Marathon Writer, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Trench Warfare

David Jones (1895 – 1974) was a British painter, artist, poet, and writer. Born into a Welsh family living in England, he spent many years in Wales. In his mid twenties, he converted to Roman Catholicism.  His experiences in the Great War as a soldier with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, religious beliefs, and Welsh heritage helped form his work.

Recently, I read Epoch and Artist, a collection of his earlier writings, collected and republished in 1959. It was tough going. He was an extremely smart, well-educated man, who spent a lot of time thinking about art, life, spirituality, and the relationships among those three things. He frequently wandered into military metaphors, which since I spent time in uniform, I found comforting. I understood them.

In an essay on the dilemma between creating goods that were convenient and useful, but shoddy and without an artistic esthetic, he wrote

“I have no advice to offer except to suggest that the reader should make his own reconnaissances. From his own limited bit of trench he may quite possibly secure identifications which may clarify the situation on other sectors. At least he will know, by direct contact, the nature and depth of the entanglements to his immediate front. Which is more than they know at H. Q. [headquarters] for all of their revised maps.

“The contractual is essential. You have to have been there. Ars [Latin for a female personification of art, skill, and craft] is adamant about one thing: she compels you to do an infantryman’s job. She insists on the tactile. The artist in man is the infantryman in man, so that . . . all men are [by birth, members] of this infantry, though not all serve with this infantry. To pursue the analogy, this continued employment away from the unit [that is, pursuing a life not actively making art] has made habitual and widespread a staff mentality. Today most of us are staff-wallahs of one sort or another. [Staff-wallahs are people who run things for other people, but would never think of doing the activity themselves.]”

That comment, “We have to have been there” goes far beyond the topic he was addressing in the essay. In that one sentence beats the heart of being a creative person. We can read all we want about our chosen art. We can talk about it, and think about it. The absolute essence is that we do it, starting from wherever we are at any given moment.

A couple of years ago I met a man who didn’t go exploring what was in front of him. At a writing class’ first meeting, he said he so wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how to begin. The next week, his first class submission was rough and disjointed, but it had real potential, and class members told him that. The next class, he had nothing to submit. Same thing the third class. He didn’t show up the fourth class, or ever again.

I ran into him a few months later and said how sorry we were that he hadn’t continued. “Oh,” he replied, “I discovered I wasn’t a real writer,” and proceeded to give me all the reasons why he wasn’t. He’d never had the advantages that the rest of us in class had. (To this day, I wonder what he thought those advantages were.) His ideas weren’t any good. (Actually, they were quiet good.) He didn’t have time to devote to writing. (Maybe he didn’t, but he could have found some.) Writing wasn’t really important in the world, anyway. (Talk about not knowing what the nature and depth of the entanglements to his immediate front.) He’d love, just love, to be a writer, but it was obvious after the first class that future was closed to him.

It was so sad, and I knew there was nothing I could do but wish him well in whatever he chose to do in place of writing.

Insist on the tactile. Be a writer.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Return on Investment

Last year, I spend a lot of time conquering learning curves on social media. If social media were a musical instrument, I’d have progressed beyond playing scales, but no way am I ready to play in Carnegie Hall.

Then, media creep began to set in, as in just one more site, one more e-mail check, one more clicked link to the point I knew it was getting out of hand.

What was valuable? What was fun, but maybe, not the best use of my time?

I started to answer that question by dividing sites I visited into business-related or not business-related. Sites don’t have to be 100% one or the other. For some, I guessed at a percentage, for example one site was 40% business/60% not business. Then I did a couple of practice runs. If I went straight through my business-related sites, how long did that take? If I went straight through my non-business sites, how long does that take? For the mixed sites, I looked at only business messages on the business run and only the non-business on that second run.

I came up with a stunning figure that only 10% of my on-line time (how long I spent visiting sites) and effort (how much I interacted through likes, comments, pluses, etc.) was spent on business; 90% was fun, but had little or no relationship to helping me be a more successful writer.

