Friday, December 16, 2005

Positive Thinking

I was at a Christmas dinner this week, and the discussion turned to a lady who was not present. She couldn't make it, because she was in her final week of chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer. Those present discussed her fighting attitude, her independence and her positive outlook, including the fact that she insisted on driving to her chemo appointments.

They also discussed another lady who has been recently been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. This woman has become, in the words of her friend, 'a real patient'. She's undergone surgery and other treatments to fight her disease, and is bedridden, weak and has little zest for life.

Now, I realize there are a lot of other variables involved in the superficial renditions I've provided of these women and their individual battles with terrible disease. But, the one aspect that stuck out most for me was attitude. One of those women is a cancer survivor the other, a victim of cancer.

Are you a victim or are you a survivor?

So many of life's tragedies are faced with one of these two attitudes. And the attitude, the outlook and the views of others around use are all coloured by that approach.

Think of a tragedy--a divorce, a natural disaster, a terrible illness or injury.

Think of someone who faced it as a victim. Consider your reaction to that person or image. Did you feel pity for someone who was dealt a terrible blow by a cruel world?

Now, think of someone who faced it as a survivor. How did you react to that person? Perhaps with admiration for their courage, resourcefulness and strength?

Who came through it the same or better than before (emotionally)? Who was able to put that terrible event behind them and move on in life?

As a writer, this is an important issue to consider about your characters. If you know your character approaches life as a survivor, then you know how she will react to a setback.

Further, I believe we all can harness the strength of the survivor mindset to face life's little challenges. And, I believe we can use that positive mindset to help others through difficult times.

For example, your friend, a writer receives a rejection letter. Each writer will have a reaction based on her inherent approach to life. Most of us are either miffed or upset initially. The survivor mindset says, have a little self-pity party and then make a plan to move on. The victim mindset says 'poor me, the world is against me, maybe I should quit'.

What is your reaction? How can your use of survivor or victim mindset help your friend deal with this set back?


Sunday, December 11, 2005

Writer: To thy Reader be True

Work from an outline. Avoid cliches. Show don't tell. Use correct grammar and style. These are all useful guidelines, especially for novice writers. But they all have exceptions. And truthfully, the most talented of writers, the extraordinary among us, break away from the pack by zigzagging through this minefield of 'rules'.

How does a new writer develop individual style while communicating effectively and following all these rules?

One thing we need to remember: the whole object of the exercise is to transmit a picture from the writer’s imagination to the mind of another person. If I could distill these principles and objectives into one shining law it would be: strive to be honest with the reader.

Consider that even Stephen King aims to please one person, his ideal reader, his wife. Much has been written about the importance of the ideal reader.

By considering the intended reader, I've increased my productivity and improved the quality of my finished product. This principle allows me to meander through the first few incarnations of a story and ignore the impulse to achieve instant perfection. Then, when I begin to aim a piece for a specific market, I can mold the story in a distinct manner.

As my work evolves from first draft to final manuscript, my attention to detail and flow changes as the intended reader changes. For the first draft, I tell the story to myself. I use my time to get that wonderful magic down on paper before it evaporates, because the only reader--me--will know what I mean. Once the first draft is finished I give it time to ferment.

Next time through, my intended reader changes. Perhaps it's the internal critic or the members of my critique group. This version, then, must contain all the incidents in the major conflict, in the correct order. The characters need to act consistently throughout the story. It doesn't need to be perfect yet because this reader can still read between the words on the page.

However, once I begin preparing a final manuscript, both the story and the language must be clear and focused. I entice, cajole and sometimes play a trick on my reader, but I strive always to be fair because if I can find the words that will reach him, inform him and entertain him, then I have succeeded.

I've improved my editing by searching for words or images the reader might misunderstand. By putting myself in the armchair with my reader, I can imagine what he might like and dislike about a passage. I can decide whether the images I've conjured in his mind are the same ones I saw when I first imagined the story. I'm able to shape my prose to show him my truth.

If I follow this principle and put myself in the place of the reader I can take a more cavalier approach to the other rules. If the reader doesn't notice, or even appreciates a little writerly license taken now and again, we both win.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Children Shouldn't Need Wheelchairs

I've just spent three days in the rarefied, muffled world of a children's hospital.

Casual conversations don't spring up in the clinic waiting room. The adults are too nervous. I found myself looking around the waiting room, wondering--is his kid sicker than mine? Maybe her kid isn't as sick. What kind of news are they waiting for? Will that child ever be well?

There is no feeling quite as empty as when you have to turn away from your helpless, half-naked baby and leave her to a room full of strangers. They are kind-eyed professionals, they're going to do their jobs and hopefully help her. But they are strangers. And she's so little.

