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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

I’m on a punishing writing schedule this month. I’ll tell you about that sometime, but not today. Today, and yesterday too, to tell you the truth, the well is dry. The upside of writing hard is getting lots of words on paper. The downside is that if I’m not filling the well while I do it, the words start to make me cringe because they read the way they were written: slow, stilted, eked out to fulfil the goal for the day. Nothing sings. Nothing makes me cry. (I know I’m on the right track if I can make myself laugh or cry re-reading something I’ve written.)

I have time to write today. I’ve wasted almost all of it because of that dry well. In an effort not to waste it all, instinct sent me searching for beauty. Beauty comes in lots of different forms, don’t you think? And it has a way of directing a fresh stream towards the well.

At first, today, avoiding all things writing, I went looking for beauty in things that are currently on my wish list: a dress I loved but found in the wrong size, plates to match the single Limoges dessert plate I got for $7 at a church sale that makes me happy whenever I use it. No luck with either. It was turning into that sort of a day. But, the sun in shining for a third day in a row here on the west coast, an event so rare this spring it can’t help but inspire a bit of hope. So I kept looking, this time not even sure what it was I was looking for, except that I had this bone-deep craving for it.

And as often happens when start looking around and absorbing what’s around us, the things I needed today found me, in the form of words. Thing is, they turned up in places I wouldn’t normally look, because of random circumstances, but in both cases, they expressed something of what I needed to read today to get the words flowing again.

First, a friend posted on Facebook, randomly and apropos of nothing, that she didn’t know who’d led her to Seth Godin’s blog, but that she loves it. I followed her link, and scrolled down the page, stopping for no apparent reason on this little post (Thanks, Ei.)

And then, again out of the blue, someone I didn’t know followed me on Twitter, so I clicked on her profile and scrolled through a few of her posts to get a feel for who she is. For some reason, I clicked on this link she posted: http://sarahrcallender.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/monogamy/, which was timed perfectly for me, because only yesterday, I felt the lure of the other, better story, the one that comes along at some point in the writing of this one to attempt to seduce you away from all the hard work. So thanks for that post, Sarah Callender and the tweet about it, Therese Walsh. You were just what I needed today.

Off to write…

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Choosing Happy

My name is Kathy, and I read romance. I read other stuff, too, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the love story part of my insatiable reading habit.

I’ve never picked up a traditional Harlequin category romance, I must admit, though I’m sure there are lots of great ones out there. Very short novels, as so many of those are, have never attracted me. But longer romances like Nora Roberts’s trilogies, contemporary romances by the likes of Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Susan Wiggs, regencies by Mary Balogh and others, and women’s fiction that isn’t technically romance but often still has a strong romance element, like those by Kate Harrison and Cathy Kelly and many others, these are all books I enjoy. It’s what I write – more the romantic women’s fiction end than straight romance – and it makes me happy to read it.

For me, there is something to be said for sinking into a joyful story, for coming out the other end of conflict and possible loss and ending with something good. I like romantic gestures and love and seeing people connect, whether in the real world or in fiction.

I happened across this lovely bit below in the Mary Balogh book I just finished the other day, from the main character’s thoughts in Seducing an Angel, and it sums up why I like to read happy books, watch movies that leave me feeling good, write what I write and surround myself with people I love who bring joy to my life. I’m think I’m going to adopt this as my philosophy of life. Something to pin on the bulletin board beside the computer, don’t you think?

“The world was a wonderful place, and if it was true that there was no such thing as happily ever after, then at least sometimes there was happiness pure and unalloyed, and one ought to grasp it with both hands and carry it forward to make the hard times more bearable.”

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I had the pleasure of hearing Ivan Coyote speak at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in October. She’s fabulous.

Before and since then, I’ve watched several of her performances on YouTube. They never fail to make me smile or laugh or cry or nod with agreement or all of the above, depending on the video. As a writer, I also wonder how she does it. What is it about the way she speaks that connects with me, with my friends, with everyone else in the audience? It’s a package deal, of course, of storytelling talent and presence and self assurance and all sorts of other factors.

Watching this particular video,

I realized one part of what it is, and it’s one I can work on in my own writing. It’s the same thing that makes the best comedians so funny, the saddest tales so sad: the details.

In this video, there are a few details that make the story for me, and they’ve stayed with me for weeks after watching it the first time. What works for me here – all of it works for me, let’s be honest – is partly the juxtaposition of the ridiculous-but-true details, like the re-naming of the hill, with lyrical details like the description of the clay cliffs. I’d quote it for you, but I think you should go watch the video instead. It’s masterful storytelling.

We sometimes get carried away writing, wanting every sentence to be beautiful, to be lyrical and lovely. But what really grabs me as a reader, as a listener, is the gorgeous, touching, lush essential detail in the middle of a simply told tale. Or the tiny, seemingly inconsequential one that speaks to a larger sense of family or community or love. And the funny, touching, unexpected-but-true little bits that connect audience to story, putting them right there in the middle of it. And isn’t that where we all want to be when we read or listen to a good tale?