Let’s be clear here. I’m not saying that every on-line interaction has to be all business. However, fun, especially when it’s 90% of online time, as it is in my case, runs headlong into an immovable object: 168 hours in a week. That’s all the time there is and all the time there will be. (Come Sunday we’ll be one hour short until autumn. Sigh.)

Enter Return on Investment (ROI), which is a comparison between time and effort spent versus reward.

There is a myth that every contact is valuable because it might eventually lead to a new business opportunity. As business people, how long can we wait for a return? If we’re cultivating a potential new publisher who we hope will eventually republish our entire back list, the down-the-road reward justifies this being a high ROI. On the other hand, the individual customer who might or might not buy one book, is a low ROI candidate.

High Returns

  • A high ROI doesn’t necessarily mean an easy site to visit. Material may be difficult, or take a long time to read and process, but it also returns high rewards as well.
  • High ROIs pay off quickly, within days or weeks.
  • The best high ROI is easiest to measure. We sell something. We get money. We open up new markets.
  • Other high ROIs include problem solving, skills development, and mastering our craft.
  • High ROIs don’t have to be about dollars and cents. We make or sustain friendships that are important to us. Forget networking, which is impersonal. Real networking means sustaining personal connections on a one-to-one level.
  • High ROIs are also about inspiration. If we come away from a site with more confidence or joy, that works.

Moderate Returns

  • A moderate ROI means balancing in the middle: a little challenging to use, but worth the effort because of the return.
  • I rate a lot of things as moderate ROIs when they are coming or going. Perhaps we’re auditioning a new site that we just discovered. Or our needs have changed, but a site we’ve followed for years hasn’t changed along with us. Or vice versa. This happened to me recently. An on-line newsletter to which I subscribe changed focus. I’m finding much less content that’s useful. I’ve downgraded that site from high to medium ROI, and I suspect I’ll unsubscribe sometime in the next few months.
  • Is using this resource hard, but enjoyable and I’m willing to put the time in for a lower, but still pleasing reward?

Low Returns

  • A low ROI means, at the end of the day, how much further ahead was I because I spent two hours looking at knitting patterns, or cat videos, or stupid joke sites? And yes, there are days when we need 2 hours of patterns, videos, or jokes. Hopefully, this isn’t every day.
  • Perhaps we’re on a learning curve and find this site hard to use now, but we have great hopes for a higher return in the near future.

One way to look at our time on-line?

  • Pick two average weeks to do this. Weeks where we’re not on deadline, we don’t have an unusual number of commitments, etc.
  • List all the social media we use.
  • Track, daily how much time we spend on each social media site and what we did there.
  • Rate each activity as a high, moderate, or low ROI.
  • One day’s tracking might look something like this. Do a separate sheet for each day.
How I spent today online

How I spent today online

It was a slow e-mail day. One of the ways I’ve streamlined my e-mail time is by having separate business and personal folders into which I shift mail from my Inbox. And I have strong filters to trap junk mail. Of the 2.5 hours I spent on line, most of it gave me a high return. I’m thinking I really have to make some decisions about one of my Facebook groups.

At the end of two weeks look at all the sheets. Have any patterns emerged that give us a clue of how we might want to change our Internet time?

The thing I found most helpful was that I now separate my business time on-line and my fun time. I run through my list of business-related sites and messages first. I always visit those sites. The fun sites, sometimes I get to them, sometimes they have to wait a few days.

That’s the beauty of the Internet. We can always come back to it tomorrow.

Marathon Writer, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Book Shelf 2 of 12

One thing I want to do this year is build an essential bookshelf of resources that mean a lot to writers. This is the second in the series. In January, we looked at books that first got us seriously interested in writing, and why they had that effect on us.

Since February contained Valentine’s Day, this blog is about books we fell in love with during the past 12 months. What non-fiction books have we read in the last twelve months that we absolutely loved? What motivated us, consoled us, made us better people, or helped us realize we were fine, just as we were?

