You Know You’re a Writer When . . .

Here’s a blast from the past. . . a blog post I wrote in 2013 that’s as true today as it was back then.

I wasn’t that odd as a child, not really, although if you ask my father he’d probably disagree. I was sensitive to my surroundings (especially to the undercurrents of conversations and what wasn’t being said); I was prone to storytelling (others referred to this as exaggeration); and I had three special (imaginary-to-everyone-else) friends. I played with them, had conversations (and arguments) with them and I ate meals with them too. This did not please my rational father. He didn’t realize he had a writer-in-the-making in the house.

How do you know you’re a writer?  You know you’re a writer when –

You had imaginary friends as a child only they were real to you.

You are prone to wild imaginings that can literally make your heart race.

Conflict makes you smile.

You don’t get non-readers.

You laugh out loud at conversations in your head.

Some of the letters on your keyboard are worn off.

You have pens in every room of your house, including the bathroom and beside your bed.

A song on the radio sparks a story idea.

You stare at random people and memorize their quirks.

You can predict the conflict or turning points in movies, and your family has made you promise to keep quiet until it’s over.

You get excited by Scrivener.

Eavesdropping is second nature.

You love bookstores (but hate them if they don’t carry your books).

You live in a constant state of ‘what now?’ closely followed by ‘what if?’

Twist is not a cinnamon stick.

You have scribbled an idea, a word, or a piece of dialogue on a restaurant napkin, boarding pass, old envelope, school newsletter, or empty toilet roll.

You find those odd bits of paper – sometimes indecipherable – in pockets, wallets, purses, drawers, stuffed between the pages of a book, and you save them.

Pacing is a concept not an activity.

You found it easier to write when you first started.

You have missed a turn, an exit ramp or possibly a plane because you were so absorbed in your story.

You weren’t comfortable as a journalist because you always wanted to change the end of the story.

Proofreading is automatic.

Character is not about your personal ethics.

A hero must be flawed. But sexy as hell.

You gather ideas, thoughts, bits of trivia and snatches of dialogue like black pants gather lint.

You visit a cemetery and take notes.

People you barely know ask you to read their book, their article, their life story. Or ask you to write it.

You have a weird combination of insecurity and confidence.

Finishing the scene is more important than answering the phone.

The Muse is an intimate.

And, finally, you will read anything.

 

Workarounds

For the most part, I’m fairly disciplined with respect to my writing. It’s my day job; I show up at the same time five mornings a week and I write. I got into the habit when my kids were young and I’ve kept it up. If I’m on deadline, that writing often spills into the afternoons. If I’m not on deadline and providing I’ve already written a decent number of pages, then I’ll sometimes switch gears in the afternoon and do an editing job or research, respond to emails, or deal with any current business issues.

Not deviating and staying consistent with my routine keeps me productive and on track, and that makes me happy. Lately, however, my routine has been torpedoed.

If I’m being completely honest, things began going south in January, when we moved. At first it was the upheaval of relocating to a different town: unpacking, getting my office set up, all of that. Then I realized I was missing my morning gym workout, something I routinely did (and had done for decades) before sitting down to write. Cycling or running was out of the question; the weather wasn’t conducive. Since we’re not living in the community we intend to settle in permanently, I needed an affordable short-term workout location. It took me another week of checking out nearby facilities before I figured out which one would work best for me.

I was poised to sign a short-term contract – and excited about finally getting back into a regular routine – when my father fell and ended up in hospital. He lives half way across the country, by himself, with no family nearby. Someone had to be there for him and I was it. My one week there turned into two, and I returned home with the full responsibility of his affairs, both medical and personal.

He’s still in hospital, still working towards some kind of recovery, and facing an uncertain future. That’s his reality and it’s not a pleasant one. My reality, aside from the personal heartbreak of witnessing his decline (and that’s no small thing), is that there’s a two-hour time difference between the west coast and Manitoba. That means when my phone starts ringing at 8 am, it’s already 10 o’clock there and the middle of the morning. Calls to doctors or social workers don’t happen on my timetable; they happen on theirs. Water pipes don’t freeze at a time that’s convenient; they freeze when they freeze (which is usually overnight, only to be discovered first thing in the morning).

My priorities have shifted in an unexpected and unwelcome way.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a great blog post this week about priorities. https://kriswrites.com/2019/02/27/business-musings-priorities/

The timing of her post was serendipitous for me. She talks about how there are times when we all have to give up something on our priorities list. She stresses the importance of acceptance in the face of doing that.

