Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Get My Best Ideas On the Treadmill

For some people, inspiration hits them in dreams or while meditating or during conversation. For me, it often hits at the gym. Exercise triggers something and the neurons start firing. No doubt somebody somewhere has studied this. Maybe it's related to endorphins. I started exercising as a way to address depression, but it's proven a useful tool for conquering writer's block and collecting ideas for new stories.

When I get on the cardio machine, I start thinking about my story. I may even focus on a scene or element that's giving me trouble. But I don't actively try to solve the problem. I just contemplate that section, holding it in my brain, sometimes telling myself the story. When things start clicking, I grab my ipod and text myself.

The ideas that hit at the gym don't always pan out. Like dreams, they might not make much sense later. "Why did I think a giant purple hippo would work here?" I may find myself wondering. But even when that happens, the process seems to shake something loose and open the door for the right idea to find its way in.

Confession time - I don't actually go on the treadmill itself at the gym. I prefer the eliptical machine. Maybe its the result of too many sitcoms where some poor shlub can't keep up with the machine and they slide all over the floor instead. Or maybe I developed an aversion when I learned that the treadmill was developed in Victorian England as a punishment for prisoners, part of the "hard labor" sentences - 6 hours a day on a hideous version of a giant gerbil wheel, designed to force prisoners to lift their legs extra high. If they didn't, and couldn't keep up with the machine, the result could be ugly - a lot uglier than any of those sitcoms. I believe Oscar Wilde spent his prison time on the treadmill. Maybe some of his stories were born there. But I wouldn't recommend 6 hours a day. I think I'll stick with my 30 minute workout.

Where and when does inspiration hit you?

For a little more background on treadmills, check out

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Writing Communities In the Digital Age

I've been thinking about the magic of critique groups and wondering how it translates into the digital forum. I'm in two groups at the moment - one that meets live and in-person at a cozy neighborhood coffee shop once a week and the other born from a face-to-face workshop experience that is trying to recapture that energy through a monthly, digital exchange. The live, in-person energy is so powerful and digital communication is such a different realm. I wonder if the give-and-take, push--and-pull exploratory exchange and support of the in-person critique group can actually transfer to a digital format?

Our digital group has gotten off to a terrific start, but I think I need to learn how to critique and share ideas more effectively in that forum. I miss the capacity to write comments directly onto the page and interact physically with the printed word of another author. I miss the ideas that are born from the free-flowing conversation. I question whether I'm providing the proper nuance to my words that will allow another author to hear what I say without the unintentional sting criticism can sometimes carry. I wonder if my own responses are too much, too little, or seem defensive when they're not meant to. There is an art to giving criticism that is honest and useful while also being supportive and encouraging. There is an art to hearing and receiving criticism of your "baby."

What strategies have you used to translate the face-to-face critique experience into the digital world? What challenges have you faced? How have you overcome them? Are there ways in which you prefer the digital writing community to a live writing community?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fearless Revision

"What if I rewrite the whole thing in first person?"
"What if I cut this chapter entirely?"
"What if death is the narrator?"
"What if there are 4 different narrators?"
"What if I write it as a blog?"
"What if she turns into a hippo instead of a moose?"

There was a time when I revised like an ancient, nearsighted clockmaker, turning over every word and phrase, tinkering with the minutest mechanism, making miserly revisions as if each change cost me and each letter was crafted from grains of diamond dust. I love treating words with so much affection and care, but I'm thankful that I have finally developed the courage to make more fearless revisions, skydiving, bungee-jumping revisions, the kind of revisions that change the entire landscape of a manuscript.

My whole critique group seems to have entered this phase of development together, which makes it ten times more exhilarating. When one of us announces, "I think I'm going to cut that whole section and move the important parts here instead," we cheer, we exult. It feels like we've all gone cliff-diving together.

Perhaps the support and safety of this long-term critique group has given me the foundation of confidence to take those plot-shattering leaps. Or maybe this liberation comes with writing novel-length pieces. Perhaps it's a function of exposing myself, over a period of time, to multiple critiques. Or maybe being in the habit of writing has made the words less scarce and therefore less precious, the process less like mining gold and more like cultivating a garden.

What is the most fearless, radical change you've ever made in a piece of your own writing? How did it affect the story?