My personal non-fiction breakthrough book in the past year was Susan Cain. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Broadway Book, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-307-35215-6.

I know we’re talking about books, but if your to be read stack is as big as mine and you don’t think you’re going to get to Quiet any time soon, here is Susan’s 2012 TED Talk about the same topic. It’s 19 minutes long and well worth watching.

I gained a lot of helpful, workable information from this book. It helped me aim for a, literally, quieter week. I’ve decreased or stopped patronizing stores and eating places that are noisy. The quieter a business is, the less likely they are to have blaring background music, the more I’ll go there. Our meals now begin with five minutes of silence, so that we can concentrate on the food, and on being with one another. In addition to tea breaks during the day, I also take quiet breaks.

I also learned about two works myths that need busting.

Two work myths

1) Brainstorming — invented in the 1940s/1950s by Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osorn (BBDO) founder Alex Osborn — doesn’t work, and in fact, is counterproductive. Data has been available since 1963 to debunk brainstorming, but we’ve not been listening. What works instead is when a person, alone in a quiet environment, has time to think about a problem and possible solutions. Group work happens after the quiet work. It’s not the usual brainstorming session of throwing uncensored ideas into a pot, but of each person having time to present their ideas, along with a summary of the pros and cons of the solutions.

2) In 1993, Anders Erricson proposed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something. I turns out that it’s not the number that important, it the way practice is done. The most rewarding practice hours are spent alone, in a quiet environment, in serious study and experimentation. A recent Forbes blog talked more about this.

Being quiet isn’t the same thing as being shy or being an introvert. All people, from the shyest to the most gregarious, need silence. They just need it in different amounts and at different times.

The sweet spot for quietness is a place of balanced stimulation. It is different for every person and different for the same person in different situations. Unfortunately, we live in a one size fits all myth. Everything from the size and design of hotel conference chairs to 50-minute class periods to music played in malls and restaurants is out of an individual’s control. We are desperately in need of a “Quiet Now” movement.

Quietly now, tell us what non-fiction books have meant a lot to you lately.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Drama Queens

It’s a little unsettled around here right now. An elderly relative has put off longer than he should have writing things like a Power of Attorney and Advanced Directive. We’re not sure how the current crisis is going to play out, but we don’t think it’s going to be fun.

We are going to lose the beautiful old trees in our commons because the Fire Department says they are too close to the buildings, and would block access in case of fire. If our landlord had paid attention to regulations in the first place, and given those trees periodic care, like proper pruning, this wouldn’t be happening.

I’ll write the first chapter of my next mystery some time this week. Starting a new book is always an emotionally fraught time, and I’ve got more than my usual mad on at editors and publishers in general. Why the heck is book published so complicated? Why can’t I just write and forget all that other publishing and marketing nonsense?

My relative, the Fire Inspector, my landlord, and the publishing world in general need a good piece of my mind.  I’ve laid awake the past few nights preparing a number of vitriolic speeches I’ll never deliver.

I was always a Drama Queen, even before I knew what that kind of over the top behaviour was called. It would be more accurate to say I was a closet Drama Queen. A young woman growing up in the South was expected to meet certain public standards. Privately, I gave my emotions full vent. I had scathing conversations that didn’t do anyone one bit of good because the people I had them with weren’t in the room with me. Sometimes, they weren’t even in the same state.

When I took my first playwriting class, it came to me that these anger-logues in my head sounded identical to drama, tension and angst packed scenes that we were being encouraged to write for the stage. Could it be that I would be better off writing out my frustrations than keeping them in my head?

As it turned out, that was exactly the case. Out was far better than in.

Try this: the next time we’re hopping mad or sad or feeling any strong negative emotions, write down what we’d love to say to the other person.  No holes barred. Just let it rip. Also, write what we think they would say or do in response. We can give those voices character names, if we want. Most times I call them simply A and B. A says this, and then B says that, and so on.

