And a New Year Begins . . .

I’m a little late to the ‘Happy New Year’ party but I’m here with enthusiasm, does that count?  I hope the opening chapter of your 2020 was happy/peaceful/celebratory (pick one, or pick all three). Mostly I hope it began optimistically.  

January is a time of fresh starts, new beginnings. It’s a time when many of us make resolutions. And some of us resolve to make no resolutions at all. I’m normally in the latter camp. I’m goal focused – I love to set goals and look ahead with optimism – but I’m not so much for resolutions. Only something about this year feels different, and I feel compelled to set some writerly resolutions.

This year I will:

  1. Measure productivity, not results. We’re a results-oriented culture. Most businesses measure success by results and many writers do too. We often count the number of books or articles we publish in a given year, or the amount of money we make from our efforts. But some things are out of our control. This year I will concentrate on my daily productivity and worry less about results.

2. Listen more and talk less. What are your thoughts on that?

3. Set realistic goals. Life has demanded a lot from me over the last few years. I’ve been meat paste in the sandwich generation of life and it has played hell with my output. Unfortunately, I don’t see it changing any time soon. Nevertheless, I will set goals and do my best to reach them.   

4. Practice kindness. It goes without saying, right? But I’m not always kind to myself. Someone told me recently we should treat ourselves as we would treat a best friend. I think that’s important, and it’s especially helpful when life demands much of us. Or when we’re struggling to reach #3 (see above).

5. Treat that 1st draft as a precious baby. Don’t judge or criticize. Hold a protective, tender space; know it will grow and evolve but right now it needs acceptance and nurturing.

6. Find a new-to-me author. Or three. Or six. Read someone new. Read out of my comfort zone. Read and read some more.  

7. And number seven. Ah, 7. Did you know that in numerology number 7 combines the hardworking number 4 with the mystical and creative number 3. Seven is associated with luck, intuition, inner wisdom and magic. It’s prominent in ancient cultures (there were seven wonders of the world) and it has held significance in virtually every major religion. So, it seems fitting to end with a resolution to make personal renewal a priority this year, however that looks like in any given day or week. Hard work is good. Hard work combined with intuition, inner wisdom and personal renewal is better. In fact, I’d call it an unbeatable combination.

Happy New Year and happy reading.

Slow and Steady

I received a lot of feedback on last week’s blog post about writing slowly. Most people who reached out seemed rather regretful that they don’t write faster. While it’s true that writing quickly can sharpen our skills and lead to more published books, the most important thing is consistent productivity, whether you write slowly or quickly.

Here are some tips for staying productive even in the slow lane:

Choose your writing project carefully. Committing to a story you’re excited about will give you forward momentum and provide motivation.

Consider your personal time factor. Look objectively at how you currently use your time. Acknowledge the very real demands you face (outside work, children, aging parents) but also be realistic about where and how you waste time.

Set realistic writing goals. Base your goal on what you know will work, given your lifestyle and time constraints. Don’t overreach. Figure out what you can comfortably write in a week and schedule it in. Whether you set a weekly word or page count, or whether you commit to writing at a certain time, commitment is the key word in that sentence. And that leads to the next tip:

Be accountable. Share your goal with a partner, another writer, an online or in person writing group. It’s even better if they have a similar goal; you can motivate and encourage each other.

Keep your story top of mind. Have a copy of your work in progress readily available on your laptop, tablet, or in print form. Open the file so you see it first thing in the morning. Pull it out on your lunch break at work. Reading what you’re written, even if you get pulled away and can’t meet that day’s (or that week’s) goal, will pull you back into the story more quickly when you do return to it.

Minimize distractions as much as you can. Shut the door to your room or find a quiet space. Turn off social media. Wear noise cancelling headphones (it worked for me when I lived next door to a band!)

Bite off small chunks. Write for fifteen or thirty minutes. Set a timer and don’t stop writing until it goes off. Chances are, when it does, you won’t want to stop.

And speaking of stopping, one of the keys to consistent productivity is taking regular writing breaks. Yes, you read that right. Scheduled breaks help with productivity. More on that next week.

The Heart of It

Just as a fictional character can make a book shine, it’s the people we care about who bring the heart and love and emotion to our lives.

This thought rolls around my head every October. I have two good friends who celebrate birthdays this month, one on the 4th and the other on the 16th.  My grandmother celebrated her birthday on the 16th as well, and three years ago a family member passed on the same day.

So, October always makes me think of the people I love, those still here and those who are gone. I’m reminded of their strengths and vulnerabilities, their smiles and their laughter, the quirky things they say and do, but mostly I’m reminded of how they make (or made) me feel. Those feelings linger long after the end of a visit or a life.

