to be there? Why? I am sorry to say that you must do this on the sentence level and the word level too. How does this sentence contribute to the story? If it doesn’t, but it’s beautifully written or uses a cool word, you have to cut it.

Some famous writer called this revision process at the sentence and word level “killing your darlings.” Because sometimes you can write things you really love but they just do not serve the plot. Or, you could be a poet and not a mystery novelist at all. You get to decide. Everything is within your power. It’s your world, you made it. Maybe you even made a painting.

Seinfeld’s book is called “Is This Anything?” The interviewer, Mara Reinstein, asks why his fans might want to read his jokes instead of listening to him tell them. He said he wanted to show the crazy amount of time and work he spends crafting his jokes. Then he said “I think this is a book for writers.” I’m buying it.

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. 🙂

Fishing for Creativity

12033034_10207897902913517_7496019220559347527_nI have been searching for something in my writing, even in my life, since they inform each other to an absurd degree only other obsessed writers can understand. And yet, focusing just on writing at the expense of a larger life is limiting. As Julia Cameron says, you can’t spend your entire life fishing in the same pond or eventually it will empty. Creativity needs to be replenished and sometimes that happens in unexpected ways.

Yesterday I did something I always dread. I went into the marketplace and sold my books to real people. This was not a safe writerly enclave of a conference or a workshop but a retail store that sells furniture, candy, and candles. Also gloves and purses and paintings. It used to be a roller skating rink. Something about the charm of Leon & Lulu’s (the young woman who served the writers coffee came to collect our mugs on roller skates) inspired me in ways I was not expecting. It really had nothing to do with selling my books, although I did that too.

There is a sort of electricity in the air when a group of writers comes together, especially when we are placed in an unfamiliar setting. For once, our animation comes off the page and greets other people face to face. We exchange stories and snap photos and, perhaps inadvertently, reveal secrets. Insatiable curiosity about people and the meaning of life is what keeps me writing, and while someone once said a writer has all the experiences she needs by the time she graduates high school, it’s just not true for me. I need to replenish that fishing hole.

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And that’s what unexpectedly happened yesterday. Maybe it was the way the shop scattered the writers over the vignettes that make up the store. I was against a wall with a large abstract painting above a sofa, a nicely upholstered chair to the side, and a huge coffee table full of my books. Other writers were just as creativity enfolded into the setting as I was. The store fed us hot dogs and popcorn from the original machines used in the old rink and later came around offering wine for a job well done.

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In fact, it was less than work and more like a social occasion as so many of my friends came to see me. Some of them even bought my book. I struck up a friendship with the guy across the aisle and he introduced me to his friend, the star of the show who sold probably as many books as the rest of us put together. His was the fertile story that grabbed me and started an avalanche of ideas bubbling up from my suddenly overflowing imagination.

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This star-of-the-day author wrote four books before he hit upon the idea to set one of his mystery novels in Detroit…in Greektown, a popular destination for metro Detroiters. The books prior to the Greektown series didn’t sell like the new books. Not even close. One smart marketing move was using the word Greektown in the titles. I lost count of how many people I saw carrying those books around. Maybe it helped that his was the first display as you entered the front door, but I have a feeling people just gravitate to the familiar and fun.

Which got me thinking about my own books, sales, marketing and more. I started thinking about my life in general, about how I have been coasting as if on roller skates since I retired. I still write, but after a lifetime of fitting writing in I’m finding it hard to transition into just writing, only writing. I need to do more with my life. I wasn’t sure what that could be until this morning when I woke up brimming with ideas like a freshly stocked fish pond. It will take me some time to sort out all of this stuff. I want to carefully consider my next move before I plunge into it, and plus, the holidays are coming!

Still, I’m very happy I ignored my introverted dread of the marketplace and just went ahead and splashed right into the middle of it.

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More Writer’s Block Fixes

Life is like a novel: full of unexpected twists and irony. For example, several years ago, I wrote a series of posts on writer’s block. Through 45 years of writing,  I’d never had writer’s block, so Ten Fixes For Writer’s Block could have been arrogant nonsense. But as a creative writing teacher, I had come across so many kinds of writer’s block in my students that I felt compelled to write about ways to fix it. After all, it was my job to help young writers.

Little did I know when I was writing those fixes that one day I would need my own advice. A surprise: my younger self knew things my older self forgot. Because, yes, I have been struggling with writer’s block for a few months now. I’m not completely blocked. Obviously, writing this post proves that. Which is a relief because I really don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t write, having no other hobbies except binge watching Longmire on Netflix.

(Photo credit: A&E)

For so long, I was absolutely sure that I would write until I died. I couldn’t imagine a time when I would not wake up in the morning with my current novel perking in my neocortex. That is just the way it has been for so long, I thought it would always be true. Especially when I retired from teaching. I couldn’t wait to write full time. How productive I would be! How prolific! Instead, I struggled to write and I struggled to understand why I was having to struggle. Finally I remembered a series of posts I compiled way back when I thought I’d never have a serious problem with writer’s block. Maybe I should look that up, I thought. I might learn something from myself.

