I Did It Anyway

obstaclesYesterday I put my last submission of the year in the mail. (This was one of those rare markets where you actually send in a paper copy.) And I did it despite all contrary conditions. Despite the printer running out of ink. (I had a supply of cartridges, but installing a new one took precious minutes.) Despite my cat pestering me incessantly for attention. Despite the pressure of an 11:00 AM appointment. Despite having a crisis moment when I forgot how to perform certain formatting functions in Word. Despite all the piled up after holiday chores, nagging at the corner of my eye. Despite my own misgivings about the story: was it good enough? Had I made it the best I possibly could? Won’t they get hundreds of submissions and do I even have a chance? Despite all the obstacles and set-backs, I did it anyway. That’s just what I do. It’s just what we do. We writers.

There are always going to be challenges in everything in life. So what? Nobody has it easy and it’s not easier for others, no matter how it appears from the outside. If we want the results, we press on. And I especially wanted to get the story off yesterday, even though there’s no fixed deadline. I wanted to be able to say, at least regarding the calendar year, “I finished strong.” In whatever way you choose, I wish the same for you.

 

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Season’s Readings

irving berlin3At this time of year, who can resist the story of the composer of “White Christmas?” Not me.   I do love biographies, but this one is exceptional. It’s about a genius, of course. But it’s also about three of the things I care most about: music, writing and the mystery of creativity.

In addition, Irving Berlin: New York Genius is about so much more. James Kaplan has set Berlin’s life in the context of the immigrant experience, New York in the late nineteenth century, the theater and Broadway, the literary life of the 1920’s and 30’s, early Hollywood and America during the war years and the depression. While these topics are merely background and obviously not covered in depth, they add immeasurably to the rich portrait of an extraordinary life. It’s an inspiration for me as a writer. The main lesson: work. According to sources, Berlin believed in perspiration, not inspiration. Hmmm. Sounds like a New Year’s resolution in the making.

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Looking Backwards

nostalgiaI’m not one for nostalgia. I don’t view the past with some hazy golden glow.  I remember all too well the struggles, heartbreaks and hard work of my younger years. Besides, I’m happy now, so the past holds little attraction for me. There is one area, however, where I do tend to dwell on the past. I remember and relive my past writing successes and triumphs, publications and awards. I review in my mind work I published long ago, or last year. While I’m proud of them, I also keep thinking of ways I could have made them better. Well, that ship’s sailed. Okay, it’s possible I might gather and reprint some of them into a collection, in which case I can make some additional tweaks. But, barring that, they’re done, over with, and in many cases, forgotten. In fact, as I look back at some of them, they deserve to be forgotten.

Which is actually one of the benefits of this particular time suck. It reminds me that I’ve indeed come a long way. I’m a much better writer now. And during periods of writing blocks, this reminiscing also reminds me that, yes, I’ve done it before and I can do it again. The only caveat: I mustn’t ever rest on my laurels. Sure, remember my successes fondly for a while. Then get on with the process of creating new work to be proud of.

 

 

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Roughing It

rough3In my last post, I talked a bit about how we get ideas. But getting the idea is worthless if we immediately lose its essence. We have to capture not just the idea, but its context. Many writers talk about carrying around a small notebook for these occasions. Or, you can verbally record a note into your phone for later playback. Yet, there are times when neither of these is possible, like in a dark movie theater or when your friend is sobbingly recounting the tragedy of watching her cat die of a stroke. You can’t just whip a scrap of paper and say, “excuse me a minute. (Scribble.) Now, what were you saying?”

Okay, so you record ideas when you can. But I’ve found, for me that isn’t sufficient. I end up with cryptic notes that no longer have the slightest meaning. I find things like “rain barrel” or “dirty socks.” At the time I record them, they are so vivid, I’m certain I’ll remember later what story the image created in my mind. But later, no matter how hard I try, I can no longer recall what brilliant idea these words were meant to capture. So, for me, I’ve found that it’s essential to add a rough draft of the concept. E.g., “dirty socks. Is his relationship was on the rocks. Had he been showing other signs that I had glossed over? Is his mental health in danger?” That sort of thing. Just something that will give me a clue what to do with my strange notations. The more I can rough out my ideas when they occur to me, the easier it is to flesh them out later on. It doesn’t have to be an entire draft, of course. But definitely more than just “dead bird” or “that shade of red.” Things that leave me scratching my head, going “Wha???” Otherwise those brilliant ideas never get written. Luckily, as I wrote before, there are always more ideas out there.

