Two Dirty Words — “No Time”

Okay, I’m going to say it and hate me all you want, but sometimes it’s just true. Some days there is no time to write!

It’s a horrible reality, like death and taxes and waiting for replies to queries.

Writers are told that nothing is more important than the craft. Like Stephen King says, if you want to be a writer, you have to read and you have to write. In the make-believe realm of Writer’s World, there would always be magical moments when the clock stops, the children take naps, and the dryer hums quietly making sure nothing wrinkles until the spell breaks and it’s time to get back to reality. In today’s world, writers are often Cinderellas stuck mopping floors, just waiting for our godmother to send us — not to the ball- but to some quiet sanctuary where we can WRITE!

Non-writers don’t get it. They don’t understand that not writing is like not getting the drug we’re addicted to. It’s literally like all the characters in our brains start running their fingernails (and some of them have very long fingernails indeed) across some chalkboard in our brains. To put it mildly, we get a little…irritable when we don’t get to write. But it happens.

Life gets in the way. Things like the need to pay bills and eat and avoiding ending up as guests on Dr. Phil because we’ve neglected our children and spouses and we remember our characters’ birthdays but not theirs.

So what do we do?

What can we do?

First and foremost, we have to not beat ourselves up. We may create superheroes on the page, but sadly, we can’t turn ourselves into them. We can’t go without sleep or food or somehow add hours to the clock. We can however remember that tomorrow is a new day. Sure, it will come with challenges, like every day does, but it’s new. It’s fresh. It’s a blank page.

Even if you can’t get a word physically on that page because the one hour you’d carefully set aside is taken up by an emergency trip to the vet because the dog ate a roach hotel, you can still think about writing. You can turn the radio off and visit with your characters at stop signs and traffic lights. You can jot an idea down in the little notebook you carry or on a fast-food napkin. You can fan the flames of your creativity until things settle down a bit.

They’ll never settle down completely. Writer’s World doesn’t exist. But we can remember that tomorrow is a new day, and with it comes a new night and new minutes and new moments. New opportunities to push the laundry and the grading and the dishes aside, and do what keeps us sane.

Write when and what you can. Fifteen minutes at lunch is better than nothing at all. And amazingly, if we give ourselves small goals, they have a way of growing bigger. Fifteen minutes at lunch turns to thirty. Maybe we wake up thirty minutes before the alarm goes off and instead of going back to sleep, we get to work.

Stephen King is right in that to be a writer you have to read a lot and you have to write a lot. But when life becomes our own personal antagonists, we have to remember that ‘life’ is what it’s all about. Enjoy the cuddles when the kids are sick, don’t forget to listen to the birds when you take the dog for a walk. After all, if we get too out of touch with our own lives, how will we be able to write about the lives of our characters?

Getting in the Mood — to write

It’s Saturday morning. The kids are asleep. Dad is working in his garden (hooray for spring) and the dog’s gone out. It’s time to write! And yet….

It has occurred to me that writing is like sex.  Sometimes we’re more ‘turned on’ than other times. Sometimes we’re in the mood, and sometimes…our creative side gets a headache. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a Viagra for writing! Okay, I know this sounds ridiculous, but we all know that writing takes focus and energy (the mental kind of energy that’s much harder to come by). So just like most people have their turn-ons for sex, maybe we writers have turn-ons for writing.

Let’s see. For me there’s….

Music:  Trying to find a song that would go with the scene I’m working on. Youtube is great for this. Last week I was working on a scene where a character is playing the violin. I found a wonderful video of an artist playing a heart-wrenching Bach piece — perfect.

Ambition: Okay, this is a big word that can mean many things, from just wanting to be able to pay bills to going to that next high school reunion and telling the girl who made head cheerleader and razzed you about not making the squad at all that you have a book deal. Ambition can be wanting your kids to go to college, wanting a bigger house or one with a basement that doesn’t flood when it rains. Or for someone like me with a child who will be battling health issues his whole life, the ability to know he’ll be able to go to good doctors and have a good life. Ambition isn’t a four letter word. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, and reminding ourselves of ‘why’ we want it so badly can be just what we need to get us to work when it’s hard to get in the mood.

