The week that was

As weeks go, this one can best be described as … There are no words strong enough. I want to say it sucked, but long ago I forbade my sons to use that expression, so I can hardly use it now, in case they read this and say, “But Mom…”, dragging it out in a moan like they did when they were teenagers.

First, the weather.

I hate wind. Always have. Wind makes me break out in nerves. I keep thinking a tree will fall on the house. In fact, trees fell on several houses in the area, but mine was spared. So far. It’s still windy.

Then, a dear friend died unexpectedly. We are all still reeling. He was so much a part of our community and especially our local writers’ club. Where do we go from here without his guidance and leadership?

And, I’m having trouble with my book cover. I keep uploading it, only to discover CreateSpace has cropped off part of the title or some other essential copy. I thought I knew how to do this. I couldn’t remember how to make a .pdf from a .jpg. I finally figured it out, but it shouldn’t have taken so long. Maybe my mind is going. Something else to worry about.

Then Thursday, when I got home from paying bills and grocery shopping, Frenchy got on my lap. I looked down to pet her and discovered she had dug her ears raw. I called the vet and was told I could bring her in if I could be there in 15 minutes. I’ll just say I drove home at the speed limit.

So now she needs drops in her ears twice a day for two weeks. It’s a struggle, as she is certain the drops and/or I am out to kill her. First, I have to corner her, then somehow capture her and wrap her in a towel to prevent scratches (I already have enough battle scars from previous attempts). Then spend time calming her down and getting her to forgive me.

Most of these complaints are trivial, except for the loss of our friend. That’s major. All else falls away. My heart goes out to his wife, also a dear friend. I know what it is to be suddenly widowed. You aren’t ready. You’re never ready, but here it is, and you have to learn how to play the new role convincingly. So say a prayer for her.

Her week really sucked.

And I realize my petty concerns mean nothing at all.

Let the wind blow.

 

 

 

Writers retreat and beach memories

Home again!

I’m home after a week away. It was a fantastic week: sunrise over the ocean, the sky tinted pink and baby blue with whitecaps rolling against the shore.  Coffee, drifting to our self-appointed stations, everyone working on her project from a published writer meeting deadline to a novice working on her first draft. Ice cream breaks, walking along the beach, feet crunching over  broken shells or seeking balance on softly shifting sand, claiming the reward of sweet, cold strawberry or salty caramel. Silent afternoons, then laughter as eight women work together to prepare an evening meal.

It was a fantastic week in the company of women who got me, who understood what it is to create a story from nothing but our imaginations, what it means to select the right word, to bring a character to life.

They say writing is a lonely life. It is. It is the nature of the profession. Oh, we have critique partners, beta readers, editors, and hopefully, publishers, who help us along the way.  But the essential work is done inside our heads.

That’s why writer’s retreats, such as the one I just completed, are important. We remember we are not alone on our journey, that others are traveling the road with us. Some are a little ahead, and they look back and hold out a hand to help us along. And we do the same for those behind us.

I confess I was a little reluctant to go.  Live with strangers for a week? How did this work?

But I’m glad I did.  Within 24 hours, the doubts had fled. The strangers became friends. When the week was over we hugged goodbye with real emotion and pledged to meet again next year.

Did I accomplish the goal I had set? Yes, I did. I finished my edits. Others finished their drafts or met their deadlines. We all did what we came for, but for me, it was more than that.

It was realizing I was in good company. That I was not alone. That I was a part of a sisterhood of writers.

Of course I was glad to get home and accept the welcome meows of Spooky, Jack and Frenchie. There was mail, telephone messages, and the inevitable dirt to be swept up because my cats love to dig in the houseplants. Bags had to be unpacked, laundry done. Every vacation — even working vacations —  end.

But the memories remain.

 

 

 

Judge not…?

The thing about contests is that someone has to judge them. Not many people clamor to do this job, hence a little arm-twisting might be necessary to urge people to volunteer.

I volunteered along with three other members of my writing group to judge a neighboring county’s contest entries. It’s been a long-standing agreement that their club judge our contest entries and our club judge theirs.