The funny thing is, the kids don't seem fazed by it all. They play. They run around the waiting room, and find ways to fall off the safe equipment. A little girl with joints that didn't seem to work right figured out how to slide down a tiny hand rail. A toddler with a leg brace stared at the fish in the tank. They are living in the moment, and they are a lesson to us all. Time should be lived in the moment.

I savoured those moments, and wrote like mad in the hour I had to wait alone on Tuesday. And I read. Anything that could take me away from the ticking of the clock on the wall. Barbara Kingsolver was too involved--I couldn't get myself into her world without a bit more energy than I had. Believe it or not, Don Delillo was just the ticket. 'White Noise'.

I'll be back on track soon, because those strangers did their jobs just perfectly and everything inside my little one's body is going to stay where it is for the time being.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

My Writing Group

I belong to a group of wonderful, warm, dedicated writers. I’m the quiet wit, sometimes. We’ve got an energizer, a mystic, a romantic, a comedienne, a poet and an animal lover. Actually, there’s a little of each in each of us. We’re just like any other writing group, except for one thing.

We’ve never met.

How do you form an amazing bond with people you’ve never met? It’s harder than it sounds. I’m a member of an online writer’s group. I have these dear friends and I’ve never seen their faces.

These writing friend have taught me more about the power of words than I could ever hope to learn from an in-person group. One misplaced word or comment, an unintentionally capitalized line, can be misunderstood so easily. You must take care or quips become barbs and smiles become frowns.

How do we get through it all? Love. Patience. Some temporary hurts. A lot of smiles. It’s only with these wonderful women that I sit in front of my computer and laugh so hard I’m afraid I’ll wet my chair.

And that’s when I learned the most important thing about writing groups. You need to communicate. Seems elementary?

It’s hard to remember sometimes. When you’re afraid. When you think they’ve forgotten you. When you think they’re against you.

But guess what? Ask a question and someone will answer. Share a success and someone will rejoice with you. Confide your fear and someone will hold your hand.

It’s the most wonderful thing, to connect the internet and know I’ll be greeted with a J. It’s great to know that even if I haven’t written today, I know someone who has. It’s gratifying to see that my feedback has helped one of my sisters bring her story nearer to perfection.

More on my writing sisters later, I promise.


Monday, November 28, 2005

Quotable . . .

Act as if it were impossible to fail.
-- Dorothea Brande

Success is a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don't quitwhen you're tired-­you quit when the gorilla is tired.
--Robert Strauss

At the worst, a house unkept cannot be so distressing as a life unlived.
-- Dame Rose Macaulay

You've got to be original, because if you're like someone else, what do they need you for?
-- Bernadette Peters

I know quotes are the lazy way out. Forgive me, I was at the funeral for a 38 year old friend today. My mind is not in working order.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Free? Write for Free?

Should a writer write for free? (It goes without saying, almost without saying, that if you are the writer and someone is publishing your work, you DO NOT pay them!)

People write for a living. Those people charge for their work, and rightly so. It's a valuable service, provided by workers who have put a lot of effort into learning their craft. They don't want others to write for free, because there is a risk that the work of all will seem less valuable.

Here comes the catch-22. It's hard to land a paying writing job without clips. How do you get around that? There are some good ideas out there. Be creative. That's what writers do, right?

Some writers decide to offer free articles to promote their websites and other work. It's a choice that can drive traffic to your website and promote your name. This is a personal decision, and can work well as part of a marketing campaign.

A troublesome question for fiction writers is the 'free rewrite'. The agent/editor likes the story, but thinks it would look better with some major revisions. Remember, if you don't have a signed contract, you'll be doing this work 'on spec'. Think about it. It could be a test of your flexibility and willingness to take editorial direction. It could also be a test of your spine.

The thing about writing, most of us know the basics before we decide we'd like someone to publish our words. But think about it--most of us know the basics of breathing before we begin SCUBA diving. Would you hire yourself out as a professional diver because you bought the equipment and know how to breathe? I bet you'd learn how to do it first.

You can take courses in writing, or you can try the 'seatpants apprenticeship'. Find other writers, write, let them read your words, do your best to improve them, and move on to another project. Skill and talent are involved here. But, the biggest factors for any individual writer are time, effort and consistency. As you improve, your pay will also improve.


***the goal setting workshop will be posted beginning early in the New Year***

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Some of my favorite things

Sitting in a hot tub whilst the snow falls around me, sipping on a flirty merlot, toes brushing against the outer epidermis of someone I like enormously.

A hug.

Kitty cuddles in front of the fire on a cool evening.

The smell of freshly brewed, French press, coffee.

