Thursday, January 26, 2012

On Your Mark, Mama!

My second grandson is walking. Y-a-a-a-y Luke!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

If You Aren't Perfect, Just Don't Play
When our oldest daughter Beth was about 5 and learning to read and write, she had a hand-held electronic game called a Speak & Spell. The game was early computer technology available about the same time as Pac-Man in the early 80s. 

A computer voice would say, "Spell 'curtain,'" at which point the player was to supposed to push the letter buttons to spell the word. If you got it right, the voice would say, "Correct. Spell 'action.'" After 10 such words in sequence, if you spelled all the words correctly, the voice would say, "Perfect Score." If you missed two of the ten, the voice would say, "Eight correct. Two wrong. Try again."

But we seldom heard anything other than "Perfect Score." That's because if Beth ever missed a word, she turned the game off and started over again. My husband and I laughed at this for years.Then recently I realized that's exactly what I've done, not with a Speak & Spell, but with writing whenever it hasn't gone exactly right.

Perfectionism is really a tender ego wearing a disguise. Sometimes it's a little girl who's been praised for being smart and doesn't want to be wrong--ever. Sometimes it's a not-so-little girl who can't admit that it's not the easiest thing in the world to sit down and crank out wonderful stories, even if almost every other thing she tried came easily.

The little girl played Speak & Spell over and over until she didn't have to turn it off; she learned how to spell every single word. The not-so-little girl is going to keep doing what she couldn't do at first too.

And I don't mean play Pac-Man. Although I was never able to do that either.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun . . .

Right, Sophie? 

Move Over, Mr. Michener

It's not official--I haven't signed a contract yet--but a magazine has accepted my proposed nonfiction article. More later.

FYI, James A. Michener began his career as an author at age 40 and continued to publish prolifically until he was 88. And that's not counting his books that were posthumously published.

I admit I've made a few more wishes and blown out a few more birthday candles than Mr. Michener when he started. Also, his first  publication at age 40 was a book, not a magazine article.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

It's a Forest Out There . . .

Age has one huge advantage: hindsight. Looking back, one of the things I wish I had learned early is that writing, like any long-term commitment, is at least as much about the way you work, about your process, as it is about the final product. In fact, the product is that which reveals the value of the process.

When I was younger, I wanted "to be a writer," but I had no idea what to do when the well ran dry or when I ran up against some stubborn obstacle, like a husband and three children. 

A friend said to me: "You just write so many words a day and before long you have a novel." And of course, that's true. It's so true it's cruel. Because it's not the whole truth. I know because I tried it and it didn't work for me.

The reason it didn't work is that I didn't have a process. I didn't even know I needed one. Before you can sit down to write so many words a day, you have to deal with things that seem to have no relation to the actual writing. It's when you write, and how, what, and where.

It's the goals you set and the rewards you build in. It's how you gauge success and how you deal with failure. If you have any other roles or responsibilities apart from writing--and most of us do--it can get complicated. 

A successful process is highly personal, like writing itself, and therefore you can't just borrow one that belongs to some other writer and start your own franchise. Although it's perfectly okay to cheat some bits and pieces from several different writers.

All you young writers out there reading this? You need a way to get through the forest. There isn't a clear path. You'll have to make your own.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Don't Write Perpendicular

Parallelism is an important writer’s device. 

It was used by Dickens in the famous opening sentences: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” It was used extensively as an organizational device by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.  

And, as you might have noticed, it is currently being used by . . . me.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Unfinished Masterpieces

An interesting literary question was posed in an article published today in BBC News Magazine ( The article asks whether or not it's proper for one writer to complete the unfinished work of another. The author prompting the question is Gwyneth Hughes and the unfinished work is Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Hughes wrote an ending to the novel and adapted it for television.

I'll withhold judgment on Drood until I've seen the drama, but in general I'm not in favor of what the article calls "literary necrophilia." For authors to capitalize on the reputation and intellectual property of another is...well, theft. It's prevalent nevertheless. Witness the recent resurrections of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond--extensions of the work of Doyle and Fleming by those who are not Doyle or Fleming.

In another genre, the question has an easy answer. No one would dream of fashioning new arms for the Venus de Milo or of completing one of Michelangelo's unfinished marble sculptures.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's All about ... Me?

A sweet friend sent me on a complimentary spa date today. (Thanks, Janet!) I had my very first deep tissue massage and a 20-minute session on an Amethyst Bio-Mat ( Pure bliss! As my masseuse set to work on all the knots in my neck and shoulders, she said, "Relax, this is all about you." I'm pretty sure no one has ever said that to me before.