A good book is peopled with characters who linger in the minds of readers long after the final page too. Sounds easy, right?

It’s not. It’s hard work creating characters who are nuanced and real. It takes effort, skill and refining (translation: rewriting).

Many craft books have chapters or entire sections on developing good characters, but if you’re serious about writing, it’s worth having a few books devoted specifically to character development on your shelf. Here are some to consider:

Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure by K. M. Weiland

Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress

For quicker reads, check out these blogs on character development:

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/01/13/25-things-a-great-character-needs/

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/novel-characters-15-tips/

https://www.creativebloq.com/character-design/tips-designing-believable-character-21619281

                Small – and Not so Small – Signs

Last week, I finished doing a substantive revision on No Right Thing. Revising, as I’ve said before, is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Polishing and tweaking can take a story from good to great, and I think No Right Thing is one of the best YA novels I’ve written so far. A big shout out to Melanie Jeffs at Crwth Press for comments and suggestions that gave me the springboard I needed to dive in and make some changes.

One thing Melanie wanted me to look at was my story pacing. She felt the speed in which I showed signs of change on the part of my protagonist, Cate, wasn’t working as well as it could.  While Melanie wanted the external story to maintain its brisk, forward motion, she thought a slightly slower unspooling of Cate’s internal growth would serve the story better. So, I went back and started small, slowly stacking up Cate’s discomfort and signs of internal growth until she comes to the inevitable big, black moment when there is no turning back . . . when she is forever changed.

Starting small and not revealing everything at once is the pace you want in a novel because it creates tension. I thought I had that in place, but it sometimes takes a good editor to help an author take it to the next level.

In case I missed the message about the importance of slowly building tension, life reinforced the lesson last week in the form of a bear. Or, more specifically, the sign (this one not so small) of a bear.

Saturday morning, we took Team Sheltie for a walk along the trail behind our house. Within spitting distance of our back gate, we discovered a substantial pyramid of scat. It was bear scat, I told Mr. Petrol Head. No, he said, it was from a large dog. Not possible, I retorted. It was either an elephant or a bear and since there are no wild elephants on the island, I was betting on bear. But even as I spoke the words, I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t want to be sure.

Sunday morning while walking the same trail, a neighbor confirmed the left behinds were the gift of a bear, though he hadn’t seen it. They’re fairly common in this area, he reported.

I became uneasy. When we moved here a few months ago, we loved the close proximity to trails and creeks and ravines. I knew those areas were home to wildlife, but my citified mind conjured squirrels, racoons, birds, maybe a cute deer or two.

Monday morning, a second neighbor told us he’d been followed down the trail by a black bear the previous day. The only reason he knew about it was a couple walking towards him had seen it and pointed it out. He hadn’t glimpsed it himself.

My unease grew. I know the animals were here before us. I realize we share their habitat. I understand the importance of peaceful coexistence. But we live in a town. With paved roads. Streetlights. And houses. Lots and lots of houses.

Tuesday morning, yet another neighbor reported that she’d seen two black bears by the apple tree across the street. Last summer, she added, officers relocated six bears from this neighborhood.

Unease settled into my bones. Having a bear (or three) within spitting distance of my back door would take some (translation: a lot of) getting used to.

Just as I was mulling over the escalating tension and pacing of my own personal week, there was a new wrinkle in what we refer to around here as the weekly wildlife count. In fiction, we’d call it a twist in the action.

A cougar was spotted on the trail. Not out in the open because cougars, unlike bears, are stealthy creatures. A woman walking her dog in the moonlight caught sight of gleaming eyes staring at her out of the bushes. She beamed her flashlight in that general direction and, sure enough, it was a cougar. Crouched at the base of a tree. Waiting.

A cougar waiting in the bushes while she walked the trail. In. The. Moonlight. That woman, in a fictional world, would be the fearless heroine. She would not be me.

I have enough on my plate dealing with the pacing of my manuscripts. And the escalating bear sightings outside my back door.  