The feeling when a story starts to take over my mind, interfering with dinner conversation and (ahem) intimate moments (you know, he says 'what are you thinking', and you have to lie, because you were really thinking about a great line of dialogue between two characters who are having a bitchy, anti-man moment and telling the truth would ruin that fluttery little thing his lips are doing on your collar bone).

The taste of Lindt chocolate melting in my mouth. Don't chew it, let it melt. Exercise self-restraint and enjoy the richness of the chocolate as it coats the tongue.

Petting a new yarn--a beautiful merino, or a silk blend, or (ahhhh) cashmere. Believe me, you have to go to a yarn store and pet them--the feeling cannot be reproduced on the web (yet).


Thursday, November 24, 2005

Habits of Successful Writers

What is the mark of a successful scribe? Perhaps not wealth and fame, although they may be factors. Maybe it isn't even talent, which allows the brilliant among us to shine but doesn't guarantee recognition. For mere mortals like us and for household-name writers like Stephen King, the highest measure of success is often the same--self-satisfaction. Ask yourself: Is it fun? Am I improving? Could I stop myself if I wanted to? If the answers are "yes," "yes," and "no," you're on track.

But for some of us, the simple pleasure of writing isn't enough. We may dream of full-time employment as a freelancer, self-publishing a family history, or topping the New York Times Bestseller List. Either way, the process is similar. First, accept the fact that there is no one secret to success and no single path to fulfillment. Ask a dozen different writers and you will hear a dozen different stories. The one thing those writers will most likely agree on is this--the only way to reach your goal is to apply your backside to your chair and put words on paper.

What can a poor scribbler do beyond this? Writing, just like any acquired skill, takes practice and discipline. Form good habits, because that is the surest way to improve your skills and explore your talent. And the sooner you begin, the sooner you'll see results.

1. Learn the basics. Pay heed to Strunk and White. Vocabulary and grammar are essential if you want to be taken seriously. If you can't use them, you're a carpenter with no tools. There is no excuse and very little tolerance for poor use of language.

2. Read. Read. Read. Devour books. Scrutinize them and you will see that some bestsellers out there are not much better than your humble musings. Read both prose and poetry--train your ear to the hidden rhythms of fine writing.

3. Write. Write. Write. Stop endlessly polishing the prologue of that novel and compose something new. Schedule time for writing as often as you can. Ignore the dirty dishes and the overgrown lawn and just write! Dirt keeps; ideas fade.

If you need encouragement to produce something new on a regular basis, join a writing group or a book-in-a-week challenge. Look at it this way: the faster you get all the garbage out, the more quickly you'll unearth the gems.

4. Set goals and work towards them. A goal is nothing more than a dream with a deadline. If you don't set goals for yourself, who will?

Like outlining? Love revision? Drafting--not so much? Write some amount of rough draft daily--grit your teeth and excavate those words. Ideas are like in-laws: the longer you ignore them the more hopeless they seem, but if you spend time cultivating your relationship the results can be surprisingly pleasant.

If your goal is publication, map out a route and follow it. Publish non-fiction articles in your area of expertise. Break into print by entering contests. E-publish on your own or someone else's website (or in a blog). No matter which path you take, be prepared for rejection. It's part of the learning process. Don't look at it as an F, just an invitation to try again.

5. Assess your work as objectively as you can and then improve it. You've invested time and effort in producing your work. Now nourish it and bring it to maturity.

One way to evaluate your progress is to look back at your earlier work. If something you once thought was flawless now brings on nausea, you've probably improved.

6. Take care of yourself. Stop apologizing for your literary urges and foster your inner writer. Start calling yourself an author, even if it's only in the mirror. Imagine your interview with Oprah.

Surround yourself with people who support your dreams, be it a literary group, members of your own family, or a circle of nurturing friends. They'll help you keep the dream alive on those days you feel like letting it die (or even killing it).

7. Repeat steps 1-6 unceasingly. Be persistent. Where would Stephen King be if he'd stopped after his first twenty rejections? Toiling in a laundry, living in a double-wide, and telling people how his spirit was crushed by the cruel world of publishing. Imagine how many people have been entertained by his work and how much fulfillment he derives from it because he (and his persistent wife, Tabitha) believed in what he was doing.

Most important, make a habit of enjoying the process as well as the product. Success is best if it isn't only the destination but the journey as well.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Write, gal, write

Let's visit some writing gals:

Tess Gerritsen
She seems like the kind of lady I'd like to talk to. She's smart, she's successful (in more than one enterprise), and she has a sense of humour. I read her books and I like them.

As a reader, I want to be entertained. I don't want to have to work hard to understand what's going on, or to figure things out. Gerritsen's prose is clear.

I like clarity.

The Literary Chicks

'Cause I like the name of their site.