Clarity for a Scrambled Brain


A writing groupie considers what jumble she can jive by shoving symbolism into the crannies.

At some point, we all forget how to word. The verbing wonks and we gnarl the parcels. Meaning goes blurr-lick.

My brain scrambled last week and I found myself asking, how does writing work again? That’s an awful question, but sometimes it’s necessary to admit that I need perspective.

This morning I ignored my chapter 6 deadline and focused instead on cleanup. Each hour of work is precious, so stopping myself took some effort. Instead of editing chapter 6, I transcribed some messy character notes, printed the fresh profile sheets, and, most importantly, read Snapshots by Paul Buchanan.

With each page my gnarl-goes-wonk dissipated. Buchanan’s writing is clean. It’s like looking into a crystal pool of water and wondering whether or not you can reach the bottom. Each image is purposeful. Nothing is wasted.

Snapshots reminds me of my short story class in college, where we practiced tight scene-work and were slashed to pieces with every critique. Those are good memories of trying, failing, trying, failing, and trying some more to become the writer that I want to be.

Every now and then I come across a new book that electrifies me. Sarah Addison Allen’s Peach Keeper did that a few months ago and, as my writing group knows, I would not shut up about it. It’s the type of book that makes me want to improve so badly that I ache for the time and the energy to grow.

I need to keep these books in sight. The writers who are devastatingly better than I am give me perspective. They humble; they encourage. It’s good for the soul.

When Dinosaurs Attack: On Writing and Motherhood

20160613_163830My baby is much more independent than he used to be. He’s on the verge of walking, and is quite capable of playing by himself. He folds the board book covers back, scoots random objects across the floor, sits on his musical toys so that they play the same song over and over, and when I’ve finally decided that it’s safe to start writing, he appears at my knee.

“Ai-ya-da! Umma-ma-maaaa.”

He whines for me to pick him up. Like the pushover that I am, I obey. My focus has evaporated anyway. Collect a handful of these focus-killers throughout the afternoon and I’ve got a writing-free zone. No prolonged brainwaves allowed.

As soon as I’m prepped for writing, he wanders into the elephant graveyard and almost gets eaten by hyenas. Well, he opens the entry cupboard and tries to eat the Calvin and Hobbes books. Even drafting a short blog post gets an interruption or two. Or seven. Add in that persistent solicitor who just tried to sell house-painting services, and suddenly you’ve got an angry momma. (I closed the door in his face. I normally try to be polite about it, but really? You’re interruping me while I write about…sigh…inevitable interruptions.)

Trouble rears its ugly head when my writing calls so intensely that I get frustrated with the distractions. If I was dealing with a time management issue, I would feel better about it. I could blame myself, analyze the problem, and fix it. But this isn’t fixable; it’s just motherhood. My baby has so much to learn and he’s working just as hard as I am. So who wins out? It’s a matter of priorities, and my baby is at the top. Go baby go! Learn baby learn!

My baby is an adorable giggling, smiling, wiggling, tyrant. Instead of fixing the issue, I just need to love my precious tyrant. I am blessed with a relatively happy one, too. I love him immensely. He’s too cute for words. I will work on better tactics, there are plenty out there, but not today. I just need to accept that sometimes something better crawls along and asks me to tickle him. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be blowing raspberries on my baby’s tummy. I’ve been challenged to play a game of “when dinosaurs attack.”

Drowning in the Ocean of Writing Advice

20160607_090710A surplus of writing advice floats about the internet. Even if you separate the good from the bad, you’ll still be flooded, drowning in opposing voices that support a variety of tactics, mindsets, and organizations. You’d think that good advice would be more unified, but legitimate methods have as much diversity as personality types.

I am currently working on my characters, thanks to the insights of my most recent beta readers (love you writing group!) and in response I’m absorbing as much as I can on the subject. Instead of browsing blogs for unfiltered advice from unknowns (like me haha), I dug into my pile of Writer’s Digest magazines. Their advice can be basic sometimes, but at least it has been vetted. Since I’ve subscribed to WD for many years, I have a huge stack of back issues on my shelf. I sifted through them and found articles that focus on characterization. Lo and behold, there were quite a lot. Characters are kind of important.

But even within WD, the advice varies a lot. Each writer has his or her background, style, and preferred approach. Stephen James wrote about power relationships in “Raise your Characters above the Status Quo” (July/August 2011 issue. I told you. I’ve been getting WD for a while now.) He writes detective fiction, which means that he creates hard boiled PDs. Of course power relationships are key to his characters but are they key to mine? David Corbett discusses action as essential for characterization in “Characters, Scene by Scene.” (January 2015 issue) Action is always an important way to expose character, but I still need to wrap my mind around character goals, backstory, psychology, change, etc.

With each article I round out my personal process. I note advice, jot it down, and tweak it, but many of the tips float away and I won’t bother to catch them. The nice part about having hard copies is that I know they’ll always be there. If I decide that what I retained was insufficient, I can easily reread them.

DSC00723Once my notes are complete, my character profiles can come out for a brainstorm session. I’ve got to let the process get messy again and bring the elements together, like mixing a deck of cards and hoping that a magic trick happens. (That’s how magic works, right?) No matter how well my characters grow, I’ll still have a ton of work ahead of me. It’ll be application time. My current goals (see here) are a little stretching, but I’m always up for a challenge. My stubborn desire to improve is pretty much the only reason I’m still writing. I have one more week to plan and (hopefully!) get ahead. Wish me luck!