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Stray Cats

stray cats2Ideas, it seems to me, are like stray cats. First of all, they’re everywhere, even when you can’t see them. Sometimes, especially when you can’t see them. Sometimes you see them, try to approach them, and they dart away. Feral, you know. Other times, you see one, it allows you to pick it up, it nestles in your arms, and is thrilled to be found. But, occasionally, one shows up in your yard. You didn’t notice it arriving, just, suddenly, there it is. It may run away if you try to touch it, but after you retreat, it may stay and hang around. Kind of always there in the background. If you leave out a bit of food, it may wait till you’re not looking, then take a nibble. If it starts to eat regularly, word gets around, and other stray cats are likely to show up. If you begin to nurture them, rather than ignore them, they stick around. Eventually, one or more may become tame enough for you to bring it inside, get rid of the fleas and other flaws, and teach it good behavior, like using the litter box. Soon you have a well-nourished, healthy, flourishing cat. Then, like ideas that you have developed into a healthy piece of writing, you try to find it a home. When that happens, you’ve made room for the next cat–or rather idea.

Certainly you can foster multiple cats, or multiple ideas at a time. But don’t worry about letting any of them go, if they are not meant to be domesticated by you. There’s always plenty more out there, just waiting for the right house, the right yard, the right moment, and especially, the right person.

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The Least I Can Do

first stepWriting can be overwhelming. It’s like any other huge job. Getting a college or advanced degree. Cleaning out the garage. Getting your affairs in order, for when you die. All the advice books tell you to break it all down into small, manageable steps. Then take that first step. But, for writing, what is the smallest possible step? Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • For a blog: Click on “new post.” The blank new post template will appear. Put words, any words, in the title space. Go from there. Remember, you don’t have to publish it. You just need to produce something.
  • For a story: Take out a blank tablet or note pad. Place it in the middle of your work space. Come up with the name of a character. Any name. Start describing that person. Is this a character you can build a story around, or insert into a story you’re currently working on?
  • For an essay: Ditto about the blank tablet or note pad. Jot down the ideas that obsess you, the ones that keep creeping back into your mind when you’re doing something else. For me, those ideas include: hunger; loneliness; hoarding; aging, and a few others. These are not necessarily issues that I’m dealing with myself. They’re just ideas that I can’t let go of. Then jot down all the words that you associate with those images. Can you build an essay out of that?

You may already have an idea of where you want to go, the story you want to tell or the novel you want to write. You may already have a great opening line or scene in mind. But if you don’t, the goal is to start somewhere, with something. You have to get those first words or thoughts down on paper or on the screen. This particular first step may not go anywhere. But without that, there is, will be, nothing.

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Distraction Subtraction

blinders2“A definite purpose, like blinders on a horse, inevitably narrows its possessor’s point of view.” Robert Frost

Horses have their eyes on the sides of the heads. They wear blinders to keep them focused on the task at hand, and not startled or distracted by objects or movement in their peripheral vision. Whether this is annoying to the horse, I have no idea. But, if not dealt with, distractions have the potential to kill my writing. I can’t imagine wearing physical blinders (yes, blinders for people are a real thing), so I have to come up with other methods. For the physical distractions: work at the library or the coffee house. At home, temporarily put all the piles of stuff currently on the desk and not related to the current project in another room. Take Freecell off the computer, or at least hide the icon. Like the horse, out of sight, out of mind, works for me.

For the mental distractions: make a list of must-do’s so I’m not wrestling with the fear of forgetting something crucial, then put that list on the piles of stuff in the other room. Otherwise it just becomes one more distraction. I mean, it has to be the perfect list, right? Plus, if it’s in front of me, the temptation is to keep adding to it, re-arranging, perhaps ticking off just the one item. Deadlines help, as does having a critique or writing partner. Most important, I must learn to ignore the thoughts that push into my brain. You know the ones. I’m not good enough. This idea isn’t good enough. I should be working on a more substantial project (which somehow also never gets done). One way I handle those is to remember how important writing is to me. Too important to let one more day slip by without making progress, without producing something, without getting better at my craft, and way, way too important to let my doubts, fears and lack of confidence destroy my dream. When I’m truly focused on my goal, distractions magically vanish. They come roaring back, of course. But at least for those moments, I have won.

 

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Didja Ever Notice?

piles of booksThe Pasadena (Ca.) choice for the 2020 One Book One City event is The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott. (It looks terrific!) One of the local branches of the Pasadena Public Library set up a display table with a dozen or so books that had the word “secrets” in the title. There are plenty of them, as just a simple keyword search in their book catalog (or any catalog, or Amazon, Goodreads, etc.) will show. And they didn’t even include The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty. But it reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about awhile, namely, how often titles, especially in the mystery/suspense genre seem to use similar words repeatedly. For a while, there were the “girl” titles: Gone Girl (Flynn), An Anonymous Girl (Hendricks/Pekannen), The Girl Before (Delaney). Then there are the “woman” titles: The Woman in the Window (Finn), The Woman in Cabin 10 (Ware), The Other Woman (Jones). The “wife” titles: The Silent Wife (Harrison), The Wife Between Us (Hendricks/Pekkanen–again), The Perfect Wife (Delaney–again). Right now, there are a lot “bone” or “bones” in titles. Wife, woman, girl–these are pretty common words. More interesting are the titles that include “whisper” et al: The Whisper Man (North), The Whisperer (Fossum) and The Whisper Network (Baker–not a suspense novel, but excellent all the same).

