Nice to be back for my regular Wednesday blog post after a vacation to another realm of social media. I dove head first into Facebook. Learned so much, connected with so many old friends, and had such a good time that my husband prevailed on me to set up a Facebook account for him, too. When his super-tech son, Denny Jr., found out, he posted, “OMG, my pop has made hell freeze over!”

The downside is that it’s taken me a week to re-orient my synapses. If you’re writing a regular blog–or doing any other kind of writing–consistency is essential. If you don’t believe me, read Robert Olin Butler’s account in From Where You Dream of his move from New York to Louisiana. He was away from his writing for eight weeks, and it took him that long again to get back in the fiction groove.

Butler’s agony is an object lesson for us in two ways. The obvious one is that we need to write regularly to keep our minds in gear. The less visible aspect is that some people are so discouraged by the process of getting their creative machinery up and running again that they give up. If that were all there was to it, it would be painful enough, but of course giving up on a dream chews at the back of a person’s psyche and makes it harder to start again.

I’m not suggesting that we should never take a break from our writing. A hiatus here and there can bring us back to our work refreshed. Rest and new input are useful. Sometimes, our brains form new patterns, and our writing may be better than ever.

Putting a piece away for a while can bring us back to it with new insight. But then it’s beneficial to be working on something else in the interim. It keeps your creative gears meshing.

Consistency–that’s our creative lubricant.

Excerpt from a “Memoir Fear and Counquering it.”

 She woke up with so much pain she never realized you could hurt so bad. She knew she was alive because of the pain. She looked around there was no one, she was in a bed in a white room.There was a needle in her arm attached to a tube, going to a bag hanging from a pole. She blinked and looked again. Everything was the same. It was so quiet, she tried to move her legs, they wouldn’t move, her arm throbbed. She looked,- it was in a cast, her mouth wouldn’t open, one eye couldn’t open. She was scared… about to panic…

Then a face was there, a nurse was bending over her and was saying something, but she couldn’t hear her. She moved her head a little it hurt.

“Can you hear me?” The nurse shouted. She nodded her head a slighty.

“Do you know where you are?”

She moved her head back and forth. Tears started rolling from the corners of her bewildered eyes.

“No! no! don’t cry, it will only make things worse. Please, you are safe here.”  The nurse, lifting her voice to be heard. “You had a terrible beating. Your husband is in jail, so he can’t hurt you anymore and your baby is safe, he didn’t injure you there.”

She could tell what the nurse was saying by watching her mouth, with her one good eye. She remembered the beating now. Bennett came home drunk and very angry. He always took his anger out on her. Nothing she could say or do would stop him. She sent the boys to the back-yard and tried to stay out of the reach of his fists. He’d been fired for drinking on the job and causing an accident with the equipment.

He’d yelled! “It’s your fault, you never do anything right, that’s why I drink. You can’t  even have supper ready when I get home. You just keep having babies and pull me down. I’ll teach you to have a hot meal ready for me when I get home, or you’ll get more of this.”

She was clumsy with this pregnancy, at eight months she couldn’t move fast enough. He used his fists at first and just in her face. When she tried to get away he grabbed her arm and twisted until she heard it snap. He let her go and picked up the broom handle, the first blow sent her to the floor. She’d curled in a ball around her baby, he could only hit her back and head, not the baby. She felt each Wack, Wack,-Wack,… then nothing… everything went black.

By enduring this  she saved my life.

Creative Quotes

I like Debrah’s idea of offering the T-shirt sayings she found in a catalog.  It inspired me to  pass along a few quotes about the challenges of writing and other art forms.  These gems come from the wide margins of Julia Cameron’s books on creativity, the series that begins with The Artist’s Way.  (I love the white space in her books.)

I hope you find one or more bits of wisdom to sustain you through the holidays and the coming year.

To create is always to learn, to begin over, to begin at zero.  –Matthew Fox

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all . . . that is genius.  –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before but in saying exactly what you think yourself.  –James Stephens

Poetry often enters through the window of irrelevance.  –M. C. Richards

Only a mediocre writer is always at his best.  –W. Somerset Maughm

Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss it, you will land among the stars.  –Les Brown

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.  Persistence and determination are omnipotent.  –Calvin Coolidge

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.  –Vita Sackville-West

This is the practice school of writing.  Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it.  –Natalie Goldberg

I don’t wait for moods.  You accomplish nothing if you do that.  Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.  –Pearl S. Buck

The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.  –William Cowper

We learn to do something by doing it.  There is no other way.  –John Holt

Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.  –Sigmund Freud

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.  –André Gide

Let the beauty we love be what we do.  –Rumi

I don’t have a lot of respect for talent.  Talent is genetic.  It’s what you do with it that counts.  –Martin Ritt

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.  –Joseph Chilton Pearce

Suggested Reading

Probably the people who make the most money off of writing, as a group, are those who publish books on writing and give writing seminars.  It’s easy to spend a lot of money on these things with no assurance that our work will see publishing/financial success.

