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July 2016



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Jun. 17th, 2016


Whatever works now

A writer friend and I were talking about process today: how much time to sit at the writing desk, and when, and how to fit in everything else, and how to end a writing session. I noted that my process has changed over the years: I do more writing in the morning now than at night, for example, and I write more regularly rather than in the occasional binge-like sessions of my college days.

Both of us realized that marriage had correlated with more productivity at the writing desk. We could think of a few possible reasons--more stability, happiness, less need to invest emotional energy searching for potential partners and navigating the uncertainty of the dating world--but of course there's no guarantee it works that way for everyone who marries. We just found it interesting.

One thing I have observed is that many writers' processes change over time. Life happens, medical conditions happen, our day-job and family circumstances change. Beyond that, we change as writers: we try new things, learn what works, explore new genres and formats. And then, technology changes, too. I used to write primarily in longhand; now I write primarily though not exclusively on the keyboard. Whatever works now is my motto.

Jun. 12th, 2016


The slowness of words, the illusion of immediacy

"When I write, I am trying through the movement of my fingers to reach my head. I'm trying to build a word ladder up to my brain. Eventually these words help me come to an idea, and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite what I'd already written (when I had no idea what I was writing about) until the path of thinking, in retrospect, feels immediate. What's on the page appears to have busted out of my head and traveled down my arms and through my fingers and my keyboard and coalesced on the screen. But it didn't happen like that; it never happens like that."
--Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock

This is one of the most apt descriptions I have found for how I myself write, and revise, and why I am often unable to write about events until long after they happen.

Jun. 10th, 2016


On author newsletters

For a while, every writer "had to have" a Myspace page, and then you "had to have" a blog, and then I lost track for a while--maybe it was Facebook or Twitter you had to have. Nowadays, a newsletter seems to be the thing to have.

The trouble with these must-have platforms is that they tend to work best for the early adopters. Then the audience becomes saturated, then oversaturated, and people decide something else is the new must-have.

And I suspect that is what will happen with newsletters. More and more writers seem to be doing them. I don't send one out myself, but I do get a few, and I thought I'd share FWIW what I like and don't like as a reader.

I am currently very careful about signing up for any new newsletters. I get a lot of email as it is, and by far the best email falls into two categories: 1) personal messages from people I know; and 2) messages about my writing (fan mail, communications from agent, acceptances from editors, etc.). I get tons and tons of spam, and fundraising requests, and political-action messages, and I'm not eager to add new email to my box unless it's more like categories 1 and 2 than like the spam.

Some of the newsletters I most enjoy getting (not in any particular order) are from: Powell's bookstore; Brent Hartinger; Beth Kephart's Juncture; my local library. There may be a couple of others I'm forgetting at the moment. But here's why I like them:

--I asked for them, either by actively signing up or by initiating contact with the writer. One thing I really dislike is when authors with whom I've had no contact add me to their mailing lists, or when companies start bombarding me with messages when I haven't actively signed up for their lists. A few authors have sent me newsletters that had me scratching my head: Who is this person and why is he announcing his new books in a genre I don't even read?

--They include interesting information beyond just "buy my book!" Powell's has author interviews and essays that are about interesting topics. My library's newsletter lets me know what is going on: upcoming workshops, for example. Beth Kephart invites a conversation with her readers, most of whom are also writers.

--They have a unique flavor and a personality. Beth Kephart and Brent Hartinger both address their readers in tones that are typical of their author voices (Kephart's thoughtful, intimate, poetic; Hartinger's fun and often funny), and that show an awareness of audience. Too many newsletters just seem to be slick, slapped-together commercials that are being flung out into an anonymous universe: an ad for an upcoming book, with perhaps a favorable review quote, and maybe a short, generalized message to readers that could just as easily appear in any other author's newsletter. I like knowing that a favorite author has a new book out; I'm not saying that an author newsletter has to coyly sidestep that fact. But a book ad is not the same thing as a newsletter.

--They are fairly brief; any longer material is click-to-see-more. Nobody can spend all day reading newsletters. The ones I've mentioned are succinct. Powell's is the longest, but it's formatted so that you can see at a glance which features and interviews are of enough personal interest to click through and read the whole thing.

I have absolutely bought or checked out books that I found out about from newsletters. But I still find most of my books in other ways. I think a newsletter can work well for authors who really want to do them (rather than feeling obligated to), who can think of ways to put their own personal spin on them. But I also think newsletters are not "must-haves" for those who'd rather not do them.

Jun. 6th, 2016


Real life stories

I have been watching several of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's bird webcams this spring. At one end of the spectrum, we have the happy tale of the redtail hawks: three eggs laid, three birds successfully hatched, three juveniles well fed and tended by their experienced parents. The first hawk fledged (took its first flight off the nest) last night. From here, the young hawks will face riskier lives as they learn to fly and hunt, but they have had as good a start as young birds could have.

On the other end of the spectrum was the disaster unfolding at the barn owl nest box: rainy weather that kept the parents from providing enough prey for their six hatchlings; the disappearance of the male parent; attacks on the nest by another owl; the gradual loss of the owlets until only one was left; and then the injury and disappearance of the female parent. (It was hard not to wish that the redtail father in New York, who provided an abundance of food for his young, could also provide food for the hungry owlets in Texas. But nature doesn't work that way.) The remaining owlet appears to be the lone survivor of her family. She has been relocated to a wildlife rehab center, having begun life in just about as difficult a manner as possible.