Dreams and stories: I think this is the most important one. Writing isn’t easy. I think that horse has been beaten to death and the only people who believe writing is easy are those people who don’t write. We hack away at writer’s block, at the insecurities and rejections because we have a dream and we have stories. In a world of destruction, we dream of being creators, of giving birth to characters and scenarios and tragedies and moments when something magical happens on the page and we cry and we know that someday someone on the other side of the globe might hold our book, read our words, and cry too. That’s the dream. Stories move in us, beseeching us to tell them, to exorcise them from our souls and release them into the world, to set them free.

Right now, the sink is full of dishes. The couch is covered with laundry and very soon, too soon, the dryer will buzz like some sci-fi beast to let me know I have responsibilities! And yes, I do have responsibilities — to my craft, to myself, to my characters and their stories.

There is no viagra for writers, but we can turn ourselves on to writing. It’s not easy, but it’s what we do.

Waiting

There’s no way around it. If you’re a writer, you’re a waiter, and I don’t mean someone who works in restaurants taking food orders. Whether it’s waiting to hear on the latest round of queries you’ve sent out, waiting to hear about a partial or full an agent requested, or waiting to see if your agent is able to find a home for your manuscript, we wait. We wait. We wait some more.

I’m a terrible waiter. I try to explain, especially to my family, why for the next so many days or weeks, I might not be the most pleasant person to be around, and I know they don’t get it — they aren’t writers.

We wait for a response and that response is everything. It’s the answer to questions that burn continuously in our souls.

Am I wasting my time?

Do I have any talent?

Will I ever be able to quit my day job or at least, pay a bill just once with money I’ve made writing?

These are huge questions, and sadly, an email rejection on a query doesn’t answer any of them, and too often I’ve heard agents say that they had a great writer with a great book that they just couldn’t find a home for.

So what do we do?

Some writers drink whiskey or vodka or vermouth. Some take second jobs in order to afford their twice daily trips to Starbucks because not only do we need caffeine, we might well develop relationships with the staff at Starbucks and seeing their kind, smiling faces may be the only thing that keeps us from falling off the edge of ‘waiting’ insanity.

It would be nice if we could wait like expectant mothers. That we’d be guaranteed that by such and such a date, our manuscript will have developed a beating heart, a brain, and by such and such a date, we will be able to hold our precious creation. But no.

We can’t just gestate our characters and plots into existence. We have to work constantly to create  and recreate them. Maybe our protagonist is a male one day, a female the next. Maybe she has a brain the first fourth of the book but by page eighty-seven, her brain’s been sucked out by alien insects.

We create and wait. Create and wait. And while I may not be the best person to hangout with during those periods of waiting, I know the best advice I can give myself and others to help us through the endless ticks of the clock.

Create. Start the second book in a series, even if you don’t know if the first will sell. Start a totally new project or go back to an old one. Work. Create. It won’t silence the ticking, but it will muffle it a bit, and while we wait, we become better writers because that is who we are destined to be.

Write with Passion!

Today I read the article by Oliver Sacks regarding his diagnosis of terminal cancer. I confess that I have not been a prolific reader of his work, but this article touched me greatly. I won’t begin to try to discuss the article but rather it’s impact.

My grandfather was 99 when he died. My husband’s grandmother was 105. I know a little boy who died at the age of ten, have a close friend who’s twenty-five with four malignant brain tumors, and currently follow the story of a six-year-old girl fighting leukemia. But this post isn’t about death, it’s about life and the fact that no matter how many years we get on this earth, it will never be enough.

