Brilliance, Stupidity, and Lemons: It’s Time for Free Writing

20170624_091249I am raising a toddler. He switches from ABC to 123 to twinkle twinkle as stream of conscious ramblings lead to an ocean of discovery, and eventually a nap. He plays with sounds, saying “car, caaaar, cart,” just to feel the difference.

He has linguistic freedom that few adults still possess. It’s the freedom to make mistakes: moco-bicycle (motorcycle), gump (jump), and pintable (pineapple). In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg helped me realize the value of this exploration:

The aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel…You are not carrying the burden of ego in your expression, but are riding for moments the waves of human consciousness and using your personal details to express the ride.

As a mom I get to widen my son’s field of discovery and gently correct his mistakes, but as a writer I get to learn from someone who is artless and experimental. I am relearning something I have long forgotten, to set aside personal, familial, societal, and even professional expectations, and explore without worrying whether or not it’s a ‘waste of time.’

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Goldberg has filled dozens of notebooks with blather and poetry. She lets herself write without destination. Most of those words are set aside and never looked at again, but they aren’t wasted. She encourages her readers to lower the bar.

If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus that expectation would also keep you from writing.

I tried to take her advice, but digging into my gut instincts meant fighting through layers of psyche. It it took time. I was uptight, grammatical, but I pushed through. My mind loosened up. Stress slipped onto the page and, when it ran dry, I turned a leaf and played.

Rest, and waiting for it to shatter. A little stiff, anticipating, but trying to taste the moments of silence.

Neck snapped for my health. Crackle-pop crick-crack geronimo.

Where is the in-between? I used to have it, but it got buried under a pile of toys. Balls, trains, dump trucks, and lemons. If I pull it out, rinse it off, will the wheels still turn?

The tidbits of thought got weirder as my my brain let go of its control-freak ways. Bizarre metaphors twisted through incomplete sentences and random words popped in just to see if they were welcome. With each page my writing got worse and worse but somehow became more true and more electric.

Free writing is the gateway to magical realism. It’s all the unexpected beauty that I want to create. Maybe the best way to find brilliance is to let yourself be a little stupid. Are you up for the challenge?

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Character Flaws & the Election: A Lesson in Empathy

20170226_144759I’ve always had a hard time writing flawed characters. Flaws were, to my goody-two-shoes brain, hard to write in a genuine way. I’ve rammed against this door, but I was never clever enough to pick the lock.

The election picked the lock for me.

I’m not going to make any statements about particular policies or politicians. I’m thinking about the citizens who strongly believe in their causes. There can be villains and heroes on both sides of an issue; it all depends on how they choose to support their views, how they respond when they meet adversity, and whether they pursue truth over agenda.

I saw people I deeply disagree with be courageous and honest, while people I generally agreed with were brutal and scheming, and vice versa. The issue in question made no difference. When such strong feelings rise to the surface, it’s all about character.

I saw fearful people. Some were blindly reactionary and violent, while others sat back and weighed their options before commenting. Gut instincts rose to the surface, cutting through those facade-like filters that people hide behind.

Witnessing human nature roar in such a dramatic way was enlightening. All I needed to do was turn the knob and open the door. I asked why. Why is this the hill that they’ve chosen to die on? What personal history makes these issues so deeply important to them? Why do they communicate their views the way that they do?

For me, 2016 was an exercise in empathy.

When you cut to the root cause of people’s words and actions, you can step out away from your own filters, set perceptions, and expectations. You see them for who they are and why they are. To write genuine character flaws, you don’t need to agree. You need to observe, and you need to care.

A Surprisingly Fond Good Riddance to 2016

nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_participant-150I’m sure most Americans will agree that 2016 was crazy. Stressful. Jaw dropping. Anger inducing. On the political side of things, we can barely cope right now. However, the state of politics, government, or our favorite social justice moment doesn’t have to dictate how our year went on a personal level. While everything around us is crappy, we still can grow.

This year was a big year of growth for me. My husband and I took on a level of stress we’d never faced together (big building project + 2.5 months of live-in in-laws) and we have learned to communicate and hug our way through it. For my writing, I confronted some deep issues in my first WIP, Dead Girl Swimming, that made me rethink how I tell stories and create characters.

