Got Navel?

UGH.

How many times am I allowed to moan about this book???

Lots, right? I knew I could count on you. Because it’s “sucking the life out of me.”

That is a phrase a friend of mine uses all the time. And I’ve created a character based on her. Too much, in fact, and that’s part of what’s got me so rattled here.

So I ask you: How much do you pull from the real world in your writing? Does privacy and human decency keep you from stealing people’s looks, mannerisms, speech, and actions?

Apparently, I have no such qualms. Everything is up for grabs as long as I can change the names. Of course, I’ve pissed people off by doing that. There’s a reason Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. Because after he’d looked maybe too homeward in Look Homeward, Angel, no one would let him back in the door.

On the one hand, I think us navel gazers get a bad rap. navel gazingYes, we can be self-absorbed and even downright offensive in our depictions of the people and places around us (the truth hurts, no?). Yet even though I dream of living in other cities, traveling to other countries, and meeting people from all walks of life, I find it hard to write beyond my own yard. Even my own house. Because that’s where life resides.

On the other hand, there’s that pesky problem of stifled creativity. How much do you take out from what’s real? How much do you put in? How much is story-worthy anyway?

Today, I let the character tell me. I was finally able to step away from the persona I thought she possessed, and let her do something totally out of sync with what my real friend would do. She came up with a strange thought, spoke it out loud, other characters reacted in a stunned but believable way, and I sat back and said, “Huh. That was cool.”

Whew! Big sigh of relief. Because she’s starting to push me around now, and tell me that she’ll take over from here on, thank you very much. And I couldn’t be happier to let her.

Thomas Wolfe understood the easy lure of the familiar, but also the delicate maneuver of turning reality into story. And he was willing to deal with the aftermath. (In fact, when he later wrote Of Time And the River, many of those people who were mad about Look Homeward, Angel were ticked off again—but this time because he left them out of the book.)

So if you’re at all into writing about real life, I say go ahead and steal from your world. It’s your world, after all. It’s your own damn navel too. And when you’re ready, hopefully your imagination will take those ideas and spin them out into something bigger.

And, huh. Wouldn’t that be cool?

–Cathy

Prop Me Up

I came across a very interesting essay by author/writing coach Steve Adams on Glimmer Train’s website. His advice is thoughtful, and I particularly like his notion of “transitioning into a creative state” when you write. That is what happens, isn’t it? Writing means putting aside the every day concerns of life and honing in on the creation of something that is imbued with great meaning and purpose—for the writer at least. It’s a transformative process.

Steve offers some great tips to help writers make that necessary transformation. The coffee shop seat that just “feels” rights, the mandatory cup of tea, the right background music or complete silence? Every writer has a different prop. What are yours?

Here are a few things that help me let go this world and enter into a fictional one. I’m grateful for each one.

  • A corner table in a coffee shop where no one knows me. Being around strangers—without having to engage with them—creates a private public space that I find stimulating.
  • A view of the natural world. Even if I’m just looking out on my own backyard, feeling my connection to a larger, more permanent and self-sustaining system comforts and reassures me.
  • A pet in the room. Dogs are fine when they’re sleeping and their occasional doggie sighs punctuate my work. But cats are best. Their composed, quiet observance gives me confidence. Their dignity is admirable. Cats are nearby but not overwhelming, companionable but not crowding.

–Karen

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Do you Shift F5?

keyboard

If you use Word to write your documents, like most of the free world, Shift F5 is the best little trick ever.

I used to put symbol markers in my long writing projects. At the end of each session, I’d slip in an asterisk so I could search for it when I revisited the piece to find where I left off. But when I started to use asterisks to denote breaks in time, that got confusing. I finally settled on a percent sign, which I would never use in regular text and was easy to find. This worked great, except I’d forget to delete it, and have a sentence like, “She turned off the light and shut the door.%”

Uh. No.

So I may be the last person on the planet to discover Shift F5, but I’ll relate this news just in case you also live in a cave. Hold down these two little keys when you first open your Word document, and you will be magically spirited to the exact spot you were working on when you left off. No hidden symbols! No searching for your last entry (and invariably getting caught up reading old stuff when you should be WRITING).

Shift F5 has made this book just a little bit easier for me to work on. And it’s got me to thinking about all the things–large and small–that we struggle against as we try to squeeze in some kind of writing every day. To be able to effortlessly skim past what’s been done before and start fresh where we left off is not only convenient, it’s kinda’ breathtaking.

Because, Jay Gatsby aside, it really may not be such a hot idea to relive the past, getting lost along the way.

Gatsby

Better to look ahead to the next great thing. That won’t happen if you can’t get past your beginning pages.

So I’m going to do my 20 minutes (or more!) now. And see if I can Shift F5 my way to accomplishing something.

What keeps your writing moving forward?

–Cathy

(P.S. So psyched to have a shot of Robert Redford in a post! Didn’t see that one coming.)