But what are we to do? Most of us didn’t apprentice to successful writers when we were ten years old, and the colleges and universities didn’t offer creative writing programs until more recently. We have to get our education where we can.

That said, I’d like to recommend a book on writing–Les Edgerton’s Hooked, about short story and novel beginnings and structure.

Putting what I learn into practice is the big deal for me.  I can’t keep the notes from dozens of books and seminars in front of me, consulting them constantly while I write  and revise.  Does that information sink into the undifferentiated mass of stuff in my subconscious and surface automatically when I need it?  I hope so, but often I’m unsure.

For me, the three most important elements of learning are repetition, repetition, and repetition.  Did I mention repetition?  Edgerton is a pro at reviewing concepts, building on them, and solidifying his ideas in the reader’s mind.

He also suggests an exercise I found useful.  It involves taking a number of novels, short stories, and movies you’re familiar with and identifying the three basic elements he wants us to be aware of:

  • the inciting incident that causes the protagonist’s initial surface problem;
  • the surface problem caused by the inciting incident; and
  • the underlying psychological problems that now must be addressed.

Doing this exercise has honed my awareness and has given me ideas to improve my existing fiction.  It’s also turned my head around regarding the opening to my memoir.

I’d like to suggest Hooked to writers who haven’t discovered it yet–and urge my fellow bloggers to respond with books that have helped them and at least one way they were able to internalize what they learned.

The Purpose of Revisions – Part 2

After I posted “The Purpose of Revisions” on October 19, I got to thinking that I had left out an important consideration: How do you know what you need to focus on in each revision?

First, your own writer’s instinct. If you doze off at night and wake up three minutes later with an unscratched mental itch–do the conversations between Freddy and Raú l ring false because their voices sound too much alike?–chances are you need to at least jot a note on the pad beside your bed. (You do have one there, right? And one in the bathroom drawer and another next to the coffee maker?) You may even want to (or be compelled to) get up and revisit the boys in the magical realm of your computer screen.

Second, other people’s writers’ instincts. Read the comments that your critique readers have given you. Consider each one carefully. Then consider them as a whole. Is there a pattern?

True, this can create some initial confusion. Some people will like the character of John–the fifty-one-year-old tech services geek who moonlights in a biker bar–while others will think the story could better be told from the point of view of Angela–the twenty-seven-year-old police dispatcher with a passion for antique glass ashtrays.

Stephen King says that if you get a split decision, you can call it a push and make your own choice. After all, you’re the writer, and you know (or should develop a sense of) your goals: the territory you want your want your piece to cover, the emotions you want to elicit, and the best way to do it.

On the other hand, if most people weigh in on one side of a question–say, too much backstory too early in the piece (a flaw of mine)–maybe you ought to rework it with an eye toward focusing on the action and weaving the information in later–or cutting it. Try taking people’s advice as an experiment and see what happens.

By the way, if you don’t have people you trust to give you honest, useful comments about your writing, maybe it would be a good idea to check out the local college and adult-education writing classes. Librarians often know where critique groups meet (libraries are a favorite venue), and sometimes people who attend writing conferences are looking for new blood in their groups.

Meanwhile, keep in mind the underlying idea that revisions should have at least one purpose. This can keep you from defaulting to line editing–again–and help you to spend your writing time effectively.


Keeping It Fresh

Last Friday evening, I was walking the streets of Bisbee, Arizona, the copper-mining town turned art colony in the Mule Mountains. I was soliciting–not trying to sell my body but distributing call-for-submissions fliers for Mirage Arts and Literary Magazine, published annually by Cochise College.

Most of the Bisbee galleries were closed, but the eclectic and amazing SamPoe Gallery (Sam Woolcott and Poe Dismuke) was open. I asked the man who was painting T-shirts just inside the door if I could leave a Mirage flier on the gallery manager’s desk. He said sure.

Turned out the T-shirt painter was Poe. It was great to thank him for the art he and his wife had submitted to Mirage in the past, including Sam’s “High Road House” on the cover of the 2008 issue.

I remarked that this was the first wearable art I’d seen in the gallery. He told me something that made my writer’s radar perk up: They were always trying new things as a way of keeping their creativity fresh. Consciously. Deliberately.

I walked back to my car, making a mental list of ways to do what Poe suggested.