DGS is the book that taught me how to write. I came up with the concept for it in high school and all through college I wrote and rewrote. It taught me to be a ruthless editor, a constant learner, a planner, and so much more. About two years ago I finally had a full first draft, I worked for months on a second draft, and then bam. My writing group gave me the bad, but very necessary news. It sucked. They didn’t use those words exactly, but, still, they were honest. I needed to break through my barriers and write something that was open, rich, and lifelike.

In 2016 I set that WIP aside and different story took hold. I gathered all that DGS taught me, plus the help of several writing books that I wish I had read years ago, and let the story simmer. I didn’t write it for about 6 months. I collected scraps of story, tucked them away for a while, then pounded out an outline. I let that outline sit until I had plenty of emotional distance, then I rewrote the outline.

When NaNoWriMo hit, I was ready. I wrote 50,000 words in 17 days.

I’m thankful to NaNoWriMo for forcing me to create a regular writing schedule. As a stay-at-home mom, time and energy to write is pretty hit and miss. But if I focus, I can regularly set aside 2-4 hours a day. So now, in December, I’m aiming to finish my draft at 90,000–currently on track at 65,000. The only reason I can produce so many words and power through the story like this is because of a few realizations:

  • Draft 1 is a throwaway draft. I don’t need to worry about having all the scenes right. I know that I’m going to cut whole chunks out of the middle, and I’m probably going to rewrite the entire ending. But that doesn’t matter. As I write, I learn more about my characters and my world, which will inform my draft 2 rewrite (I won’t even call it an edit).
  • Write what you’re excited about. I outlined thoroughly, and I’m very glad that I did, but I gave myself the freedom to bust out and write what I wanted. The further I got into the draft, what came out became more honest and character driven than before.
  • Find daily satisfaction in your progress. I found that I was highly motivated by NaNo’s word count tool. Now that NaNo is over, I found a tool to replace it. I also started a writing log, as is mentioned in “How I Went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to Writing 10,000 Words a Day.” The collected information, while helpful for analysis, mostly helps me feel that I accomplished something. That sense of satisfaction is very very hard to get when you’re working at home.
  • Find what works for you. My sense of organization doesn’t make me or my writing passionless–quite the opposite. People sometimes call me crazy for being so driven, but that just shows that I’m on the right track. I need to be disciplined and ever growing. Often that means using charts and graphs and outlines and binder tabs and all those beautiful things.

With that said, how have you grown this year? 

 

On NaNoWriMo, Productivity, & Anne Lamott

I hit 50k last week. I did a fist pump or two and promised myself that I’d keep writing 1k a day until Christmas. I’d have a full 90k draft to celebrate on Christmas morning, in the midst of stockings and cinnamon rolls.

Guess what? I haven’t written anything since then. Instead,  I spent a week editing on super speed for a client and, despite the super speed, it was super fun. So I’m a little off track, but I still have my eye on that 90k. Why? Writing has become part of my DNA. If I’m not writing a story, I’m editing one. If I’m not editing, I’m outlining. Brainstorming. Researching. Etc.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to keep moving forward. Keep writing, creating, playing, reading, dreaming, researching, and–believe me–analyzing. When you stay productive, the habitual cycle of consuming and creating will help you grow.

Stephen King’s On Writing encourages (almost demands) that you write every day. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott also encourages a productivity-centric mindset, but in a more poetic way.

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual act of writing–turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward (xxvi).

While I am still very publication/end goal/word count focused, it’s good to be reminded that the messy and challenging process is worth cherishing. Productivity isn’t just a means to an end, just as my life isn’t just a means to an end. Every day, even with all the mush and mundanity, is valuable. Those moments when I stare at the wall, wondering how the heck I’m going to get my character out of this life-and-death situation, I’m still doing valuable work. It’s all part of the process.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to extend my writing break for another day and read the next chapter of Bird by Bird. 

 

NaNo Day 2: Face That Monster

It’s only day 2 and I’m already seeing discouragement in some WriMos. Maybe that’s the fate of a pantser (says the perfectionist-overkill-planner) or maybe that’s just life for you right now. It’s busy!

There are many obstacles between you and 50k: time limitations, mental distractions, unclear writing goals, underdeveloped characters…etc etc etc.

Your job is to realize what your obstacles are before they block you for good. What is making 1667 per day so agonizing? Dig into your own psyche, schedule, or novel outline. If you can face that monster, then you can face 50k. You can do this.

