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.