When my youngest was a baby, I remember holding her and just breaking down one day. I knew why I was crying. It was because I was going back to work, and she was going to daycare. I was once again going to miss out on spending day after day watching my child grow. I’d worked hard to become a therapist, and I had clients, mostly abused children, waiting for me to come back and help them. I don’t regret my relationships with them or the way they touched my life, but I wanted to be with my baby — with my last baby.

When she was two, I got a phone call during a therapy session.  My toddler had decided to take the dog for a walk and the babysitter found her two blocks away. I realize now that perhaps it was an angel who’d opened the door and ushered her outside, because I gave my notice that day, and took a part time job as a college professor.

I can’t get back the time I lost with my older children, and I don’t regret the hours spent in college or doing my internship or working in the field of psychology, but none of us is getting younger. Each day that passes is gone, and we will never get those days back.

What I took away most for Mr. Sacks’ words is that I want to really live the rest of my life, however many years that may be. That doesn’t mean I can quit my job and travel the world. But it does mean that I can laugh louder. I can keep singing in my car even when a passing driver looks at me like I’m nuts. I can hug tighter, kiss longer, breathe deeper, and I can write.

I can write and if there is one lessen for us all to learn, it’s that whatever we do in life, we must do it with passion.

Live with passion. Consume words and food and music with passion and write with passion!

Savor every word, every character, every conflict and resolution and every tear and smile the words bring to us.

Write with passion!

Writing Naked, Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone!

We write, picking each word carefully. We highlight/delete, chose more precious words, rewrite and rewrite and then after months, years, maybe even decades, it’s still not everything we know it can be.

We might start working on something else, thinking time and distance might give us new perspective, and while that may be helpful, we might also want to get in touch with our inner Freud. What are we over looking, not just in the story but inside ourselves?

I’m currently doing revisions and having that feeling that the story could be great. Not just good, but something really special. But it’s missing something. My agent was able to put her finger on it.

Overtime, I’ve gotten too close to my main character and too protective. Characters in stories get hurt. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. I’d built a safety net beneath her, and I was making certain she stayed over it. In short, I started controlling the character instead of letting her go where she needs to go, even if it’s somewhere I’m not particularly comfortable with.

As artists, we have to be honest in our writing, and that means letting the characters tell their stories. They may go somewhere we’re not comfortable. We may have to strip down our barriers, our emotions, maybe even our values, to keep it honest and real. We may have to write naked, figuratively speaking — especially if you have children or nosey neighbors!

In short, we have to lose ourselves enough to let the muse use us, to let the characters use us. But we also have to know where our comfort zones are, and we have to be wiling to step out of them, if that’s where our characters take us.

Why We Write?

Right now, I’m supposed to working on rewrites of a novel I promised I would have to my agent before January 1st. Well, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m not quite done, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about why we write.

Some say writers write because they have to. Because we’re wired with so many thoughts and emotions that if we don’t release them, we’ll explode, but instead of our bloody guts oozing down walls and clinging to the ceiling fans, it will be emotions — happy faces, sad faces, anguish like even Van Gogh couldn’t capture — painted on the walls and the ceilings.

I don’t know if I totally agree with that theory, although I love the romanticism of it. The idea that no matter what, we writers will find the strength and the courage to write.

Knowing why we do something is important. Life is short. We are sadly reminded of that fact each day. Another plane goes down, a friend dies unexpectedly, a relative gets a tough diagnosis. Or maybe we do.

So why do we spend what precious time we have on this earth, writing the stories of people who live only in the realm of our imaginations?

Is it because of our mortality? Is it because if our dreams come true, someday when we’re long in the ground, someone will be scanning the books on a library shelf and pick up the bound pages we created? They will read our words and somehow our thin, decomposing lips will curve into a smile.

Is it because, and God help us if it is, we believe we’ll make a lot of money. That our books will sell and we’ll have enough money to buy our freedom from the mundane lives we feel trapped in, lives spent behind desks or in front of classrooms or chained to factory or fast food counters?