I shared this article with my writing group a while back, and I’d like to share it with you too: “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a to 10,000 Words a Day.” It’s all about analyzing your own process, knowing how you work best, and running with it. Seriously, if you’re struggling at all, check it out.

My day 2 so far: I knocked out 1k this morning and I hope to write 1.5 more later today, which means finishing scene 2 and starting scene 3. I have the content all ready; I just need to be okay with it spilling out on the page in an unappealing pile of words. Mess is okay? Mess is okay. Mess is OKAY. (My mantra for the month, haha)

 

NaNo Day 1: Loving the Process, Hating the Gross

I had a hard time getting to sleep last night. Hubby and I watched the 2016 Ghostbusters that evening and the movie romped about my head, along with all the jokes, the characters, and the plot points that rattled like loose change if you shook them too hard. Ghostbusters, however, was only background noise. NaNoWriMo was really what kept me up. In only a few hours I would join thousands in the great migration from November 1st + 0 words, to November 30th + 50,000 words.

If you aren’t familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) the goal is to write 50,000 words, which comes down to an average of 1,667 words per day. If you’ve got 12 pt Times New Roman font and 1.5 spacing like me, that’s about 4 pages.

The month is full of people complaining, chugging coffee, writing crap, and loving every minute.

I prepped like crazy for this writing marathon. The first draft of my outline poured out of my head in April. I let it rest over the summer and reworked it in October. Now I have a 28 page outline that is laid out scene by scene. I have mapped my plot threads, my visual themes, my character arcs, my beats, and I am ready to go.

But still. Last night I worried. As I readjusted my pillow for the millionth time, I asked myself: Will these bullet point scenes survive the process? Do I have the skill to make it not only to 50k, but to the end of the story? Will I need to rewrite a lot later, or will all of this material be worthwhile?

I have analyzed my craft enough to know that it is technically possible to write a worthwhile 50k in 30 days, but the unmeasurable part of storytelling bothers me. I can’t quantify the heart of the story. Character psychology doesn’t fit into a chart; it needs to be set free. My story needs to unfold with the crackling of an old map. I can’t treat it like a graph on a scientific calculator. I need to let loose.

As I wrote this morning, on day 1 of NaNoWriMo, I turned 200 words of outline into 1690 words of manuscript. It is full of exposition, awkward transitions, ugly sentences, and notes-to-self (in parentheses). But it is written. And that is good. I’m hoping that NaNoWriMo’s whirlwind nature will save me from my perfectionism. I need to accept the gross first draft and learn to love the process. It’s go time and I am up for the challenge.

Fellow WriMos! How is Day 1 treating you? 

 

 

POW! Time for the Macro Edit

DSC07621The baby will wake up any minute, so I’ll make this quick and messy.

I wasn’t able to edit this summer. I had goals, I had plans, but none of them really panned out. That’s life. I simply need to adjust my expectations and move on. To look on the bright side, this gives me a fresh start. I got stuck last time in chapter 7. I had to rewrite most of the chapter, yet for some reason I was far too attached to the old material to let it go entirely. I tried to blend the two. It was like making a sandwich with one piece of moldy bread and one piece of fresh bread. It was terrible and I knew it.

I’m tucking away my old mentality and using these three pointers to keep me focused:

  1. This draft is a MACRO (yes, in all caps) run through. I need to whiz through and arrange chapters, POVs, timelines, and plot lines without getting bogged down in prose or even blocking and dialogue.
  2. Scrap what needs to be scrapped. If I hold onto moldy material, I’m just making my job much much harder than it needs to be. When I scrap stuff, I put it in a separate document just in case I’ll need it again, but, really, I never do. Someday I’ll put it to rest for good and toss it in the rubbish bin.
  3. POW! AKA screw subtlety. This draft is about impact. If a scene doesn’t offer emotional depth, I need to ask myself why. I can’t be subtle if I don’t have enough material to use in the first place. I might as well go big now so I can pare it back later.

Summer was stressful–this introvert had very little physical, emotional, and mental space to work with. So now that I have my space back, I am excited to start again! (And seriously, I finished this post just in time. My Little is just now waking up. Time to play with the ickle dude.)

How are you doing with your novel? Any edits driving you crazy? Spill. I’d love to hear about it. 

Clarity for a Scrambled Brain

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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!