Here’s what I’ve discovered happens

  • I’m shocked at how downright mean and hurtful I’m capable of being to another person.
  • Sometimes the other person, even if he or she is only in my head, says or does something that surprises me.
  • I have a chance to polish those zingers, the lines I usually wish later that I could have thought of at the time.
  • I also have a chance to admit that I don’t want to say those mean and hurtful things, and discover alternate lines that I’d be willing to say for real.
  • This is a wonderful energy drain. I get to stop having repeated, unproductive conversations in my head, when I should be drifting off to sleep.

If we save what we’ve written, we might be able to use this conversation in a future story.

Let’s make ourselves a promise to keep drama on the page, where it belongs, not in our lives.

Oh, yeah. Happy Mardi Gras. Laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll. Eat pancakes. Wear beads. Make a mask. Make gumbo. We’re doing all of those things at our house today.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Value Added Tax on Ideas

How many idea notebooks do you have on the go?

I’m a one binder to ring them all gal. At the other end of the scale, other writers have notebooks beside their bed, in their car, in their purse or backpack, in the kitchen, beside their TV watching chair, and some, even in the bathroom. I hope that last one is the waterproof version that engineers and biologists use in the field.

It’s not  how many ideas books we have that’s important. It’s how we use them. The first great reason for keeping an ideas book is that the act of writing down an idea gives us pleasure. Nothing more. We have no intention of doing anything with the idea, but at least it’s out of our head and on paper.

In the 2014 movie, Authors AnonymousAlan Mooney has no intention of writing anything. He’s happy dictating character names and ideas into a recorder. Taking a side trip from ideas, this is a movie every writer who has been or plans to be in a critique group should see. It is so familiar, and so painful to watch.

It doesn’t matter where ideas come from

Truth time. How many of the ideas we’ve written in our idea books have we actually used?

Writers can come up with more ideas in a minute than we’d be able to use in a year. Try this: get a pencil, paper, and timer. Ignore computers for this because there’s something about putting pen to paper that generates more creative ideas than typing into a keyboard. I don’t know why, and neither do neuroscientists, but they are working on it.

Don’t write down entire ideas during the timed minute — that uses too much time. Instead, jot down key words, like “3 girls Cherry St.” After the minute is up, flush out each idea into a complete sentence.

Here’s my one minute’s worth of ideas

  • A high school student gets her first job, in a bakery.
  • Three six-year-old girls, all of whom live on streets with Cherry in the name, disappear on the same afternoon.
  • A man’s pet monkey foils a bank robbery.
  • On the C-train, a man has a strange encounter with a woman who insists they are friends, but he has no memory of knowing her.
  • What if 3-parent babies were the norm, and a couple had to get special permission to have a 2-parent baby?

Practice capture and release

We schedule haircuts, dental appointments, spa treatments for ourselves; vet visits for our pets; and maybe even repeating mundane chores like defrosting the freezer or checking the smoke alarms. Ideas need periodic check-ups as well. We start by setting aside a couple of hours, on a regular basis, to examine and arrange ideas — what we might call adding a Value Added Tax to them.

Yes, I mean really scheduling, as in writing “Idea review: 2 – 4 pm” in our calendar so that has the same authority as “Dentist: 2:30 – cleaning” or “Mortimer to vet for vaccination, March 12.” And saying, “No, I can’t come to a meeting that day. I have a dental appointment.” We don’t have to say, “No, I  can’t come to a meeting that day. I’m spending the afternoon capturing and releasing ideas.” Simply saying, “Sorry, that time is already booked” is all that’s needed.

I try to do this about four times a year. Your mileage may differ, but several times a year is a good idea.

Cold case ideas fall into three categories

What was I thinking?

This includes cryptic single words, like “fertilizer,” which, sadly, we no longer have a clue what the idea was. The 3-parent/2-parent idea would take a ton of research that I don’t actually want to do. The girl in the bakery, after further thought, is another coming of age/epiphany/how I learned about the real world idea that’s been done to death.