  • Do something in a completely different art form. I recently took a ceramics workshop. I hadn’t played with clay since the third grade and found it refreshed my writing. It reminded me that I used to draw or paint as a warm-up. It was mostly abstract doodles, but creating them stimulated some part of my imagination. I thought I ought to get back in the habit. Repotting plants is good for my creativity, too.
  • In your usual artistic milieu, approach a topic or style you’ve never tried before.  In my fiction, I’ve written in the first person as a man who kills his girlfriend in a jealous rage. That was a stretch. I’ve written a lot of landscape poetry–and switched to domestic issues such as writing with the “help” of my parrots.
  • Try your usual topics in a different form. Free verse can be great, but sometimes the structure of a sonnet or the repetitions of a pantoum can pull my ramblings together and suggest better directions. I’ve tried the same piece about being thrown out of a canoe in a whirlpool as non-fiction, poetry, and finally fiction, where I think it worked best. Each approach showed me something different.

Thanks, Poe, for your art and your help.

Support Your Local Writer

Just a quick post today to give a shameless plug for local Arizona writer/blogger/editor/teacher/all-around-good-guy-to-know Harvey Stanbrough, and not just because he just let me provide a guest post for his Writing the World blog. The guest post is about how to subscribe to blogs using Google Reader, a tool I’ve gotten to know and appreciate, but there’s A LOT more good stuff–better stuff–on the rest of his site, which is why it’s included on our blogroll. Hop on over (click here) and take a look.

Getting the post to post turned out to be quite an adventure, requiring rassling and roping recalcitrant electrons for several days and leaving me ready to sing the old hit song I Fought the Baud (And the Baud Won) before we finally figured out all the tricks. (OK, OK, I admit it: the other reason for this post was so I could get that pun out.)

Finally, the next Critique Technique post may be delayed a day or two.

Happy reading and writing!

The Purpose of Revisions

Revision is on my mind these days because I’m revising my memoir, tentatively titled Love Life, with Parrots. Thinking of this as the final revision (I hope!) before it goes out looking for an agent has sharpened my scalpel. I’ve excised material that’s survived several revisions–darlings I hadn’t been able or willing to kill.

Actually, I had to write a lot of material before I could narrow down what the story was about. My fellow Cochise Writers’ Group members get a lot of the credit for helping me to focus on the core of the story and pare away the excess. (Is this a shameless plug for critique groups? You bet!)

During a previous revision, I was finally able to verbalize something that had been nagging at the back of my brain. The general goal of my revisions was to improve the manuscript. I needed to determine what the specific purpose was of each revision–the guiding principle.

How did I conclude that I needed this direction? By wasting time and energy. When I didn’t have a clear idea what I was supposed to be doing in a revision, I defaulted to the relatively easy task of line editing. That was great for catching dropped words, awkward phrasing, and homophonic misspellings that my spellchecker had passed (“complement” instead of “compliment,” for example).

Useful, but it didn’t strengthen the manuscript in essential ways. Here are a few of the more difficult tasks I needed to use as purposes in revisions:

  • Remove backstory from the first chapter and weave it into later ones.
  • Restructure the chapters more logically.
  • Create page-turning chapter endings.
  • Cut material that was boring or didn’t focus on the story arcs.
  • Clarify the failed problem-solving attempts that left me farther from the accomplishment of my goals, rather than closer.
  • Use stronger verbs .
  • Focus on the sensory implications that would create emotions in my readers.

Now I’m going over every chapter more than once, each time with an eye toward a particular purpose. Slow work but worth it, by my own lights and those of my critiquers.


Blowing Up Your Style

When I was forty-five, I lived in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, where I took up snowboarding. It wasn’t as hard as it might sound. I’d been a slalom water skier. As a teenager, I’d been a skateboarder.  This was in the days when you and a friend split a pair of roller skates, filed down the rubber spacers so you could carve better turns, and nailed the skates to whatever wood you could find in your father’s scrap pile.

One thing I loved about the sport was that shredders and shredbetties of all ages helped each other in ways I didn’t see two-plankers do. So I wasn’t surprised when a knuckle-dragger I had seen around Pajarito Mountain caught up with me on the slope, told me my turns were getting good (“you’re starting to ride your underwear”), and offered me some advice: “You need to drive your right knee forward more.” I rode regular, as opposed to goofy-footed, so that was my back knee.

I knew he was right. I’d known for a while that my turns would be stronger and more controlled if I drove the knee. So why hadn’t I incorporated that simple technique change? Because a single change can blow up your style for a while. Your confidence collapses.  You ride like a grommet (beginner kid). You start falling down again. I hated that.

But then, when you’ve finally done enough repetitions–when your synapses and muscle fibers have integrated the new technique–you ride better. Sometimes a lot better.

Fast forward twenty years to my realization that writing is the same way. I was agonizing over the opening of my memoir about the men and parrots in my life. At the behest of my writers’ group cronies, I picked up Les Edgerton’s Hooked, about writing short story and novel openings. I’d already borrowed some fictional techniques, so it seemed like a reasonable read.

