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.