In general, over 99% of ideas, once they’ve had a chance to cool, fall into this category. Release them back into the wild. Be free, little idea. You have my best wishes for finding a nesting place somewhere else.

Has something, but lacks something, too

The pet monkey/bank robbery story and the C-train encounter feel like that. There is a germ of an idea there, but I’m not sure what.

I rewrite these partial ideas in a section that, depending on the mood I’m in, I call Mix-and-Match or Ideas á La Carte. Part of the idea examination process is periodically to go back to this section to see if I combine two or three disparate ideas, does an entire idea gel?

I also check these lists when something I’m already writing needs punching up. What’s there often provides a sub-plots or a twist for a plot that’s rapidly heading for staleness.

The keepers

Less than 0.01% of ideas are real corkers. They’re rare and important enough that they deserve their own pages. Turn to a blank page in the notebook. Write the idea at the top of the page. Three six-year-old girls, all of whom live on streets with Cherry in the name, disappear on the same afternoon.

Spend time looking at one question: Why has this idea got its hooks in me? What does it touch in my life or my belief system?

Don’t plot. Think of this fledging idea as a small, terrified animal. If we go prodding it with a plotting stick, it will either run away or curl up in a ball.

What intrigues me about writing about three missing girls?

  • I hate the media circus that happens when a child disappears. People should leave those poor parents alone.
  • It’s a sick and dangerous world. Lives can change in a split second.
  • The incredible mystery of three disappearances at the same time.
  • I don’t believe in alien abductions, but some people do, I mean really believe. Ditto conspiracy theories. Ditto mediums helping the police; they’d be coming out of the woodwork.
  • Police are going to focus on looking for connections. What if there aren’t any? What about an absolutely random act? Humans build patterns, even if none exist. What happens if the pattern is so totally wrong that it leads in the opposite direction from where the police should go?

At some point, a promising keeper idea becomes the next thing we know we’re going to write. When that happens, it’s time for that idea to graduate to it’s own notebook or Scrivener file. And this is so much more likely to happen if we weed out the gems from among the hundreds of ideas that so gleefully embed themselves in our heads, and our notebooks.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — being an ordinary writer is wonderful

I think of myself as an ordinary writer. I’m not brilliant, especially talented, or have extraordinary gifts. However, I have spent a long time learning to construct meaningful sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. Writers like to hang out with other writers. Because of that, we forget what a truly remarkable life even ordinary writers have.

We create imaginary worlds, starting with nothing more than an overheard conversation, an idea that won’t let us go, or an image that stops us in our tracks.

We focus on that imaginary world long enough to write 450,000 words, hoping that 90,000 of them will be keepers, and trusting that those keeper words will gel into a novel.

We are incredible pack rats, filing away a tattoo we saw on the subway, the taste of Aunt Sophie’s lemon pie, the way steam rises from downtown buildings when the temperature drops to forty below, and an article on the neurological basis of fear. One day, when we’re mildly distracted, walking to work or doing the dishes, we suddenly know that our next book is about a terrified, tattooed, homeless man, named Raoul Cardinal, huddled against a downtown building, trying to sell lemon pies from a cart, and knowing he has to get out of Winnipeg today, or he’s going to die.

Painters don’t display a portrait with only the base coat in place. Sculptures don’t put a partially carved block of wood out for everyone to see. Dancers don’t bring a couple of minutes of a work being choreographed to the stage, and ask the audience what movements should come next. But, writers trust other writers, and even non-writers with our unfinished work. Other writers, knowing what a great gift this is, try their best to give helpful, not hurtful, suggestions.

We know this is a tough business, yet we still open our hearts to other writers, particularly new writers. Many of us believe that when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed.

All of this seems like no big deal to us. It’s the way writers live. Take my word for it, it is a big deal. We should celebrate being ordinary more often.