Once I was thirty pages or so into it, I sat down at the computer to compose an entirely new opening, beginning at what fiction writers call the inciting incident. You would think I’d never written a scene in my life. All those new ideas hurtling around in my head–how to use them? I couldn’t put together a sensible sentence. For twenty minutes, I slogged through a dozen possible beginnings before giving up.

The next day wasn’t much better, or the day after that. But then something shifted. I’d done enough repetitions that the ideas were beginning to integrate, meaning I knew how to use them. The dust from my blown-up style settled, and I could write again. Not a lot better, but a little, if for no other reason than knowing where to begin.

Improving any skill is likely to involve blowing up your style, integrating, and moving on to better performance. The temporary discouragements are worth it in the long run. Writing is no exception.

Bucket List

A friend recently e-mailed me a bucket list. Generally, as seen in the Morgan Freeman/Jack Nicholson movie by the same name, it’s an inventory of the things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket.

On the list I received, you could check off the things you’d actually done in your life, such as “visited Washington, DC,” “skipped school,” “ridden an elephant,” and “seen someone die” (yes, no, yes, yes). (Hmm. The first and last of these could be related.)

There was room for comments, too. So next to “Have you ever gone bungee jumping?” you could jot an editorial comment like “No way, José !” (mine) or “There’s this bridge above the railroad tracks a mile from my house, and me and some friends . . .” (a fictional teenage boy who did or didn’t jump).

You could probably add a few things to the list, though I didn’t. Maybe I’ll do it again and include “have you ever gone snowmobiling, performed in front of an audience, been on a horse when it got into a fight with another horse?”  (Honest, the other horse started it.)

See how specific experiences and reactions can make a person unique and interesting, give us hints into character and background, and set up a person for the fictional conflicts he or she will face?

Example: When she was eighteen, Marie went on her first and only trail ride and was thrown in a horse fight. Is she the type of girl who gets right back on the horse, or is she so traumatized that she can’t even watch the races at the county fair from the grandstand ten years later? What’s she going to do when she finds out the man she’s falling in love with owns a riding stable and makes his living training horses and riders?

So who did I send my bucket list to after I filled it out? The members of Cochise Writers here in southeastern Arizona. Why? After all, most of them know that I’ve fired a gun and was an inveterate knuckle-dragger (snowboarder) in my forties and fifties.

I sent it to them because the bucket list is a fine tool for defining, refining, and generally getting ideas about your fictional characters. In fact, I’ve kept and added to a list of questions for years, based on writing articles, books, classes, and random ideas I’ve run across in the course of life.

So the question of the day is: What do you find interesting about real people and, by extension, fictional characters? From the answer to that question, you can formulate other inquiries that will help you free associate personal histories and personalities for the people who want to write about. You may be surprised what comes up, and those unexpected aspects will make your characters more interesting to your readers.

The usual character questions revolve around age, health, ethnicity, religious background, education, unconscious gestures, hobbies, political leanings, and reactions to conflict. The bucket list is different. It asks about people’s external lives–what they have or haven’t done–and their reactions to those things.

Here are the questions from the bucket list I received. A useful exercise might be to make up your own.

Have you (or your character) ever – shot a gun – gone on a blind date – skipped school – watched someone die – visited Canada – visited Hawaii – visited Cuba – visited Mexico – visited Europe – visited Asia – visited South America – visited Florida – visited Las Vegas – traveled to the opposite side of the country – visited Washington , DC – seen the Grand Canyon – flown in a plane – served on a jury – been lost – swam (waded) in the ocean – cried yourself to sleep – played cops and robbers – played cowboys and Indians – recently colored with crayons – sang Karaoke – sang a solo or duet in church – paid for a meal with coins only – made prank phone calls – laughed until some beverage came out of your nose – caught a snowflake on your tongue – had children – had a pet – been skinny-dipping outdoors – been fishing – been boating – been downhill skiing – been water skiing – gone camping in a trailer/RV – gone camping in a tent – flown in a small 4-seater airplane – flown in a glider – flown in a helicopter – flown in a hot air balloon – flown in a blimp – walked on a glacier – driven a motorcycle/been a passenger – been bungee-jumping – gone to a drive-in movie – done something that could have killed you (but not bungee jumping) – done something that you will regret for the rest of your life – visited Africa – rode an elephant – eaten just cookies or cake for dinner – been on TV – stolen any traffic signs – been in a car accident – gone curling?

Also: favorite drink – have piercings – tattoos – do you drive a 4-wheel-drive vehicle – favorite number – favorite movie – favorite dessert – where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

What stories could you write that revolve around your characters doing–or not doing–these things?