If you've found yourself saying, "What if I ....?" or "I wonder what would happen if ...." then I challenge you to grab the hands of some fellow writers and take that vigorous plunge! What have you got to lose?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How You See It and How You Say It

"It's all in how you see it," some people say. For writers, that means point of view, which has to be one of the more challenging, complex and, to my mind, fascinating topics of the writer's craft. Point of view is more than just first person or third person. Point of view is about immediacy and risk. Whenever I learn about or explore point of view, I find myself thinking in cinematic terms. Where is the lens of my reader's camera located? Where is their microphone located? How tight is the close-up? Does my story need a more panoramic or epic scope?

Even tense can play a role in point of view. I just made the risky move of rewriting the first scene of my latest novel in first person, present tense. It has a level of immediacy, intimacy and high-risk involvement like no other, but it comes with a price. You have to place all sorts of limits on your access to information, since you can only share what your narrator knows at or before the point in time of the action. But I have to say, my pulse is racing and I feel like I'm going for the jugular a lot more in the first person, present tense. It's almost an adrenaline rush.

How you see it can also drive how you say it. I'm thinking about that elusive quality known as voice. So hard to define. You just know it when you see it. Too often I reread my stuff and am disgusted by how flat it seems, the way it lays there on the page after being run through my critical, analytical, disengaged and dispassionate mill one too many times. Then I'll write something for a workshop exercise and it just leaps off the page. Voice.

When I shift point of view, it can blow voice wide open. To me, finding the voice when you're not writing in first person seems so much harder, and when it comes to YA literature, I keep coming back to the first person point of view. No intermediary between the reader and the protagonist.

At a minimum, if you're struggling to find the voice of your story, I think it's worth it to rewrite a pivotal scene from a variety of points of view. You may be amazed by what you discover. If you're lucky, you'll find the right voice before you've finished an entire draft. If you're like me, you might end up rewriting your whole novel from a different point of view. But the risk is worth the pay-off. At least, that's how I see it.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Written In Stone

I'm taking another whack at the magical realism novel I started a while back and I've discovered that the process I'm following for it seems different than for the last project, which was straight-up realistic fiction. My office looks like a giant craft project. I find myself immersed in cut-and-paste, sticky note extravaganzas, drawing pictures, taping things together, and paper-clipping bits and pieces onto eachother. I can't seem to stay in the realm of the computer. The world of the computer feels too small, as if its physical size and shape imprisons the story. It got me wondering, has writing changed as the tools of writing have changed? Do our tools affect not only our process but our product, too - that is, our stories themselves? Would the great writers of the past have produced different stories if they worked on computer?

A typewriter sends the words onto a page that flaps freely in the air. The words have a physical reality the moment you type them. Writing by hand has a messy, lively, organic flow to it. Writing by hand with a pencil, a pen, a quill - each tool seems to connect with different experiences in the brain and body, a different sense of artistry, permanency, open-ness.

On the computer, we can write and delete huge chunks of text with such ease. The words come and go like will-o-the-wisps. But their ethereal spirits are trapped inside this skinny little two-dimensional box.

How would my work change if I wrote on stone tablets? How would your work change?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Inspiration from Mentors

A few nights ago, a friend offered free tickets to hear Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin speak here at Portland's gorgeous Arlene Schnitzer concert hall as part of the Literary Arts series here in town (which used to be called "Arts and Lectures" back in the day). The concert hall is a huge space, and we were, understandably, way up in the nose-bleed seats. On the stage were two armchairs and a small table with a pitcher of water and two glasses. In other words, it was an intimate arrangement in a cavernous setting.

I was prepared to feel disconnected and distant, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Atwood and LeGuin established a warm and personal rapport that somehow managed to climb up into the rafters and span across the wide, ornate concert hall as if we were all just a bunch of friends sitting in a room together. But beyond that, for the roughly two hours we were there, I had the feeling I was meeting with mentors - smart, creative women who had seen a thing or two, who had opinions, and who knew what it was to struggle in the dark to illuminate a story that hadn't yet been called into existence.

It got me thinking about the power of mentors. Whether they are people you know personally or writers you've never met whose work you admire, it makes a difference when you have someone who feels like an elder of your particular tribe, who knows the journeys, who can serve as a guide, point the way, honor the struggles, share their wisdom.