My August Reads

Here it is nearly the end of August; September is right around the corner. Soon school will be back in session, routines will be more in force and I’ll be back to blogging every week. For now, we’re still settling into our new home and getting used to the house and the neighborhood. As well as welcoming rabbits, squirrels, dear and raccoon to our yard, we have a family of quail that stops by fairly often. Mom (or maybe Dad) stands guard on a fence post while the rest of the family scurries along the ground. Fortunately, Team Sheltie has yet to see the quail parade. We might build a quail house next year. It’s on the list. Right now though, I’m busy revising No Right Thing, doing some freelance editing jobs and organizing my office. Oh, and finding a few minutes here and there to read. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

On the patio: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Before bed: Ageless Soul by Thomas Moore

In the kitchen:   We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time by Jose Andres and Richard Wolffe

Books read to date in 2019: 37

And That’s A Wrap

The final few pages of a novel should bring a sense of completion and ideally some satisfaction or fulfillment too (which is why I love a well-written happily ever after). At the same time, a good ending should be logical, appropriate and have a sense of inevitability about it. It’s an art, hitting those perfect notes when writing a book. But it’s an art that allows for revising and tweaking until you’re satisfied with the story you’ve written.

Life isn’t like that. Endings come whether we’re ready for them or not. We can’t always control the outcome and they’re rarely as tidy as we’d like them to be. Endings have been on my mind a lot lately. Spring has ended and summer has started. This year, the end of spring brought a couple of things to competition in my life. And they were the best kind – happy endings.

The e fraud and stalled royalty issue I wrote about in a previous blog post   https://lauralangston.com/the-royalties-that-failed-to-arrive/  has been resolved. There was a big, black moment near the end (as all good endings have) where the bank refused to compensate us for the fraudulent interception, but ultimately that decision was reversed. The money was returned and my royalty payment arrived soon after.

My first ongoing mosaic project reached a natural conclusion recently too  (if you missed my process, go here: https://lauralangston.com/filling-the-well-mosaic-style/ ) I spent a few hours over a period of several weeks learning all about mosaic art and filling my creative well by trying something different. The final product may not be technically perfect or as artistically ‘tidy’ as I’d like it to be, but I’m happy with it.  In fact, I’m planning another mosaic project. And that’s another thing about endings. Done well, a good ending always brings with it the possibility of a new beginning, a fresh start.

 

 

 

Filling the Well, Mosaic Style

I’m not great at finding time to play, and that’s been especially true lately with so many demands on my time. But as Julia Cameron talks about in “The Artist’s Way” it’s critical to take breaks, interact with the world and fill the inner well that fuels our creativity.

I thought about that last week when I took a class from Debra Hagen, a Nanoose Bay artist who specializes in mosaic art. I knew almost nothing about mosaics until I visited Debra at her house (okay, technically Team Sheltie went on a play date to visit Debra’s two shelties, Seamas and Merlin, and the humans accompanied them). Her home is vibrant, welcoming and filled with samples of her gorgeous mosaic art. 

Every piece drew me in. Some were bold, others were more subtle, but they were all beautiful. When Debra said she gave classes in her studio downstairs, I was tempted, though I’m not at all artistic. I can’t draw, paint, or sculpt I told her. I’m lousy with textiles. I’d probably mess up papier-mache.

Debra assured me it didn’t matter, so I decided to make a trivet. Something bright for my new kitchen.

 

 

Debra’s studio overlooks the garden and it has the kind of happy vibe found in any creative space: a feeling of expectancy and a sense of promise. Plus, it’s filled with more of Debra’s stunning art.

I enjoyed a cup of tea while Debra gave me a very brief introduction to mosaics. She pointed out her many containers of tesserae, the small blocks of stone, tile, glass or other materials used to make mosaics . . . and the pottery and china that can be broken up and also used in a mosaic. It’s referred to as pique assiette.

She talked about the substrate or rigid surface that you need to form the base, the adhesive or glue that’s used to attach the tesserae, and the basic tools like the wheeled nippers I’d need to do the job.

Like writing, the first step was settling on an idea and getting started. I quickly realized saying I was going to make a trivet was like saying I was going to write a novel. The statement was too broad. In the same way that a novel needs a plot or a character or a problem from which to build, my trivet needed something from which to build too: a central focus or a color or a piece of tile. Something. I decided on a heart for the center which Debra helped me outline on my plywood substrate.

 

We looked at the various bits of red tesserae that might work, but I wasn’t hooked. My eye kept going back to the china and pottery.

I found a plate with colors and a pattern I quite liked. Though it wasn’t at all red or heart-themed, something told me to go with it. I began breaking it up.

I hadn’t consciously noticed the couple on the plate when I chose it, but as I began to play with my layout, I decided they would form the center of the heart. How could they not?

Because I wanted to be sure I was happy with my layout, I placed many of the pieces on my substrate before I began gluing. That made for a longer process but I felt more confident doing it that way. At the end of the day, I wasn’t finished, but my heart had taken shape and I was thinking about background colors which I’ll tackle next time. 