So there we were, sitting around a kitchen table sipping water, tea, or diet soda, passing the pages around as each “judge” read and made notes. You may think we were in agreement on our choices, but that wasn’t the case. Some gave one story high marks while another called it average. We were divided on the poetry as well. We discussed our reasons for our decisions. No minds were changed, however.

Then we voted. The results were probably as fair as they could be. The only thing we agreed on was that some of the entries were categorized incorrectly. We could tell creative non-fiction from a short story, but somehow the writers could not.

I don’t like judging for the simple fact that 90 percent of it is subjective.  When I judge I weigh the merits of the story, its flow, the pacing. I want to care about the characters. I ignore typos and give some leeway on grammar. These things can be fixed. A story that goes off the tracks can’t. Yet others will leap gleefully on a misplaced comma and lower the rating accordingly.

I’ve entered contests and had my work returned with judge’s comments. Some were constructive, some not so much. Having been a judge myself, I know how impossible it is to be completely impartial. Our prejudices creep in. We like one genre better than another; we like one tense better than another. We try to be fair and push our preconceived notions aside. Sometimes we can.

Contests are important and often help the writer to become stronger, give her direction, help her see and overcome her weak points. If the writer enters in order to get this valuable feedback, she has won even if she doesn’t get to claim the prize.

Contests can provide confirmation to the winner. My hope is those who don’t place resolve not to give up, but to try again. Because it is’t the aim of contests to crush the writer who “failed.” Nor is it the aim of the judges to send a message “you’re not good enough” to these folks.

I’ve judged and been judged. Neither is easy. But in both cases, it helps us to grow as writers.

 

 

 

 

Claiming your title

I attended a library event last week and a woman came up to me and asked “Is your new book out? I can’t wait to read it.”

Pretty heady stuff! I’d like to say I ran home and finished the book, but alas, I am not one who can write 40,000 words in one day. Not even in a month with my 1,000 words a day schedule.

The important thing I took from this encounter was that someone recognized me as an author. When I first started writing, I didn’t admit to anyone that I was writing a book. I didn’t even talk about it with my family. Oh sure, my husband knew because I had to explain why I was huddled over the typewriter for hours at a time.

Yes, you read that right. Typewriter. Later on, a word processor, and finally a clunky takes-all-the-room-on-your-desk computer. But I still didn’t tell anyone. And when the book was published I announced the news to my family and close friends. I didn’t know a thing about marketing, blog tours, reviewers, or any of that. I did do a book signing at the local arts council and thought that was the height of public relations.

I got a little more aware of how things worked with my next book. But still, when asked what I did, I’d say “I’m retired” or “volunteer work.” I did not say,”I write books.”

When friends called and asked if I were busy, I’d answer “no” even though I was deep in edits. “Just puttering,” I’d say.

Why is it so many of us are hesitant to admit we are writers? How many of you say “I am an author” with confidence?

It was only this past summer that I had the courage to walk up to complete strangers and hand them a bookmark and say, “I’m a writer and I’d love you to take a look at my books.” Some looked a little taken aback, but all were friendly and a few promised to check out my website. I don’t know if it made me any new fans, but what it did was validate, at least in my own mind, that I am an author.

acac_08-12-12

Me at a book signing for my second published book. I still didn’t think of myself as an “author.”

I wish I had thought of myself as a professional from the minute I wrote “Chapter One.” Or after my first sale. But I didn’t. It took me a long time for my inner self to claim that title.

I think it comes from fear. Fear that the announcement will be met with looks of incredulity from our friends, snickers from our relatives, disbelief from acquaintances. Fear that when you mention your book title they’ll say, “How many books have you sold?” Or worse, “Never heard of it.”

I don’t think selling million books or having your name on the New York Times Best Sellers list is the benchmark. Does a baseball player get to say he’s a professional only after he’s made so many home runs? Or a lawyer after he’s won X number of cases?

I haven’t yet come to the point where I will let the phone ring when I am working. But when I’m asked if I am busy, I will say, “Hey, I’m writing right now and I’ll call you back.” Or, when people ask me what I’ve been up to, I can answer, “Working on my book” without fearing ridicule.

It doesn’t sound like a big step, but to me it’s enormous.