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Work – in the form of my position as conference coordinator for the Surrey International Writers’ Conference – has been nuts, and is likely to stay that way until after the conference in October. I knew that would happen, but in a bid to at least keep a little piece of my head churning away on the book, for when I get back to it, I thought I’d talk a little about writing. Seems like I’ve encountered a bunch of people lately who don’t get the writing thing, and would like to. Some of them pop by here occasionally. So, with apologies to all my writer buddies for whom this won’t be anything new, I thought I’d start with a peek at the question I’ve had no fewer than six times this week, the one all writers cringe to hear: “where do you get your ideas?”

Writers are an odd, nosy breed of humans, sponge-like in their absorption of the world around them. I’ve yet to meet one who doesn’t mine every experience, every person met, every trip to the ER and every beautifully presented meal, every glorious view and every bug-ridden hotel room… everything… for what it can offer his or her writing. We all do it. Any writer who tells you she doesn’t is lying. Of course, we lie for a living, so you never know…. I’ve often heard it described along the lines of having a tiny part of our conscious mind that thinks “So this is what it feels like to…” no matter what the experience may be, whether it’s a hot air balloon ride or an emergency root canal. With the details, of course, carefully tucked away to be brought out later, someday, in some bit of prose somewhere. That’s not to say we’re not present in the moment, living our lives like everyone else, because we are. But it all fills the research well, too.

“Where do you get your ideas” has to be the most common question non-writers ask writers, and I know they get frustrated when we say “everywhere”. But it’s true. I think it’s just a matter of how the writer mind works. We see stories everywhere. Sometimes whole novels pop into being out of nothing more than a couple, seen from a distance, parting, their hands reluctant to let go until that last instant when the space between them exceeds their collective reach.

So, to do this job, we have to truly see the world around us. Not only feel what we feel, but catalogue the feelings, remember the good and the bad so that we can write honestly about whatever we’re writing about. Because joy is joy, whether or not you’ve ever had the same experience as your characters. If you know joy, if you’ve paid attention to what it feels like and what it looks like when others have it, you’ll know how your character feels in that moment, experiencing something joyful you’ve never even dreamed of trying yourself. Same goes for sadness and anger and fear. You get the idea. So no, I’ve never watched in my rear view mirror to see if my blind date was still following me, like the main character in my first novel does. But I have driven down creepy streets in the dark, making sure the doors were locked and carefully checking my mirrors and even the back seat for imagined invaders. So I apply that feeling, and others like it, and I know how Jane feels.

So that’s a start… next time I’ll tell you a bit about my current WIP.

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The Language of Relationships

I’ve been wanting to write a post about this for awhile, but somehow it never happened. It’s been in the back of my mind for long enough that I actually searched through my posts before I wrote this, wondering if I might already have said what I’ve been thinking about. Ever have that happen in a conversation, when you’re not entirely sure whether you actually said something or only thought about saying it when you were rehearsing the conversation in your mind? No? Maybe that’s just me… Forget I said anything.

So the Language of Relationships. Yes, I know. Unnecessary capital letters. That’s just the way I said it as I was typing it. This is sort of a combo life/writing topic, because I think it’s something we need to be aware of when we’re writing, especially with dialogue, and all too often, I think it gets overlooked. Writers go to endless lengths to get the jargon in their books right, whether their characters are police officers or doctors or computer geeks or florists or maids or milkmen. And I’ve seen both brilliant and obvious efforts to get dialect just so, even to the more-than-slightly-painful point of characters explaining their use of it, along the lines of “No, it’s a boot, not a trunk. We’re in England now.” But what about the personal influences on the way we speak and think?

Relationships of any length and depth, whether they’re close friendships or marriages or family ties or love affairs, develop a language all their own. It happens effortlessly, over time and with shared experiences, and I love that. I think it’s a lovely reminder of the depth and history of a connection every time you automatically use a phrase that no one outside the relationship would understand, or, if they did, wouldn’t know the significance of within the bounds of the relationship.

Sure, there are all the nicknames, the pookies and sweeties and dears and honeys. But what interests me, what always makes me stop for an instant of gratitude for having someone of such long-term importance in my life, are the everyday bits and pieces, the phrases and quotes and ways of expressing things we’ve absorbed and re-use over and over so that they become part of the fabric of our relationship.

If my family or my best friend’s family happens to be roasting a chicken for dinner, our answer to “what’s for dinner?” is always, “I cook a chicken,” said in the slightly staccato tone her grandmother, whose first language was French, would use to say just that when she was roasting a chicken.

In my house, there are a handful of pop culture quotations that have become part of our everyday language. Some of them may make sense to you, others not. But even if you know the source, the associations, the memories associated with them, are the thing that make them part of the common parlance at our house. A few of those? Thirty-four fifty. I do not think it means what you think it means. Death by tray….

And of course, there are the more personal ones that develop all on their own, ranging from the romantic to the ridiculous. The people I share them with know what they are, but I’ll keep them to myself here. Too difficult to explain, for one thing. Too silly, if they’re not yours, for another.