Once the background tesserae is glued down, those small pieces will need 48 hours to dry before it’s time for the final step: grouting.

I left Debra’s studio feeling refreshed and energized . . . and thinking about my next mosaic project!

Debra is a great teacher. She’s instructive and helpful, and at the same time she’s wise enough to step back and let the artistic process unfold. For more information on her classes or to buy one of her mosaics, she can be reached at goldbugmosaics@gmail.com

 

And I’m Off….

It’s family business time again and that means I’m off to Manitoba for a couple of weeks. At least this time I’ll be there after the snow but before the mosquitoes. Small blessings and all of that.

Just as I was thinking about writing this blog and how I’m short on time and out of pithy things to say, this piece popped up on Live Write Thrive. It’s about saying more with less.

How Novelists Can Say More with Less

Enjoy the read. I’ll see you back here in a few weeks.

When It’s a Happy Deadline

Canadian writers might want to take note of two quickly approaching deadlines. Some deadlines might bring with them a sense of urgency or even dread, but these are what you could call happy deadlines.

The Public Lending Right (PLR) Program sends yearly payments to creators whose works are in Canada’s public libraries. Registration is open for a few more weeks yet. For more information go here: https://publiclendingright.ca/

Another program that benefits Canadian authors is Access Copyright. If you own reproduction rights to a book, articles in a magazine or newspaper, or work in a journal that’s available commercially, you can affiliate with Access Copyright and receive a yearly payment, called payback. The deadline to register for Access Copyright is the end of May, though if you’re a first-time user, you may have to wait a full twelve months for your first payback installment. For more information, go here: https://www.accesscopyright.ca/

A tip: if you decide to affiliate, gather all your information ahead of time. PLR requires titles, ISBNs, publication dates and photocopies of copyright pages. Access Copyright focuses specifically on the number of books, articles, and pages written in a given year. For the latter, any works published in print format between 1998 to 2017 are eligible to be claimed. Digital and online works aren’t eligible, at least not yet.

Canada Council for the Arts and the Writer’s Union of Canada have both played a role in establishing and maintaining the programs. Registration costs nothing and those annual cheques are always a welcome bonus.

It Takes Time

I’m not particularly patient, nor am I especially self-indulgent. If I have a job to do, I like to get on with it quickly and efficiently.

Years as a journalist taught me the importance of meeting deadlines, getting words down, not making excuses. So, when I turned to novel writing, I brought that same attitude with me: Put your butt in the chair and get to work. I’m not the fastest writer in the library but I’m not the slowest one either. I’m a ‘steady as she goes, right down the middle’ kind of writer. It works; the words add up.

Or at least they used to. Lately, though, my writing has taken something of a backseat because I’m preoccupied with trying to help my sick father who lives across the country. I wrote about it last month: https://lauralangston.com/workarounds/

I struggled with the workarounds, though I did try. By the end of March, however, I realized that my writing output had slipped to an alarmingly low level. Barring the months postpartum with my kids, it’s the lowest it’s ever been. Acknowledging that sent me into a real funk. This isn’t how I work; this isn’t who I am.

A few days later, this blog post popped up on Live, Write, Thrive: https://www.livewritethrive.com/2019/04/01/when-slow-writing-leads-to-great-writing/

I don’t like feeling unproductive. A day or two is one thing but not for weeks at a stretch. The idea of slowing down and taking my time (or some days not having the time) feels incredibly frustrating as the Live Write Thrive post acknowledges.

I talked to a non-writer friend. She’s a geriatric and hospice nurse; her whole mindset is about people. She knows the circumstances of my situation and she also knows I have an intensely disruptive few months coming up. I’ll be flying back east at least once, maybe multiple times. She couldn’t fathom that I was even trying to write at a time like this. “You need to give yourself permission to stop,” she said. “Just stop and deal with the issues at hand.”

I’m not sure I want to stop writing for the next couple of months but I do need to give myself permission to go slowly. And I need to find the joy in it too.

Going slowly isn’t all bad. For instance, I love to cycle. It’s not the fastest mode of transportation, yet it’s a wonderful way to connect more intimately with your surroundings. Slow food also has its merits. My grandmother used to cook short ribs. They take forever (or it felt like they did) but that slow time is necessary to break down the connective tissue in the meat so they’re fall-apart tender and delicious. A good Bordeaux takes at least ten years to mature. A beautiful Bonsai can take five years to look like anything.

It may take me more time than I’d like to get my current novel written. But as long as I’m moving forward, I will get there. One word at a time.