With that in mind, I’m crowd-sourcing a problem. I working with a new character named Lollie Whitsunday. She was born and raised in England, but now lives in Canada. Lollie is a nickname that evolved in childhood before she could pronounce her first name correctly. The problem is, I can’t think of a first name that would devolve into Lollie.

The name of everyone who suggests a name will be put into a hat. I’ll and draw one name, and send that person a copy of Some Welcome Home, the first book in my mystery series.

Ideas are cheap, though not, of course, the ideas about Lollie’s first name. What ideas really need is a Value Added Tax. Hope to see you next Tuesday, February 10th, for more about taxing ideas.

Marathon Writer, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – Build a Bookcase — 1 of 12

Writers must read.

We read writers who are in our market niche, because these are often the kind of books we most enjoy. And, it pays to know what the competition is up to.

We read writers who, because of the topic or complexity of writing, write far outside our comfort zone because we need at least a nodding acquaintance with the full writing spectrum.

A word of caution here.

The captain of the Titanic didn’t need to see the entire iceberg to know he had a problem. ~Denise Tiller, mysery writer

If a book deals with too much violence or graphic subjects, don’t feel compelled to read the entire thing. Start at the beginning and read until the first disturbing detail is reached. Once, for me, that was the third sentence. I knew, at that point, that continuing to read would do me more harm than good.

We read great writers because it’s a pleasure to see how well the craft can be done, and we read lousy writers because it’s also a good idea both to see how badly the craft it is done, and to console ourself that we write lots, lots better than that.

One thing I want to do this year is build an essential bookshelf of books and other references that mean a lot to writers. The blog on the last Tuesday of every month will be Build a Bookcase.

This month, let’s start with what was the first book that got us seriously interested in writing? And why?

Mine was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, published in 1986.

By the time I read Writing Down the Bones, I’d been hobby writing for twenty-four years. I’d churned out short stories, some rather regrettable fan fic, and at least two complete novels (neither published to this day, thank goodness). I’d kept a journal for eight years. I’d even gotten a degree in English/Creative Writing. And I was pretty sure that I’d nailed this writing thing.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. For me, this book cracked open the difference between writing and living a writing life. I realized I had to stop writing behind closed doors, and start writing in cafes and other public places. I had to find some writing partners. I had to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. I had to learn to allow flow to happen, back and forth, between writing and living. And, a whole bunch of other things that I’m still learning and polishing today.

This is one of three books that I still keep close at hand, in a little wooden box, less than a foot away from my keyboard, just in case I need a quick refresher.

What book got you started on seriously writing?

Going back to the Marathon Writer — Spiral Effect that I started the year with four weeks ago, here’s a followup on why sitting and writing is a bad idea. In the past week, the longevity columnist on CBC Calgary Drive Home – why sitting is bad for us gave the best summary I’ve heard so far about why sitting is so bad for us. It’s 7 minutes, 20 seconds long.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – To Do or Not To Do?

To-do List Myth

We put items on a list in order to get them done.

To-Do List Reality

The more things on a list, the more things that are never completed. The longer the list, the greater the guilt, and guilt is a strong de-motivator.

We say we put things on our to-do list so we can get them done, but in reality, we’re know one of three outcomes is likely

  • We get the item done.
  • So much time passes that the item becomes irrelevant and we cross it off the list.
  • The item remains on our list for a long time, generating guilt and convincing us we are ineffective, bad people

Feeds and Seeds

To-do lists are made up of feeds and seeds. These terms were coined by Douglas Rushkoff, in Present shock : when everything happens now. Feeds aren’t a problem; seeds are. It’s important to recognize the difference.

Feeds are temporary

  • The United Fund Campaign closes at 3:00 PM on Friday. If we’ve already made a donation or don’t plan to, we basically don’t care.
  • Feeds don’t stack. By 4:00 PM on Friday, that message is off our to-do list.