Fried Brain, Over Easy

It goes without saying that notable—especially if they’re traumatic—events derail a writing routine. Real life drama always trumps the stuff I’m making up, and the tapped-out, fried-brain feeling I’m left with just isn’t conducive to submerging myself in the fictional dream. I’ve usually given myself a get-out-of-writing-free pass at these times.

There are, however, more minor brain fryers that tend to distract me maybe too much. In retrospect, they’re easy to put in perspective. But sometimes we live in the moment. Here, in no particular order then, are some of the idiosyncratic things that can throw me off track…just temporarily. What are yours? The weird and the commonplace are equally welcome. We’re a judgment free zone here at Write Despite.

A really lousy day at work

Maybe I dropped the ball. Maybe no one will pass me the ball. Maybe the office jerk ratio has grown too skewed. Whichever, this kind of stuff can get to me…if the circumstances and my frame of mind are conducive.

Dental work

Tinkering with teeth provides discomfort and, for me, a little reminder of my own mortality all in one package deal! Fun.

Worrying about my kid (when I don’t need to)

Nothing trumps the kid. Let’s just put it right out there. Never is a minor issue blown further out of proportion than when it relates to the kiddo.

Total brain overload

After focusing very intently for an extended period on whatever task or issue is before me, my brain is now toast. Intellectual engagement of any sort is finished for the day. As a colleague recently put it, I’ve maxed out my “cognitive bandwidth.” It’s time for a nice Lifetime television fix.

–Karen

Getting From A to B

Lots of comments on Write Despite lately about the peril of the early process, about how difficult it is to get a project off the ground without falling into despair. Let me add my voice and suggestions to the fray—for what they’re worth.

At this early stage in the new novel process, I’m struggling to silence my internal editor (IE.) You know the IE. It’s that needling, little voice that delights in pointing out what ISN’T working in your manuscript.

This is not the time for criticism. I first need to get my arms around what IS working. And it doesn’t take long, when I’m feeling my way into a new project, to realize that structure is central. It’s not an easy concept to wrap your mind around because structure is so complex and works on so many different levels. Here’s a blog post I recently stumbled upon that spells out the basics pretty succinctly:

http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/01/5-elements-of-story-structure.html

Outlining is one thing that helps me map out a long project. I tend to do two types of outlines. One is the overall, broadly sketched arc of the narrative with the beginning, the middle and the end marked, as well as the major plot points and scenes that occur in each section and drive the narrative engine forward. The overall is something that I fill in slowly as the pieces of the storyline fall into place and the book progresses.

The other type of outline is nothing more than a hastily assembled sketch or list of essential points I want to cover in a given chapter or chapters. It’s a micro-outline that gets me from scene to scene and then from chapter to chapter, connecting the dots as I go.

At the end, I stand back and see if I’m getting from beginning to middle to end in a compelling way. That’s when the rewriting starts, and the IE gets to speak up. She always has a lot to say, but you know what? It’s not all bad, and you can’t ask anymore than that of a first draft.

— Karen

 

File it Away

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So I have to tell you I nearly gave up this whole book this weekend.

I was hating it. Hating all my stupid characters with their whiny voices and nondescript little screwed up lives. And hating that I’ve committed a whole year to writing about them and thinking it’s just not going to happen.

So not a good way to start.

I grumbled about all this to Spock on date night on Friday. And I told him to come up with an idea for a superfantastic, kickass book. And pronto.

He said he’d get back to me.

And here’s the thing. He did. And it is a superfantastic, kickass book idea. No kidding. He’s an engineer and not supposed to be able to come up with grand fiction ideas. I don’t know that he’s even read any fiction other than The Godfather, which he likes to quote at random. (“Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again!”)

But with Spock’s blessed backup idea waiting in the file folders of my little pea brain, I was able to actually relax a bit and take a second look at this hot mess of a novel I’ve started.

I decided I like the first section. So I went back to it. I started expanding it, exploring where it can go, and taking my time with this one character instead of the other four I’d planned on. I may just give the whole book to this one stinking character and give up the shifting POV plan. I may just set the whole thing on the moon. I mean, that’s why they call it a first draft, right?

And with that little hurdle jumped, I’m back in the game, folks. At least for now. Take that, Writer’s Block.

I also have to tell you about a great little tool called Dropbox. Do you ever find yourself at a different computer with time on your hands, wishing you had your writing-in-progress with you so you could work on your stuff? Well, just save it onto Dropbox. It’s a free service that lets you store and even share your documents in that lovely “magic cloud” thing. You can even put photos on there. Check it out at:  www.dropbox.com.

And with that, I’ll sign off and hope for the best for tonight’s 20-minute session. (Otherwise, Spock’s file folder awaits.) Hope you’re all ENJOYING your projects, and that the work is going great for you!