I remember thinking that I’ll get published and I’ll be able to stay home with my babies and write. Hmmmm. My babies aren’t babies anymore. By the time I got my book deal for Deadly Design, my youngest was already proficient in “that’s what she said” jokes.

Why do we write?

Maybe it’s all the above. Maybe it’s none of the above.

Maybe it falls in the same category as why humankind felt compelled to learn how to fly or why people risk their lives to climb Mt. Everest. Maybe there’s just something in us.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

All I know is that the world, even for all it’s beauty, would be a dull place if it weren’t for the stories. Awww. The stories. Maybe we don’t write because we have to write or because we dream of fame and fortune. Maybe we write because the stories have to be told.

Well, speaking of stories, I should get back to work. There are so many stories forming like new galaxies out in the universe. So let’s all get to work.

May 2015 give birth to many, many stories.

That terrifying moment when you have time to write!

The deadline is looming. You drive to work yearning to turn around, go home, and get to work on the job you really want to do, which is writing. But you have responsibilities. You need that pay check. So you drive down raining streets, dry streets, snowy streets, seeing your characters in your mind. Engaging them in conversations and coming up with new plot twists.

The ache is real and intense. You NEED to work. And you will. Just a few more weeks in the semester or before that next brief break and you’ll hit it like a sailor on leave hitting a …….well, you get the picture.

The time comes. For me, that means finals are finished and semester grades are turned in. Finally, I can focus on what I really want and need to. SO WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT!

I recently tried to find the original writer who compared writing to slicing open a vein. To my surprise, there have been many such analogies by many writers throughout history. Is that why it’s so hard? Because writing is like tearing open an artery to your soul and letting it pour out on to the page?

Maybe it’s fear. If I were trying to create a masterpiece out of marble, I might work hundreds of hours only to leave it unfinished for fear that carving just a little bit more might leave my Venus de Milo without a nose or my David without his big toe. In other words, fear of screwing up!

What if what I write next isn’t as good as what I’ve already written? Or worse yet, what if I finish it, send it out into the world and no one likes it? Yikes!

The truth is writers are human. We screw up and that’s why we have a delete button and why the great Stephen King told us to “kill our darlings.” We’re going to make mistakes, and not everyone is going to love everything that we write. But that yearning is there. That desire to create. So we suck up our insecurities and we get to work

Besides all of the sayings comparing writing to self mutilation (of the highest form I might add!), there is the saying that if writing was easy, everyone would do it. It’s not easy, but if we silence our fears and jump off the proverbial cliff, well…the view is pretty damned amazing. So time to stop procrastinating and get to work.

Happy writing everyone!

Writing for Your Reader

This week I was discussing a short story assignment with a student. She’d shared her story with a writing group and found that they took issue to her not telling whether or not a character was male or female. She stated that it was her goal to keep this hidden from readers so there would be surprise at the end when the readers realized the sex of the character.

The whole discussion led me to how Stephen King opened his lecture at Wichita State University last week. He started with a “dumb joke” only we never got to hear the punch line because when reading the joke online, he’d gotten stuck. The joke starts, “Two jumper cables walk into a bar”. How does one visualize this? How exactly do jumper cables “walk into a bar”?  I thought of this because when reading my student’s story, I was stuck in trying to visual a character that was not described in any sense or ever referred to using “he” or “she”. (And we all know how annoying it can be to constantly read a character’s name over and over again instead of the usual substituting of a pronoun.)

My advice to her was that as readers, we need to visualize what we’re reading. We need to see the characters, or in Stephen King’s case, the jumper cables. If hiding the character’s gender is really important to the story, she has to find another way to help the reader see that character, to know that character.

As with all advice, we have to be able to take it ourselves. Last week I got an email from my agent discussing how a character in my new YA novel needs to be fleshed out more. In my mind, I had intentionally made this character somewhat vague because the main protagonist doesn’t want to know her. Told in the first person, the protagonist has lost everyone she loves, so she guards herself against getting to know or love this new person.