My mornings are not always my own right now, and no amount of wishing or discipline will change that. I don’t like it but I’m learning to accept it. Afternoons, never my freshest time, are quieter. So, I’m writing then. Wish me luck.

Three Questions to Ask

Support is everywhere, if we know where to look. I’m blessed with a supportive partner, great kids and a solid circle of friends. Some of those friends are writers and they’re often the ones I turn to when I’m looking for feedback, advice or any kind of writing-related support. They get it, in a way that my non-writing friends don’t.

Sometimes, however, support or advice shows up in the unlikeliest of places. Last week, I watched a TED talk by Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House Democratic Leader who made history in 2018 when she earned the Democratic nomination for the governor of Georgia. Though Abrams faced a number of challenges and ultimately lost her race, she has not given up. It’s important, she says, not to let setbacks set us back. When we’re faced with any kind of obstacle, be that in politics or in writing, Abrams says there are three key questions we need to ask ourselves. This short TED talk is well worth watching:

Just Listen

A few weeks ago, I attended a weekend workshop. It had nothing to do with writing; it was about soul growth and reincarnation for those of us ‘woo’ types who believe in that sort of thing. In spite of the focus, writing was never far from my mind. That’s partly because I’m writing a book with a past life theme, but also because of a comment made by the facilitator.

“Imagination is real,” he said. “It’s a form of communication if only we’ll listen.”

We tend to think of imagination as pretend. His point was the opposite: imagination might be intangible and immeasurable, but it is as real as love, which also happens to be intangible and immeasurable. Imagination, he added, is communication from the soul . . . from spirit . . . from God . . . from the Source . . . whatever and however you describe it. I wondered if he was describing the muse?

Not every writer believes in a muse though many do, and Ray Bradbury was one of them. “I’m not in control of my muse,” he once said. “My muse does all the work.”

Steven Pressfield who wrote The War of Art believes in the muse too. “When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us,” he wrote. “The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

On the other side of the equation, a number of successful and prolific writers find the notion of a muse or any sort of communication absolutely ridiculous. Jodi Picoult, a favorite writer of mine, is one of them. Picoult believes writing is total grunt work; it’s not about the muse. Nora Roberts says every time she hears writers talk about the muse, she ‘wants to bitch-slap them.’ Stephen King says writing is a job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. “It isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about,” King says.

Maybe not. But there’s no denying that for writers and other creative types our imagination bears a great deal of responsibility for the work we do.

The night before I sat down to write this blog, I saw Paul Simon interviewed on Stephen Colbert. He was talking about the inspiration for his song ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War.’ Apparently, he was at Joan Baez’s house doing some collaborative work when Joan had to take a phone call. Restless or bored (or maybe a bit of both), he pulled a book off her shelf and began skimming it. He came across a picture of a man and a woman with a dog. Below the photograph was the caption ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.’

He began to think . . . to daydream . . . to weave a story out of the image. Communication, by definition, is a form of sending or receiving information. In that moment, Paul Simon was receiving something intangible that fed his imagination . . . and he listened.

In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter whether you think imagination is real or pretend. All that really matters is listening to it. Listening and doing the work.

My January Reads

It’s a new year, a new windowsill, and a new stack of books. We’ve unpacked and settled in, at least for the short term, to our temporary cottage with a view. It’s quiet here, and much more off the beaten track than I’m used to. Someone asked me the other day if the setting is inspiring my writing. I can’t say it is yet. We’ve only been here a few weeks, we’ve had days of heavy fog and my office is in a nearly windowless back room. I’m optimistic, however, that once I remember to crawl out of my cave occasionally and enjoy the stunning view, my writing will benefit. In the meantime, because I’m not popping out in the evening like I did when I lived in the city, I have more time to read.

Here’s what I’m reading this month:

At the gym: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Before bed: Waking Up in Winter by Cheryl Richardson

On the weekend: Good Luck with That by Kristan Higgins

Books read to date in 2019: 5

 

In The Beginning, Take Three

Our lunch was winding down but our beginning writer friend had several more questions. What, she asked, is the one habit that most effectively supports your writing career?

My answer came relatively quickly but I couldn’t limit it to one habit; I had two: writing every day and finishing what I start. Those two habits are the backbone of my writing career.

While I’ve blogged before about the importance of a daily writing practice, I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing the importance of finishing what I start. To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have a few half-baked ideas waiting for me in the drawer. I was going to call them partially finished manuscripts but they aren’t even that. They’re embryonic ideas in paragraph form. A couple of them go on for maybe two or three pages. They’ll be there when I’m ready for them.

Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are waiting for us to give them life. That they hang out in the ether somewhere until a creator comes along, picks them up and breathes them into being. I don’t know if it’s true, though I love her idea. What I do know is that once I start a story or a novel, I can’t not finish it. Even when I suspect the story isn’t hanging together or the character’s motivations aren’t working or I don’t like what I’m producing, I can’t stop. Finishing it becomes a compulsion. To leave it undone would be akin to gathering the ingredients for a cake, preparing the pans, mixing the batter and failing to put the whole thing into the oven. Finishing what I start and writing every day have taken me from unpublished to published. It’s as easy (and as hard!) as that.

For Lea Tassie, www.leatassiewriter.com her most effective daily habit is self-discipline and making writing part of her routine. “It’s not easy,” she says, “but it’s necessary.”

The last question our beginning writer asked was also the hardest for me to answer. What has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

There were milestones for sure: my first sale, my first foreign edition, my first award. And while those certainly were accomplishments, with the exception of my first sale which I definitely had something to do with, many of my other career milestones came about because others worked to make them happen, or because of serendipity. Claiming them as my accomplishment didn’t feel right. And the more I thought about it, while getting books published was an accomplishment I was proud of, it wasn’t the true reward. The real reward came later when readers wrote to say how much they loved my story. Touching readers through my books is, and always will be, my most rewarding accomplishment.

Lea Tassie shares the sentiment. In her futuristic Green Blood Rising series, trees fight back against development and begin to take over the world. One of her most rewarding moments came when someone read the novel and afterwards commented that they were “driving home one night and these young trees were growing up out of the ditch and I got scared.”

Writing a book that lives on in the hearts and minds of readers is the most gratifying achievement. In the end, I think it’s the only accomplishment that truly matters.

In The Beginning

Not long ago, I was asked by a woman just starting out on her writing journey if I’d be willing to answer a few general questions about the industry, and some specific questions about my path to publishing. Our conversation really made me think. Over the next few weeks I’ll bring you some of her questions and my answers, along with answers from other authors as well.

This week, question one: what does your writing day look like?

That one was easy. I write every day, or at least every weekday. I don’t strive for a set word or page count, nor do I put in a minimum number of hours, but I usually work from 9 or 9:30 until 4 in the afternoon, with a short break for lunch. Mornings are reserved for whatever novel I’m writing, and if I have an article to write or an editing job to do, I usually tackle those in the afternoon. Unless I’m on a deadline, I don’t write on weekends. Perhaps it’s a throwback to when my kids were young and I wrote when they were in school, or perhaps it’s a holdover from my days working a five-day-a-week job, but I usually take a break on weekends. I might ponder my work-in-progress or attend a writing workshop or do some kind of research, but I try to avoid sitting at my desk and staring at a screen.

Author Stephen King has been quoted as saying that when he works, he ‘works every day, three or four hours, and aims for six clean pages.’  Working daily for two months, he ends up with a 360-page manuscript. And if his books and interviews are to be believed, he also doesn’t outline. He starts with a basic ‘what if’ premise and sees where it takes him. I like the idea of deep daily immersion in a story, and I LOVE the idea of producing a 360-page manuscript in two months. But without an outline? It’s unlikely to work for me. For one thing, I don’t have King’s experience. He’s written close to 90 books; I’ve written about 25.

Ernest Hemingway wrote every morning, without fail. Susan Sontag wrote every morning too, and always by hand. Another Susan – Susan Wiggs – also writes her first drafts by hand, in a spiral bound notebook and always with a peacock blue fountain pen. Michael Connelly writes daily and wherever he finds himself, but if he’s at home and in any kind of routine he prefers morning since he ‘likes to get a lot done before the city wakes up.’  Stephenie Meyer is the exact opposite: she can’t focus on writing anything fresh when the sun is out. Only when her kids are in bed for the night can she concentrate on writing her books.

Which just goes to show you that a writing day can also be a writing night.

Next week, what lessons did you learn the hard way, and what do you wish you knew starting out?

My October Reads

Some days chickens, other days feathers. When the feathers are flying and the chickens are in short supply – in other words when life isn’t unfolding according to plan, escaping into a good book can be a godsend. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing lately. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Beside the fire: The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

At the gym: The Road to Enchantment by Kaya McLaren

Before bed: Bringing Your Soul to Light by Dr. Linda Backman

Books read to date in 2018: 65

Fitness . . . Just Another F Word?