So how do you bring something so personal to your characters’ relationships and still have it make sense to the reader? Maybe the difficulty of doing so without tiresome explanations is why I don’t often notice much of it in the novels I read. But I think it’s something to consider including, in small amounts, where context would lend enough understanding to avoid explanation. I think, done well, it can lend authenticity and depth to your characters’ relationships. It certainly adds depth to the real ones. The challenge, of course, is not alienating the reader by locking him out of the POV character he’s going along with on the story. Can it be done? I think it can, with care. What say you?

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The Result

I spent an hour on my WIP yesterday afternoon. My concern about not being able to get back in were unfounded. And I made myself sniffly reading the first couple of chapters, which made me very happy, paradoxical as that may seem.

After mulling it over for months, it turned out that the bit of distance gave me the, well, distance I needed to make some pretty drastic changes. I’d come to the conclusion some time ago that the book might be stronger if I cut whole chapters and POVs. It was a painful thought at the time, because months of work would go in the bin if I did it. But I’ve lived with the idea for a long time now, all through the break from writing, and somehow it was easier than I expected it to be when I actually started doing it.

So far, I’ve cut 3650 words, and that’s just a start. It’ll take a while to complete the process, because not only do I have to cut whole chapters and scenes, but I have to find a way to work that information into what’s left behind before I move forward. I’m not sure yet how that’s going to go, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Off to find the machete and get back to it…

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I’m just back from seeing A Chorus Line at the Centre in Vancouver. I loved it. I saw the movie years ago, long enough to have forgotten pretty much everything except the premise and the closing number, but I was looking forward to seeing it again. And now I remember why I liked it the first time around. I love some of the music in it, but mostly, it appeals to my writer soul. It deals with exactly the thing that interests me most as a writer and one I’ve mentioned here before: the story behind the persona. The dancers in the show each come with a personal history that makes them unique, even though they have to be identical when they are dancing, and the show explores that. The director wants to know what makes them who they are, even though he specifically says he doesn’t want any of them drawing his attention when they’re in the chorus line.

We were lucky to see one of those moments when something happens that isn’t in the script and the actor has to keep going and fix it. I enjoy those moments, the sense of connection they seem to create between character and audience. Tonight, one of the characters, Cassie, was in the middle of her long solo dance, alone onstage, when she fell hard on her butt and one of her dance shoes went flying way up over her head and landed somewhere offstage. In true professional style, she simply got up and danced the rest of her solo with one shoe on. The only indication that it may not have been part of the script (it wasn’t) was when the director told her to “pick up her shoe” and head down to the basement with the others to learn the song, and his acknowledgement of the loss of her shoe made her smile. But even so, it wasn’t obvious that it was an error. She literally fell on her butt alone onstage, but because she kept dancing, kept smiling, and never let on, most of the audience didn’t have a clue she wasn’t supposed to do that.

So now I’m going to bed with “What I did for love” and “One” running through my head. Not a bad way to end the night.

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My husband’s on his way back from NYC tonight following five intense days in a Jay Maisel photography workshop. He’s feeling that strange combination of exhaustion and exhilaration, sadness and joy that comes from a really good immersive experience. I recognise the symptoms: it’s the same feeling I come home from Surrey with every year.

What I realized reading his blog about his time there, though, is that the post-immersion haze he’s experiencing isn’t the only similarity between his photography workshop and my writers conference. The mechanics of photography and writing may be different, but the awareness – of self and of craft – that elevates your work in either medium from the everyday to something special are the same. And ultimately, the same things apply to life itself. Not sure what I mean? Here are a few of the ideas that were reinforced for him this week, taken from his blog:

1. If there’s a nervous feeling about the quality of any picture, it’s probably warranted.

2. Who cares how much effort it was to take a shot if it’s bad?

3. “If you’re not your severest critic, you’re your own worst enemy.” Jay Maisel

4. “What’s all this shit in the corners? You’re responsible for every square millimeter of your frame!” Jay Maisel

5. I’m learning to let go, and to truly have fun, and take the chance to either succeed gloriously or fail gloriously.

Take the photography context away, and every single one of those applies to writing, to cooking and housekeeping and parenting and to doing whatever job it is you do in life, don’t you think? I do.

They’re all part of my writing life, that’s for sure. If my gut tells me something’s wrong in a scene, something’s almost certainly wrong. I’ve had to kill more of my darlings than I care to remember, scenes I loved or even whole chapters, because of number 2 on the list. And so on. You get the idea.

Number 5…. phew. That’s a biggie. It’s what we should all strive for in work and in life, but it’s bloody difficult to do, risking failure for the chance of success, let alone having fun while we do it. But if we can manage to let go and take the chance, we’re in for a hell of an interesting ride. And isn’t that the point?

photo credit: Martin Chung, NYC, October 2009

photo credit: Martin Chung, NYC, October 2009


photo credit: Martin Chung, NYC, October 2009

photo credit: Martin Chung, NYC, October 2009

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