In building fiction, it really is all about the protagonist. His needs and desires kick start the plot while his character flaws tend to apply the brakes. If you have trouble with your plot, as I currently do, conventional wisdom says to revisit your protagonist. What does she want more than anything? What is the character flaw keeping her from reaching it? Tell her it's all about her and she just might divulge her secrets and solve your plotting problem.

I'll let you know if it works.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Biggest Loser

I've been a fan of The Biggest Loser reality TV show for a while now. I'm not sure why. It's schlocky and repetitive and, some would say, shallow. The contestants and trainers frequently gush, and creative editing insures melodrama and faux suspense. ("Your current weight is...." Skip to commercial.)

But something about the show keeps me watching. Actually, two things.

One is that sooner or later, an authentic change--not merely weight loss--comes over one or more of the contestants. Now that is interesting. All my life I've heard the lie that people don't change, and here are people who do it in twelve weeks or less!

Then there's that magic when the new man or woman emerges from layers and layers of triglycerides. It always reminds me of Michelangelo's half-finished sculpture, the muscular torso of a slave writhing free of a block of stone.

Two is that I relish the irony of the show's title playing out. In order to win, the contestants have a lot more to lose than weight alone. They have emotional or psychological baggage that is as much a part of their physical problems as their eating habits.

I recognize myself up there on that scale, not because I'm obese, but because, as a writer, I sometimes defeat myself before I even start. What I say to myself is that powerful.

The way to approach big weight loss as well as any other big project is simple--which is not to say it's easy. But it's as simple as kicking yourself into gear. Get up on that treadmill, pick up that keyboard/paintbrush/guitar. Not just today. Today. Tomorrow. The day after that. And the day after that. The change will come.

And when you see your new shape emerging or your novel taking shape? That's what you've been waiting for: the action that gets results. A body in motion tends to stay in motion.

All that stuff in your head? That's what you really need to lose.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Narrow My Choices, Please!

As 2012 begins, planning is on most everybody’s mind. It’s ironic but for creative people such as writers this “left brain” item is very important. 

I’ve had my share of moments of paralyzing anxiety before the blank page, and I’ve also experienced those moments of “flow,” when my narrative seemed to hum along as if it were a speedboat on a sea of glass--with me at the helm in complete control. In every case (far too few!) flow happened after I had turned my material every which way but loose. 

In other words, after I had planned . . . and worked my plan.

I learned a long time ago that planning functions as a kind of constraint on the creative process, and in the right context that is actually a good thing.

When a painter decides to use acrylics rather than oils, or to paint a landscape rather than a still life, he’s placing a constraint on his work. He’s narrowing the universe of possibilities, but more important, he’s reducing the fright he feels when he faces that blank canvas. 

Similarly, planning constrains the writer, reduces her anxiety, and frees her to create. Planning can be as simple as deciding when to write and where, or settling on a certain genre or character. 

Try it and see if this is true for you: the more structure you create for yourself— the more limits you impose—the more freely creative you’ll be. Of course, it’s possible to strait-jacket yourself. Should you do that, you’ll certainly know it.

It’s as if all that left brain stuff is a clutch that lets you smoothly shift into your creative gear. You can’t plan when that magic will happen, but you can plan for it to happen.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year, New Gear

When I began this blog a few years ago, my stated goal was to chronicle my progress through a writing course from the Institute for Children’s Literature. My unstated goal was to provide myself with an incentive and a platform to write. I quickly lost sight of those aims as I struggled with the demands of the course, my “day job,” and family life. Our youngest daughter graduated high school and entered college, two new grandchildren were born, a sister passed.  

All these things seemed unrelated to learning to write and too personal for the blog. They seemed separate and distracting.

May I now state the obvious? Every writer’s personal life influences his writing life, for better or worse. Some, like me, get bogged down and lose focus and motivation. We use our circumstances as an excuse to “not write,” to let ourselves off the hook. Writing is hard under the best of conditions. “Who can write at a time like this?” Right? 

Others keep going with extraordinary focus. Using their circumstances as fuel, they seldom stall.

So I’m here to confess that I have fallen short of the goal I set when I began this blog. I confess that the fault is entirely mine—it’s not due to circumstances, but solely due to my reaction to those circumstances.

I’m also here to say that I intend to broaden the subject matter of future posts, to make it more personal, to talk about things that affect me and my writing. Which is—well . . . everything! Otherwise, I won’t be motivated to write. 

And if I’m not motivated, either I won’t write at all or I won’t be very interested in what I do write. And if I’m not interested, you won’t be either. Stay tuned for the next installment.