For some, the mere mention of the word fitness sends us into, well, fits. One friend of mine is convinced fitness is the ultimate F word. She’s a nurse with a job that keeps her active and on her feet, but that’s not the case for us writers. Writing is, by nature, a sedentary activity and so are many writing-related activities. Things like reading, research, and interviewing people for background information are almost always done sitting down.

Since this Wednesday marks National Women’s Health & Fitness Day, it’s a great time to look at some of the ways writers can get out of that seat and stay active.

Get a treadmill desk. You’ll get used to it quickly (I did) and you’ll find your energy, creativity, and general fitness improving. If a treadmill desk isn’t doable for you, consider a standing desk, or sit on a balance ball chair. Any of those options don’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition; I switch from my sit down desk to my treadmill unit multiple times a day.

Set a timer so you remember to get up and move around, ideally every hour. Some writers go so far as to do push ups and sit ups during their break time. I am not one of them.

Take a daily walk. Team Sheltie demands a walk several times a day, even in inclement weather. I normally take them out first thing in the morning and again just before dinner, but in the winter when the light levels are low, I sometimes switch it up and get them out midday. Invariably, I come back to my desk energized and primed to write.

Look for reasons to be active. Gardening keeps me upright and moving (and my muse seems to really like digging in the dirt). Work in a hike when you visit with a friend. Cycle to the library or the grocery store. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Small things, simple things, but the small, simple things add up.

Stretch. My weekly yoga class is a lifesaver, not only for my cramped and tight muscles but also for reducing stress. You don’t need a class to do yoga, however; the stretches can be done anywhere you have a few feet of floor. Pick postures to loosen your shoulders and neck from being hunched over the keyboard (bow pose, eagle arms, fish or ear to shoulder) and your hips and hamstrings from sitting (lizard, half-pigeon, the warrior, or the bridge).

Finally, baby your hands and wrists. It may not be part of being fit and active, but injuries to hands and wrists will curtail output, which could lead to depression, which could lead to more time on the couch. Check your posture; improper posture when typing can strain your wrists. Use an ergonomic mouse with a track ball and alternate hands. Stretch and flex your wrists and hands regularly. I like to use a squeeze ball; I keep mine on the desk as a reminder to use the thing (it doesn’t work sitting in the drawer). Finally, seek help the minute you feel pain. I’ve successfully treated wrist pain with acupuncture, while other writers rely on physiotherapy, ice or a wrist brace.

Happy healthy writing.

Hats and Books, Oh My

Writing books and making hats have something in common. Who knew? I certainly didn’t when I commissioned Lynda Marie http://www.lyndamariemillinery.com/to make a fascinator for me to wear to our daughter’s wedding. She knew the color of my dress (royal blue), the basic style (simple) and that I was wearing fun, in-your-face pink shoes. I wanted something elegant, I told her. Wedding guest classy, maybe with a little touch of sass.

I was excited when she showed me some of the elements she planned to incorporate. It was going to be beautiful; I had no doubt about it.

A few weeks later she called to say it was ready. Full of anticipation, I went to her studio. The fascinator was gorgeous, I absolutely loved it, but it wasn’t what I expected. In fact, Lynda Marie ended up using almost none of the original elements she’d planned to use. “I tried,” she told me. “I really did. I kept fiddling and rearranging and trying to incorporate some of the pink polka dots and a little of the other material too, but the result just didn’t feel right.”

I know that feeling. There have been times, particularly in the early stages of a novel, where I’ll fiddle and rearrange and fiddle again. Something just doesn’t feel right. If I can’t stop fiddling, I know I need to take a step back and re-evaluate. Is the premise weak? The character’s motive flawed? Is the tone off? Am I worrying too much about whether the story will sell rather than the story I have to tell? If my gut tells me something is off, then something usually is off. Gut feelings rarely steer you wrong.

The same can be said for bespoke hats. “I was trying so hard to make it work but that first creation didn’t feel elegant,” Lynda Marie says. “I was fighting with the pink polka dots and trying to force it because we’d talked about using them, but the result was nothing remotely close to what we’d envisioned.” She pauses. “Some hats come together easily and others don’t, but as my boyfriend reminded me, if I didn’t like the result then chances are you wouldn’t either.” As soon as Lynda Marie let go of what she thought she needed to do and went with what the fascinator was trying to tell her, the piece came together quickly and easily.

Sometimes we have to get out of our own way, leave our expectations at the door, and let the hat or the book or the painting or the quilt (or whatever else we’re trying to create) tell us what it wants to be. Sometimes we have to let the muse have her way.

The results, inevitably, will always be far more beautiful than we could have imagined.