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September 2016



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Sep. 22nd, 2016


The in-between time

I've been a little scarce around these parts because I've been pouring my writing energy into a certain writing project. That project has now reached the milestone I was aiming for, so I get to come out of my cave, blinking, and see what's going on in the world. I will be scarce for another week or so while I pursue another, non-writing, interest.

But while I'm here, I'd like to speak about this in-between time, this break in a writer's life. I used to jump almost immediately from one project to another, as if I were trying to outrun ... something. I don't know what. Sometimes that jump can be eager, an excitement to start the new thing, but for me I think it was more about fear, about losing a day or not staying relevant or something. Now I savor a break. I have more trust that the next project will bubble up when it's ready, and in the meantime it's OK to reacquaint myself with the world beyond my keyboard.

Enjoy your time, whether you're inside or outside of the writing cave at the moment!

Sep. 15th, 2016



It doesn't surprise me that there is such a thing as a "list poem." I'm a big fan of lists--I could hardly navigate my way through a week without them--and there are some lists that do evoke the poetic. I've always loved lists of colors (as in a watercolor paintbox, a box of crayons, a clothing catalog, paint chips). A menu is a mouth-watering list. A trip to the airport offers a horizontal list poem as I walk past other gates to get to mine, reading the destinations off the gate screens and mentally adding an exclamation point to each: Honolulu! Phoenix! San Francisco! Denver! Seattle!

I snuck a list poem of sorts into my third novel, Until It Hurts to Stop, when the main character muses over the names of mushrooms in a field guide. Tree names, bird names, and wildflower names are just as satisfying. (I used to pore over a flower book that included in its offerings "viper's bugloss," "blue vervain," and "butter-and-eggs." What more could a word person ask, than such names?) The challenge in a creative list, such as a list poem, is deciding what to include and what to leave out, and how to arrange the items. But sometimes I just enjoy the lists I stumble across in the world as found poems.

Sep. 13th, 2016


Thankful for the window

Before I set up the writing office I have now, I read or heard somewhere that your desk shouldn't face the window. It should face the wall, because a window is too distracting.

I've been grateful a million times that I ignored that advice. The window over my desk shows me trees in all seasons. It has shown me spiderwebs glistening in the sun, and squirrels jumping through branches. I have seen ice and rain, a bat, birds and insects of all kinds. Cicadas have clung to the screen, and fireflies have drifted past to blink their lights at the green lights on my computer.

But what about writing? you may ask. Isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing here? Haven't I just proven how distracting a window is?

For me, it's the kind of distraction that has enhanced my writing rather than blocked it. Something about facing a blank wall felt stifling, like a punishment. (This is just me; it isn't so for everyone. Many writers may find a blank wall a perfect canvas for their imaginations.) This window of mine reminds me there's a world out there, the world I'm writing about. It gives me breathing room, a view of nature. I spend a lot of time staring at a computer screen. Every now and then I need to lift my eyes to the greenery out my window.

What's your favorite feature of the place where you write?

Sep. 9th, 2016


What kind of writer am I?

When people say they want to be writers, that can mean many things; there are many kinds of writers to be.

There's journalism, technical writing, advertising. There are educational materials and novels and poems, mysteries and biographies, memoirs and instruction books, screenplays and short stories. At some point a writer gravitates toward a genre and an audience.

Along the way, writers also discover what they expect and hope for in terms of pursuing commercial success. There are writers publishing their own work, bringing out multiple books a year, figuring out how to get their work edited and marketed and formatted. There are writers who publish poems in a local newsletter for free and find it a happy addition to their lives, but they make their living in other ways. There are writers whose chief aim is to do something new with language or form, and writers whose chief aim is to reach a large general audience.There are writers everywhere along these spectra, writers with many different goals.

My own expectations and desires have changed over the past few years. I've come to see how much writing vs. everything else (editing, marketing, selling, teaching, etc.) I want to do. I've come to learn where I want writing to fit into my life. I've come to the point where what I have and what I want are much more closely aligned. I've thought about how I want to spend my time and energy.

Sometimes I read writing advice about how writers have to do X, Y, and Z to be successful, when what the advice-giver really means is that X, Y, and Z gave him the kind of success he wanted. There is a natural variation in whether X, Y, and Z will produce the same results for every writer who wants that brand of success. But before that, a writer can ask: Is that the career I even want? Or does my ideal career look somewhat different?

Sep. 4th, 2016


Thoughts while line editing

What did I mean by that?
I'm going to have to rewrite this section. Needs tension.
Used that word three times in this paragraph. How about a synonym?
I still love this scene.
That character needs to sound more natural.
I will shrink this page of exposition down to a potent, useful nugget.
Ah, there's a typo.
Didn't I give that character a different first name earlier on?
I'm going to finish sooner than I thought!
This is going to take longer than I thought.