Nature deals the cards unevenly. In every life is a story: unpredictable, riveting, and leading us to ever more questions.

Jun. 2nd, 2016


The wall

Katie M. Stout just posted eloquently about "hitting the wall," and it has become such a familiar story that I think it may just be a phase in many (most?) writers' lives. Which is not to say it's easy, or trivial. It can last a season, or years, or anything in between. It can be brutal while it lasts. I've gone through my own version of it.

But what I've seen happen to so many writers is that the well refills, one way or another. As Katie Stout says, the writers' goals often change. What the writer writes, or for whom, or how, can change. There is a door in the wall--invisible as it may be for a while--with new territory on the other side.

May. 27th, 2016


Dreams and goals

I've been posting about hope, the future, and the value of dreams over at YA Outside the Lines.

I've been thinking about my own dreams and aspirations, too. Many of the goals I set out to reach at the age of 20 or so, I have reached. Some of those dreams turned out better than I expected; some worse. For many writers like me, publication was a big, concrete goal. I'm glad I reached it, but I find it's not an end in itself. The writing road stretches out beyond it, and I've been thinking about where I want it to take me. That's one reason I've been posting a little less here. I have actually been writing a lot, but in an exploratory way that I'm not ready to discuss yet, because I'm still figuring out certain things. (How's that for vague?)

I'm also reading a lot. That's one ambition that has never changed: to read early (and late) and often!

May. 20th, 2016


Carpe diem

I've had busy weekends lately, and the chores I usually do on weekends have been piling up, waiting for me to have a block of open time.

That would be this weekend. I had Friday off from the day job, so it's even a three-day weekend. Not that I don't have plenty of things to fill it up with.

But today was also one of the few days we've had all month of warm, sunny weather. Mostly we have been dragging around here, shivering in the cold rain, forgetting for weeks at a time what the sun even looked like. And tomorrow it's supposed to be wet and cold again.

So after this morning's writing session, I glanced at my long to-do list. I looked outside. And I grabbed my husband and we went on a hike.

Then this afternoon, I took an hour to read on the front porch, which is one of my favorite things to do, and can only be done "in season."

My to-do list is still long. But I regret nothing.

May. 15th, 2016


Support your local library

Some years ago, I used to do a blog comment challenge to raise money for my local library, and I got other bloggers to join me. Basically, we pledged to donate to our local libraries for each comment or tweet we got. We used it to raise consciousness as well as money.

That was the heyday of blogs, and I haven't done the challenge since social media splintered into a kajillion different platforms, but I still donate to my local library each spring.

And in that spirit, I'd like to encourage you to support your local library, if you have one and appreciate what it brings to the community. There are many ways to contribute beyond monetary donations. Here are some:

1. Donate money to the library and/or Friends of Library group.
2. Volunteer time at the library, friends group, or library board.
3. Donate books and other materials (but check first to see what the library accepts; not all libraries are able to accept all materials).
4. Write to your local officials (at whatever level of government funds your library) and express your support for the library.
5. Attend local-government meetings at which library funding is discussed and voted on.

And the most fun way: Use your library! Circulation statistics may help demonstrate the need for the library with hard numbers.

We usually think of books first when it comes to libraries, but libraries do so much more nowadays. Including:

Lending movies, music, magazines, ebooks, museum passes, tools, and other objects.
Hosting workshops on a variety of topics (citizenship classes, job hunting, estate planning, history lectures, etc.)
Hosting arts and crafts workshops and "makerspaces."
Having book clubs and summer reading programs.
Providing community meeting rooms.
Showing movies.
Providing free computers and internet for onsite use.
Hosting a community garden and teaching kids about organic gardening.
Hosting story time for kids.
Et cetera!

May. 9th, 2016



"It was essential to feel thankful for the few who stopped to watch or listen, instead of wasting energy on resenting the majority who passed me by. ... All I needed was ... some people. Enough people. Enough to make it worth coming back the next day, enough to make rent and put food on the table. And enough so I could keep making art."
--Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

In this book, Palmer writes a lot about finding your audience, and how that audience doesn't necessarily need to be (in fact, it probably can't be) every single person. She relies on this conclusion: "Given the opportunity, some small consistent portion of the population will happily pay for art" (emphasis in original).

This is a model that rivals the blockbuster-or-bust mindset. It's about patience, and diligence, and trust, and about asking ourselves what is enough.

May. 1st, 2016



Along with the serious work of writing--the construction of plot, the research, the emotional delving, the observation, the rereading and cutting and rewriting, the double-checking--it's important to keep sight of the fun in it. "Fun" may be a relative term when our subject matter is deeply tragic, or purely informational (like an instruction manual), or when we're racing a deadline.

But writing is creative work, and some of our best writing may come from playing. From word games, fun exercises, creative risks. From asking "What if?" or procrastinating on another project by starting something new. From pursuing the project we want rather than the one we ought be be tackling. Experimenting, trying a new genre or style or medium, mixing it up. Remembering the love of words and stories and characters that brought us to this crazy avocation in the first place.

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