Today, I checked over the list. It seems I have ALL of the ten reasons I listed. Maybe what I missed when I was busy being prolific is that writer’s block is complex and involves many moving parts, not just one thing you can tick off and be done with. I also read my advice on how to “fix” these problems and it’s solid. I should take my own advice, but first I am trying an additional experiment given to me by my awesome therapist, Dr. B.

Last session, I brought up my growing worry that I was done writing novels. In the past couple of months I had started and stopped two novels. I lacked the passion, the intrinsic motivation, the drive. It just dried up on me and I wasn’t sure why. Dr B suggested an experiment: go two weeks without working on a novel. She said something so wise “If you find yourself missing it, that will tell you something. If you find you don’t miss it, that will tell you something, too. Either way, you have more information.”

Isn’t she a genius? Because I have come to believe that there may be a time when I stop writing novels. I’m not sure when, but I can see now that day might come. That’s what the next two weeks will tell me. In the three days since Dr. B gave me this advice, I have learned one thing: I am not ready to stop writing books yet. I want to finish those two novels I started. I want to write more novels after those, too. The question remains: do I want it enough?

Here’s the irony: I found my younger self’s answer to that question embedded in the original post. I called it a “Reality Check” and went on to say “People can become blocked because they dread the time and effort involved to really make their writing shine. In that case, your writer’s block is telling you something important. You might have a bit of talent for writing, but you don’t have the passion it takes to bring that talent to the next level. And that’s okay. It’s good to know exactly why you’re blocked, what your options are, and whether you might be happier doing something else with your creative energy.”

I felt this bit of advice like a slap in the face. One thing age teaches you is that vital chemicals (hormones) deplete as you grow older. This is why older folks suffer from insomnia: their melatonin levels are low. Women in menopause lack powerful hormones that impact many areas of joyful living. Men lose testosterone. And bones become brittle because the calcium is not there anymore. What if passion is also finite? What if mine is gone forever?

I don’t really believe this. Passion is a feeling, not a hormone or a vitamin. There are ways to restore passion for writing, and I’ve found a few. There’s Dr. B’s advice, which I think could work for anyone. Julia Cameron suggests Artist Dates. Writing prompts can be can be useful. Deadlines too. NaNoWriMo is coming up in November. That’s always inspiring. Lists help. For example, I got the idea for writing this post from Molly Greene’s terrific list of 101 Fabulous Blog Topic Ideas.

I have not given up hope. I plan to rekindle my passion, and I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Meanwhile, if you are now going through a dry spell, or if you’ve had writer’s block in the past and broke through it, I’d love to hear your story.

Filling the Well Redux

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For ten days, I unplugged from the electronic world. It is one of the best ways I know to “fill the well” — everyone gets depleted, and that includes creative types who love their work. Sometimes I just need to stop the normal routine and do something completely new. I came back with a fresh perspective and within hours accomplished more than I had the previous month. Yes! The book is going to galleys, finally:)

There I am on Puget Sound, 2000 miles from home, taking in the new and releasing the old. That was a week ago. Today I found the following post from 2003 (!) and thought it expressed just what I wanted to write about today. Circumstances have changed, but the idea remains the same:

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is one of my favorite all-time writing books. I use her suggestions and ideas constantly in my own writing life. One of the most convenient is the notion of “filling the well.” Until I heard Cameron explain it, I never realized that creativity was something to be nurtured, something that needed care and cultivation. I simply assumed that there was a never ending supply and that when I started to feel uninspired and cranky it was because my muse was pissed off about something I’d written.

She was pissed all right, but not in the way I believed. In truth, she wanted a break. She needed to fill the well. Happily, my muse fills the well by doing the sort of fun things I like to do when I’m not writing. She likes going on vacation, getting away from the four walls of the writing room. She likes a shake up in the routine, which should always include wild dancing and fine wine. Also friends, lovers, artist dates, good food, many laughs.

All of which I am happy to oblige her with…

This weekend, I had a fabulous couple of days with two dear friends, Kris and Ann. Ann’s lovely sister lent us her cottage on an island in the middle of Lake Erie. Since it’s pre-season, the island was only pleasantly populated with boaters out for a good time instead of it’s high summer packed party people atmosphere. We brought plenty of wine and chocolate and ate our meals out. We talked until all hours as the candles flickered down. We slept late and read our novels over coffee in the morning. On Saturday, we danced the afternoon away to an awesome cover band called New Decade. All weekend we were wild and free and my muse was in alt.

It’s always good to get home, however. Rusty missed me and Al has vacation all this week. He’s got projects around the house and I’ve offered to help with painting the garage. In the meantime, we’ve been hanging out, listening to music, sleeping late, having our own fun. Yesterday I talked him into going out to lunch, and then for dinner we fired up the barbecue. The weather’s been so fine here in Michigan. My daffodils are in bloom. Life is so very good. All of this as a way of saying I won’t be doing much writing this week. I’ll be too busy accomodating my muse by filling the well.