But then there are the readers– the people we write for.  What if they want to know the character more? What if they want to fall in love with her?  What if they want more than superficial descriptions? What if they want to know everything about her?

Then to my horror, I realized that I don’t know everything about her. I had grown so close to my protagonist, I had refused to get to know this character as well.

As a writer, I had to ask myself why it was that I’d kept my character at arms length and most importantly, I had to knock it off!

Every writer has their own way of dealing with character development. For me, it’s sitting down at the keyboard and basically conducting an interview. I plan on doing just that this afternoon. Since I used to be a therapist, I might even imagine my character sitting on a sofa in my old office as I try to delve deep into what makes her tick, what her fears are, and her aspirations. And then at some point, I might need to stretch out on the sofa myself, and ponder what it is about this character that makes me hesitant to know her too well.

Stephen King said that it’s impossible to keep ourselves completely out of our stories.  I think Sigmund Freud would agree. If there’s something that keeps us from revealing our characters to our readers, or to ourselves, we might want to do a little self reflection.

In the end, we owe it to our readers to know our characters, and in getting to know our characters, we might just get to know ourselves a little bit better.

Writing Idols — We all need them

We all know that writing is a lonely job. And with no audience to applaud (or maybe boo) our narrative choices, it’s also a job that comes with a lot of self-doubt. Instead of the typical ‘angel’ ‘demon’ most people have on their shoulders, writers have a critic and, if they’re lucky, a miniature version of their literary hero, or heroes, reminding them that success is possible.

Last night I got the opportunity to hear Stephen King speak on the campus of Wichita State University. I’ve always been a fan, but to be honest, it was when Stephen King wrote his book On Writing, that I became more than a fan. He gave me permission to write. Okay. He gave permission for all of us to write, or to do whatever it is we love to do because hey, isn’t that what life is supposed to be about. We’re supposed to do what we love, with or without a guarantee that we’ll ever make it onto the shelves of a bookstore.

I’ve made reading his book a summer ritual and since I have the audio version, I get to hear his voice reading his words about the craft of writing. It’s a must read for any writer!

Okay, I’ll try to stop being a Stephen King cheerleader for a moment and get to my point. Because writing is something we do alone, because writers, published or not, are filled with self-doubt and insecurities, we need idols. Early on, mine was Flannery O’Connor. I loved and still love the way her hand can reach out through the page and literally slap the reader across the face. I have other idols as well. Cormac McCarthy is one. And then of course, there’s Mr. King.

Our writing idols do more than inspire us. They push us to be our best, to find an even better word than the one we just agonized over for thirty minutes. They refuse to let us settle for mediocre, and most importantly, at least for me, they let us see what’s possible.

I love Olympic figuring skating. I can’t skate. I doubt I could even walk with skates on, but watching them glide across the ice, then spin at dizzying speeds after doing some triple, double, cow thing in the air is amazing. Did I ever aspire to do that? No way! I’d break my neck and probably the part of my body I happen to be sitting on right now. But I love watching them because they remind me of what humans are capable of. Do I believe I will ever be able to craft words the likes of O’Connor or McCarthy or King? No. But the great writers show us what humans are capable of. And while I know that there are elephants who can paint pictures, last I heard all writers are humans.

We can be capable of greatness, our own form of greatness. I like my miniature version of Stephen King sitting on my shoulder, telling me that what I just wrote needs to be highlighted and deleted ASAP! IT SUCKS!  But I also like the little voice that sometimes say, “Hey, not bad kid. I think you might really have something here.”

Be inspired. Study your idols, and instead of reading a line and saying to yourself, “Holy crap, I’ll never write like that!”, remember that even the greats started somewhere. And as much as we may love the voices of our writing idols, the world doesn’t need another Connor or McCarthy or even, yes it pains me to say this, another King. The writing world needs a choir of voices. Let them inspire yours.