Aug. 30th, 2016


The receding finish line

As I work through the items on a revision checklist, I discover new things to fix, new items to add to the bottom of the list. It's the old game that manuscripts love to play when the finish line of a draft is in sight.

Maybe the manuscript knows that if it showed all its flaws at once, the writer would run screaming in horror. So it reveals them slowly, tantalizing the writer with the idea that someday this draft will be complete.

Aug. 26th, 2016



Before a writing session, I like to read a little, but not a novel with a strong voice or complicated plot that might distract me when I'm getting ready to focus on my own plots, my own voice. The journals of May Sarton work well for this. The entries are short, there isn't a traditional "plot" to keep track of, and she usually says something about writing.

This morning, I happened to be reading an entry for an August 26, which is also today's date. The entry opened this way:

"Doris Grumbach is here for two nights and a day and it is good to know someone is working downstairs, a fellow writer. It is rarely that a writer comes to stay, and it makes me see once more that no one who is not engaged in this particular struggle, to bring a vision of life out into words, can really understand what it is all about and the hazards that assail the writer every day ... It is wonderful to be able to talk freely without being thought absurd, self-pitying, or narcissistic about these silent battles."--from Recovering: A Journal

It was remarkable to read that entry with today's date, because today I hosted a fellow writer for a mini-retreat at my house. She worked downstairs while I worked upstairs, and at lunchtime we "talked freely" about our "silent battles!" It really is encouraging to have another writer in the house, as if the progress of each of us feeds into the progress of the other. Also by committing to this, we each formally set aside writing time that would not be disturbed by the distractions, household chores, etc., of a typical day.

I made substantial progress on my manuscript, and she processed a detailed critique in order to plan a revision. Altogether, a most satisfying day.

Aug. 22nd, 2016


What's in a name? More than I'd like

One great thing about writing nonfiction is that the people and places come already named. Naming fictional characters and places severely taxes me. The problem isn't just finding a suitable name, but finding a suitable name that also meets these criteria:
1) I didn't already use that name in a previous book
2) It's not the name of any family member, friend, or colleague
3) It's not the name of a celebrity, noted historical figure, notorious criminal, unsavory person, etc.
4) It's not too similar to any of the names of the other characters in the same book
5) It's not an unusual name that was just used recently in a more famous book, or has been used in a lot of recent YA already
6) It's not the name of a fictional place that's already part of some other well-known world like Pokemon, Disney, Game of Thrones, Narnia, etc., etc. (I may yet fail on this one; it seems like EVERY place name I can invent has already been used by someone. Or else it is the name of a new pharmaceutical.)

Just wait until I get around to choosing a title. That is when I really get dramatic!

Aug. 17th, 2016


The challenging read

Once again, I'm reading a book that I'm not sure I'm into. I was really looking forward to this book, mostly because of the setting--it's in a time and place that I find very interesting but is a bit unusual for historical fiction. Also, the main character is very different from me, and I was looking forward to a different viewpoint.

None of that is the problem. The problem is the plot. As in, there isn't much of one. I reached page 50 wondering why I wasn't more enthusiastic about this story, and then I realized: What story? Nothing's happening. We had descriptions of the main character and descriptions of where he lives and where he works and where he hangs out when he is not working, and there were descriptions of his relatives and his boss and his acquaintances, but by page 50 none of these characters had done much of anything to warrant all this ink.

I have been more willing lately to abandon books unfinished if they're not holding my interest, but I decided to give this one a bit more of a chance for the sake of the setting. Also, it's very well written on the sentence-by-sentence level, so I know this writer has some chops, and I'm hoping that persistence will pay off in the end. There are times I will stick with a difficult book to challenge myself, and I'm willing to challenge myself a little longer here.

Fortunately, things picked up a bit between pages 50 and 60, so we'll see how it goes from here. I'm not yet committed to finishing, but I'll see how the next 20-30 pages go. Also I am using this experience to remind myself that as a writer, I must never let a story go on anywhere near this long without some change, some progress in the conflict.
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Aug. 14th, 2016



I've been recovering from a medical procedure and so have been a bit scarce around here. I popped into social media for short periods of time, but mostly I have been just enduring, distracting myself with radio stories (This American Life archives, I'm looking gratefully at you) and Olympics coverage (even when I could only listen to it rather than watch it, it was a welcome mind-occupier). It's only within the last day or two that I feel like I'm finally getting my life back.

I've thought a lot about pain this week, too, about how we can prepare ourselves for a certain amount of it, but once its reality exceeds our expectations in either intensity or duration, our inner resources are sorely taxed. Sometimes we equate the ability to cope with pain with morality, and I do admire those who can endure without complaint, but I don't know that that's really a moral issue. There are times when all we can do is make it to the next moment. As writers, these are the lengths to which we push our characters, and I think the central question for me as a reader is: How do characters cope with pain?

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