Studies have shown that the human brain is wired to find patterns, even when there are none, so likely this is just me being aware of some titles and not the myriad of other ones out there. But it gives me pause. I know titles are important for my own work, whether stories, essays, poems or books. How do you choose a title that both entices the reader, gives a feel for what’s inside, and still offers something different from the thousands of books and stories published every year? No wonder it sometimes take as much effort to nail down a good title as it does to secure the original idea for a new work.

By the way, I can say with assurance I have read every title mentioned above and recommend them all. Happy reading!

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Process: The Short Story

girl writingI can only speak about how it works for me. I am impelled to start a story in several ways. The first way is that a story just springs to mind, something I have to write, or perhaps a character that fascinates me, that I must build a story around. Another way is a contest or event, like Bouchercon, that solicits stories. A third way is a journal, online or print, that I respect and want to get into, so I come up with a story I think they might like. The fourth way is “the call.”

Here’s how it goes: An editor puts out a “call” for an anthology centered on a theme, let’s say, crab traps or antique tennis balls. He or she helpfully includes a link to a website devoted to such items. The theme is one I feel an affinity for, so I click on the link. Sure enough it’s a wealth of information. For instance, the evolution of the modern tennis ball, famous collectors of antique tennis balls, how to spot a fake antique tennis balls, antique tennis ball events, conventions, etc. in your geographic area, the astronomical price a rare antique tennis ball fetched at a recent auction, and on and on.

Reading through the site I jot down a few facts or whatever that intrigue me. I let that simmer for a few days, as ideas for plots and characters flit through my mind. Nothing gels. I go back to the site and find more ideas. I have them all on a list on a yellow pad.

Finally my thoughts seem to circle around one particular image or fact. I mull that over, adding possible motives for murder, weapons, locales. Eventually, I come up with the scaffolding of a story. I begin to add timelines, bits of dialogue and motivation. Character descriptions get fleshed out.

At this point, I can talk it over with someone, either a critique partner or someone else who’s gets what I’m doing. As I tell the story, it’s structure gets clarified in my mind. My listener may suggest tweaks or point out weaknesses. The story gets better. At this point, I’m ready to start the first written draft.

I write about one-third of the story. This is where I stop. I’m convinced the story is lame, the dialogue unnatural, the characters mere puppets, the motivation for the crime not believable, and it doesn’t include enough connection to the prompt.

Okay, maybe all those things are true, I say to myself. But so what? You’re halfway there, you’ve done all this work, why not finish it. Then decide whether to junk it or polish it and submit. And, after a few days, I do, in spite of having little faith. Because part of me really likes this story. The fun part kicks in again. I want to see it through. I finish the first draft, let it rest, revise, improve, revise, improve, falling more in love with it all the time. At last I take a breath and send it off. Does it get accepted? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Either way, there are always more “calls”, more jogs to the creative mental forces to generate new stories. With those that don’t get accepted at the initial market, I build up an inventory. With revision, I’ve placed older stories in new markets. I also get better all the time. It’s a process. It repeats itself. It works for me.

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Respect

guitarI’ve played the guitar for decades. Well, sort of. I know lots of chords and chord progressions in several keys. But basically I’ve just plunked along, self taught, or with tips from people who were better than I. A few years ago, I finally started formal lessons. One of the things often said about the guitar is that it’s an easy instrument to play, but a hard instrument to play well. So true.

After a couple of years of lessons, I wasn’t much further along that when I started. I practiced not nearly enough. That goes without saying. But a couple of months ago, I realized I had other tendencies that were working against me. These were tiny things that I thought didn’t matter. I would be too rushed to file my nails. I’d wait till I got into the classroom to tune the guitar. When I did practice, I’d sit on any old chair or couch, just to get it done.

What I realized was that these tiny lapses were essentially expressing disrespect–for my stated goal of wanting to play better, for the difficulty of what I was attempting, and for all the time and money I was spending to get there. Now I make sure that, even if I haven’t practiced as much as I would like, I’m prepared in all the other ways. I practice on a straight chair that promotes good posture and guitar position. I have my music on a music stand, not just spread out on a table or footstool in front of me. I tune the guitar every time I pick it up. For some reason, and without my consciously doing it, these small changes have resulted in more, and more regular, practice. And I’m better. I can tell. So can my teacher. He doesn’t know that I’ve made these slight changes in attitude and behavior. But he sees and applauds the results.

Now I get the pleasure of progress, incremental perhaps, but noticeable. It makes me wonder, are there ways in which I’ve been treating my writing with lack of respect? If so, and if I correct them, will I also become a better writer? Or am I already doing everything I can in that area? I don’t know yet. It deserves a fresh look. Who knows what I will find?

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