–Cathy

When Time is Not on Your Side

There are days when the world simply conspires against this writing habit, when I get zero keyboard time alone at my desk. That’s when a pen and some paper (or a laptop) and some really efficient time management come into play. If I can’t set time aside for writing, I can usually steal it in small increments throughout the day. Now, I’m not fussy about location. Years in the news business trained me to write anywhere, with almost anything going on in the background. Here are some hidden writing opportunities I’ve exploited:

  • When the baby or toddler is napping. A no-brainer
  • Lunch hour at work
  • The weekly grocery store run, whip out the pad and pen for 15-20 minutes in the car, alone, before heading into the store.
  • Traveling — trains and planes work, as do their respective waiting terminals. Buses could, too, if you’re not prone to motion sickness when reading
  • Waiting rooms — doctors, dentists, auto mechanics all offer valuable “down time” that can be put to good use

And then there’s always this to remember, and to take some consolation in: Time spent thinking about your project, mulling over the plot points that just aren’t jelling or the minor character who isn’t living up to his potential, is time spent on your writing. No sincere effort is ever wasted.

What little tips and tricks help you squeeze writing into the day? Share and inspire, or at least make us laugh.

— Karen

Two Weeks In

Two weeks, 30 pages.

We’re in this for real now, people.

Just to clarify, I have not cheated. I have not skimped. I have not even cried real tears yet. Although there was that one day I got really cranky, but I think that was when the toilet broke. Or was it when our town was well into Day 3 of the fog that has enveloped us like a big…giant…fog-like thing? Seriously, hanging in this part of Virginia lately feels a little like living in Forks, Washington. (Twilight, ok? Yes, I’m referencing Twilight, even though I’m more of a True Blood fan.) You drive around in your big old minivan at night and I swear you expect a vampire to jump out in front of you at any second. It’s been that gloomy, and cold, and just plain creepy.

Anyway, like I say, I’ve been faithful to this challenge. Even though it’s kicking my ass. But I do have 30 pages. Did I mention that? And I do feel like I’m doing something, even if it’s all convoluted and crazy and going in many very strange directions.

My problem with this one is structure. I have five different characters speaking in this book, and I’ve never done that before. I’ve always been too lazy to try to imagine different points of view, and now I see why. It’s like writing a whole bunch of different short stories. And it is HARD.

So the other day I just sat back and thought, what could help? What could guide me? What could give me some basic tips here?

And then it hit me. A BOOK.

Yeah, a real, live, published piece of fiction that actually works.

So I found one on my trusty bookshelf—one that uses multiple voices to tell a story. And I started reading. Not to steal ideas, of course, but to learn something, to absorb the nuances and the rhythm of each character and how the author made them each completely distinctive, and how the events in their lives overlapped and wound apart, and came together again.

It helped. So I guess that’s my message this week. Dust off the books if you feel the need, go back to the basics. Unclog the toilet. Find your way through the fog.

Just do the work. It should, with any luck, all come together in the end, right?

So how goes it for you guys? How far in are you? What’s been hard? How’s the weather your way?

Write well, my friends. Only 50 weeks (or however many YOU have left) to go.

–Cathy

Soul, Sister

So, I’m thinking a lot about “voice” these days. With the first draft of the two opening chapters of my new tome almost finished, I’m paying a lot of attention to what the writing sounds like, to what kind of world I’m inviting a reader to enter.

For me, voice—that sustainable tone and mood set by the subtle interplay of language and observation—is what makes a story. I’m a pretty charitable reader of other people’s work. I forgive the occasional narrative line bumbles and rough spots, if I feel like I’m reading something that is compelling and authentic, and it’s showing me something new about the world.

Errors and bumbles can always be fixed, and, hey, nothing’s perfect. But voice is different. I think of voice as the “soul” of a story. And without a soul, what have you got? Just a lot of noise.

Let me give a shout-out here to novelist and super-blogger Amy Sue Nathan whose forthcoming debut novel, The Glass Wives, will be published by St. Martin’s Griffin in May 2013. Amy kindly allowed us to post as guest bloggers on her terrific site, Women’s Fiction Writers. We’ve connected with a whole new bunch of cool writers as a result.

So please check out Women’s Fiction Writers and pick up The Glass Wives this spring. Keep the good vibes going round.

— Karen

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Feeling the love–or not

If you’re a writer, you’ve been there. You’ve got a story to tell. You’re full of ideas on how to tell it. Interesting characters and scenes have been unfolding–just not today. I once read an interview with a highly regarded novelist who admitted that she, in fact, did not write every day. The reason being she didn’t have something to say every day. Yeah.
There are days when what I write is bad, forced and uninspired, and you can almost hear my teeth gritting as I try to engage my brain. It happens. Other days the process is almost effortless. Those are the magic days. Most of the time my efforts fall somewhere in between. And that’s okay. I’ve come to learn that even on crappy days, time logged on my writing is valuable. Thinking about the story, thinking about the characters, even if I can’t string a sentence together, is valuable. I hit on things, realize things on those slow days that help feed what I write the next day and the day after. Sound familiar to anyone?
So take it easy on yourself on the crappy days. Just keep showing up. Writing is a job. We’re not all at our best every day on the job. But we keep showing up. We keep trying. And in the end we get paid.
–Karen