If you have written a book–actually sat down and typed 80,000 or so words–you are an author. It doesn’t matter if it is published or not. From the moment you wrote “The End” you can claim your worth.

Yes, you need to have it edited, proofed, find a few beta readers to give you some feedback. This is because you are a professional.

You may never get it published. Or you may decide to self-publish. That doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you wrote a book and you are an author.

 

 

 

 

 

How deep is enough?

For the second day in a row I woke before 5 a.m.

I try to fall back asleep, but it’s useless and I know it. This phenomenon happens every time I am halfway though a story. After dutifully plodding through the opening chapters, setting up the plot and characters, the book suddenly comes alive.  My mind goes into overdrive. Ideas flow like lava, igniting my imagination.

My main character, Greg, is an actor on a popular nighttime drama. As such, he has to dig deep into himself in order to bring the character he portrays to life, to make him believable. When his lover on the series “dies” he draws on  his grief he felt after his father’s suicide, and the subsman-cryingequent scene catapults him from mediocrity to fame. And that fame makes him a target…but no more about the plot. That’s not the point.

What I’m saying is that we, as writers, also have to dig deep within ourselves to find the emotions we want to portray. I’ve been in love and I think, old as I am, I can still remember what first love felt like.

I’ve been betrayed, and I can draw on that anger and denial.

I’ve felt deep and devastating loss. And I can draw on that.

It’s hard to bring these emotions to the surface and relive the grief, anger, loss. It’s hard to remember that first love, because now I know how  it ends. But in order to write about these emotions honestly, I have to remember and relive those experiences. It isn’t easy. And sometimes it doesn’t work because I am afraid to go too deeply.

So it isn’t just the overflow of ideas that keeps me awake. It’s the surge of empathy I feel toward these cardboard people, an empathy that will breath life into them. Is Greg afraid his career,  now that he’s achieved success, will end? How does that feel? How does he feel? How did I feel?

I lost a job I loved because I had to make the choice to walk away or be sucked into a pit I didn’t think I could climb out of. So I know a little about his fear and anger.

My job now is to translate that into his actions and words.

And that is what writers do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Christmas Message

I thought it might be appropriate to share the words of this old, and maybe not so longer familiar, hymn. I have chosen the original version of the song, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas  Day, 1863. His son, Charles, joined the Union cause in March and was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in November.  The references to the war are usually omitted in today’s versions, but they still speak to us of the divisions that rent our country today.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound
The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn
The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

 

May you all have a blessed Christmas with family, friends, cheer, and…hope.

Flash versus drizzle

I was talking to a woman who is beginning her first book. She’s thought about writing for years, but never had a good enough springboard to set her on her way. She recently had an inspiration and is ready to sit down and write.

“Do you get your ideas in a flash?” she asked.

I knew what she meant. Sometimes a story comes, like hers, in a sudden burst, as if her muse waved a magic wand and handed her, ready-made, the plot, conflict, motive, character arc, and every other building block she needs to construct a story.

I admitted while an  idea might come to me in that way, it was usually a little muddied and out of focus. It is up to me to define it, refine, and shape it.

I do have a good idea of my characters, who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, their backstory. I don’t write it all down in a chart or look for pictures that match my imagination and post them on Pinterest. They are alive in my mind and that’s enough.

So I have a plot and my characters. I start writing. I’m writing while at my computer, and also writing while I’m washing dishes, vacuuming, raking leaves or brushing the cats.  Hmm, I think, what if I had him do this? What if she does that? Suppose I have this happen, how would they react?

When I work it out in my head, I sit down and write the scene.

Lately, my main character is acting up a little. I had him figured out, but now he is saying things I never meant him to say. He’s showing me he isn’t who I thought he was, and I’m a little put out.  But I’ll work with it, see where he’s leading me.

So I told her no, I don’t get the story in a flash. I know how it starts and how it ends, but the in-between comes in drizzles, dibs and dabs.

But that’s what makes it fun. If I knew how everything was supposed to happen when I started, it would be work.

I’m happy she has her story fully fleshed in her mind. But some sneaky part of me wonders if, when she starts writing, she’ll find her characters have opinions of their own.

 

 

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