Seeds stack

  • Seeds are spring-loaded and often generated by other people.
  • They send us e-mails, assign us tasks, or have expectations for our help and cooperation. Each time we get a seed message, we open a loop on our to-do list. That loop remains open until we’ve done the required task.
  • Every unanswered question and every task we haven’t yet completed stays in the most active part of our brain, waiting for an answer.  We open more loops in one hour than our grandparents opened in several weeks.
  • Seeds stack. Right now I’m carrying about 50 seeds on my to-do list, and I suspect I’m at the low end of the scale. Many people have over 200 loops open; some have over 500.

Unwind the Spring-Loaded Seeds

The biggest thing we need to do with seeds is unwind the spring-loading someone else applied and re-load it so it works for us. Opening an e-mail isn’t a commitment to do something; it’s a chance to assess what is being asked of us. Instead of grabbing a pen and adding Read article Carmine sent me for Tuesday’s meeting, to my to-do list, what I really need to do is an assessment.

  • The article is twenty-seven pages long.
  • Carmen has no idea what my workload is like between now and Tuesday. Essentially, she’s put the ball in my court and I am conditioned to value her spring-loading over my need to control my own time.
  • If I give this situation any thought at all, I console myself that the meeting is next Tuesday, and not thirty minutes from now.

What are my choices?

  • Look at my calendar and see if I have a block of time to read a twenty-seven page article.
  • Ask Carmen exactly how this article relates to Tuesday’s meeting. If she says it will be a large part of the afternoon’s discussion, then I’m going to have to find time to read it; but if she says that she’s planning to use the 3 principles in the sidebar on page 19 as a discussion guide, then I know I can get by with a lot less reading.
  • Negotiate a mutually-agreed spring-reloading with Carmen. This includes letting go of some tasks.

Seeds Take Time

The next biggest thing we can do for ourselves is remember that each seed, each loop, each to-do item, whatever we want to call them, is a time commitment. Look up Alice’s new Zip code takes less than 5 minutes. Repaint the bathroom takes an entire weekend, maybe longer.

It may help to add a time element to an entry. Look up Alice’s new Zip code (5 minutes). If we see we have several less than 5 minute items, we can group them together and get them done all at once. Or if we have that bathroom to paint, maybe we need to pick the weekend we plan to do it.

Also, it helps to break down big jobs, like the bathroom, into the first small step. Instead of reminding ourselves to Repaint the bathroom, how about reminding ourselves to Measure bathroom walls, so we’ll know how much paint to buy?

Personalize our Lists

The third thing we can do is make our to-do lists fit our personality. Some people go gaga over a slick black leather notebook, pristine white paper, and a premium fountain pen. Other people like colors, doodling, and silly messages to ourselves. If you’d like to see some cool things people are doing with their to-do lists, I recommend checking out the Google + community, The Bullet Journal.

My to-do list? Electronic all the way. iCal with 20 color-coded categories and as many automatic repeating reminders as I can build in. For my permanent records, a PDF copy of the previous month saved at the beginning of the next month.

One of the things I’d like us to do this year is build a bookshelf of books we’ve found helpful getting us into writing and keeping us there. I’m devoting the last Tuesday of each month to building that bookshelf. Next Tuesday, January 27, I’m focusing on the first book. I’ll tell  you which book got me into serious writing, and why. See you then.

Marathon Writer, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – The Spiral Effect

Three times in my life I’ve chosen to see a health care professional about why and how my life had gotten off track. The last time I said to the woman, “I dealt with this issue when I was in my twenties, and in my thirties. Why do I have to deal with it again now?”

She said, “Because life is a spiral. It only seems like you’re coming back to the same problem. In fact, you’re coming back to a different, more complicated problem because you bring with you all that you learned since the last time you worked on this.”

That’s why the same questions plague us as writers decade after decade.

  • Am I really a writer?
  • Can I make a living at writing?
  • What do I do next?

Are we really writers?

If we are recording words with the intention of telling a story, then yes, we are writers. There’s a reason that screenwriter and teacher Robert McKee titled his writing guide simply Story. Story is the heart of writing. When nothing seems to be working, story becomes our refuge, the place we turn to, as the late singer and songwriter Stan Rogers said, “like a child to home whenever darkness comes.”

Can we make a living at writing?

That one is far more difficult to answer. I’ve heard a lot of high numbers — 75%? 80%? More%? — bantered around by industry professionals about how big a role pure luck plays in a lucrative writing career. Sadly, most of us will never be able to quit our day jobs, so what we learn to do instead is juggle time for writing, running a business, doing our day job, living in a family, having friends, and the whole rest of the world.

Here’s the absolute bottom line: there are 168 hours in a week. We aren’t getting any more, so let’s work on making something of what we already have.

What do we do next?

Here’s the first aid kit that every writers need. You’ve probably seen this list before, but have you thought about it being at the heart of being a writer? When we start to spin out of control, we need to do 6 things.


This is a quote that marked a turning point in my writing. I realized I could not keep going at the pace I was going and continue to be a writer. I had to make a choice between learning to slow down and quitting writing. I’m still writing.

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence, and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of this innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace, because it kills the root of the inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

~ Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968), Catholic writer, Trappist monk, priest, poet, social activist. and student of comparative religion

Breathe – libraries and the Internet are full of resources about breathing and breathing meditations. Learn the basics and practice them

Drink water – even a 2% dehydration, not enough to make us thirsty, reduces concentration and creativity.

Get enough sleep – The National Geographic program Sleepless in America  says that 40% of people in North America don’t get enough sleep. That figure is rising.

Eat healthy and exercise – do I really need to explain these?

We are always spiralling either up or down. There is no standing still. I vote for spiralling up.

Hope to see you back next Tuesday, January 20, for What to do about those pesky To-Do Lists.

Marathon Writer, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Reentering

A New Year, A New Blog Theme

Welcome to 2015. We spent last year writing a novel, one step at a time, from Theme Statement to Archiving the Manuscript.

Non writers have the mistaken idea writing takes up all of a writer’s time. All we have to do is string together enough words to make a book, play, or short story; edit those words; and bang, we’re done.

We writers know a different tale. To quote myself, and writer/counsellor Claudia McCants

Writing is a marathon. Warm up, write, cool down. Eat right. Drinks water. Exercise for stamina, balance, and staying power. ~Sharon Wildwind, mystery writer

What gets in my way when I’m writing? I think the question really is, What doesn’t? ~Claudia McCants, mystery writer, and Christian counsellor

When we are in this writing game long-term, we learn to be on intimate terms with qualities like balance, persistence, patience, reinvention, and most of all, hope. Our journey this year will explore what gets in our way as writers and ways that some writers have found around those things.

Look out world, here we come

Yesterday was the 12th day of Christmas; today is Little Christmas, or the Christian feast of the Epiphany. In other words, the December holidays are over for another year. At our house, the last 12 days had some good things, and some not so good. Frankly, I am exhausted. I need a holiday to recover from the holidays, but hey, it’s already January 6th, and I am SO, SO far behind.

Fortunately, last year I came across some very sage advice from a woman named Jennifer Louden. She says whenever people, particularly women, are faced with moving from a vacation, holidays, or time off back into the swing things, we tell ourselves six lies, in essence that we have to

  • reenter life full speed
  • punish ourselves for having the audacity to have had a good time
  • do an immediate self-make over
  • put all those good times completely out of sight, and out of mind
  • acknowledge that we are failures because we took a break
  • put everyone else first because we’ve been terribly selfish to do something good for ourselves

Here’s Jennifer’s blog about how to gracefully reenter our life after taking time away. Reading what she has to say is a great way to start this new year.

Here’s the question for this week: what’s the hardest thing to overcome when coming back from the holidays?

Next week, January 13th, I’ll have thoughts on The Spiral Effect or why do the same issues plague us decade after decade?