There are a lot of "mentor programs," but the best mentors I have had are never assigned or named as such. They emerge from the relationships I have. With women, it can be a strange and challenging thing to honor someone as a mentor. I worry that I will offend them by pointing out the fact that they are older than me. But the older I get, the more I love talking with older women who are smart and creative and can help show me the way.

Who are your mentors? How have they changed over time? How did you find them?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Joys and Agonies of Bookstores

It's a funny thing walking through a bookstore when you're a writer trying to get published. The part of me that loves stories and books and reading and language breathes it in and gets lost and can't get enough. The part of me that wants to be published and collects rejection notices and keeps struggling to be better looks at it all and says, "What's the point?" It can be overwhelming, and that's just the stuff that's been published.

This is especially true when I visit Powell's here in Portland. Powell's isn't called "The City of Books" for nothing. It takes up something like a couple of city blocks and at least 3 stories crammed floor to ceiling with every kind of book imaginable - new books, used books, trashy books, classics, books in other languages, rare books - you name it. When I was in my twenties I'd go there and hang out in their coffee shop on a Saturday night and it would be packed with other booklovers like me and I thought to myself, "I have found my people."

But on my last visit, knowing my own writing was in the hands of agents yet again, and that a rejection notice was most likely in my future, I had a bit of an anxiety attack. So many great books - who reads them all? How does one ever get noticed over the others? What makes me think I have something so worth saying that people will pay money for it?

I know I'm not alone in this two-sided relationship with bookstores. I wonder what other writers do to overcome that feeling.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Okay, I admit it. The title for this entry is absolutely a cliche. An alternate title might be "Perspective." (I'll save the whole subject of titles for another blogging day). I'm talking about the perspective on a piece of writing that can come with time away from that writing. There's something about being too deeply inside the story that limits your capacity to judge it fairly. I have a piece I thought was an absolutely useless mess. Someone critiqued it and I realized from their comments that I should not, in fact, throw it away and forget about it all together. But I still couldn't stand to think about it or look at it. I was convinced it would be an impossibly convoluted task to make any sense of it at all.

But it kept tickling at my brain, saying, "Come on. You finished a draft of me. You spent a whole year with me. Come back for a visit." I have resolutely steered clear of it for a good two years now. But when I finished my last novel, I decided to give it another look, fully believing I would still want nothing to do with it.

Lo and behold! I found myself caught up in the story, where before I thought there was no story to speak of. I discovered it had a lively pace and the main character had some real gumption to her that I had been completely unaware of. The whole thing moved along nicely and kept my interest. Then I looked back at the synopsis and it all started to crystallize. The problem spots offered solutions to themselves and the arc of the plot seemed to shimmer into focus. I guess sometimes you need a two-year break to really appreciate something, and what was exhausting at one time can be inspiring at another.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Starting Over

So, I just finished a 300 page YA novel, revised, revised, revised, edited, edited, edited, and submitted. I'm sure I'll be revisiting it eventually, but for now, it's done. So, what's next?

I have a few ideas, all of which have something started already (thank God for my writing notebook). But as I sat down, after a week's hiatus, to look at them, I had the sensation of standing at the foot of Mount Everest and thinking "Didn't I just climb this thing?" The work you do at the end of a novel and the work you do at the beginning are so very different. So much more is known and mapped out at the end. So much is shapeless at the beginning. There are, of course, more discoveries to make at the beginning, which is something to look forward to. Still, that first moment, staring up at the mountain, is a daunting one.

I'm a teacher, and I'm also poised on the brink of the new school year just now. I am struck by some similarities. In the classroom, everything goes a little more smoothly once you've laid out the routines and procedures and you've gotten to know your students. In a novel, everything goes a little more smoothly once you've figured out the central conflicts and plot outline and gotten to know your characters. But those first few days of school, all the work to be done can feel overwhelming. In both cases, progress happens one step at a time and requires patience, consistency, routine, passion and commitment.

Most teachers have a collection of "getting to know you" activities as well as creative methods for teaching routines & expectations. I'm betting most authors do, too. I have culled a few from workshops and conferences. Character wheels. Scene sketches. Various excercises - interview your character, walk through their house, write a letter from them to you or vice versa. Distill your idea into a collection of purposeful sentences. Try writing a short-story synopsis first. Outline with index cards or sticky notes.

What do you do to kick-start a new work?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Exploring the Gray

In thinking about the thematic elements of my recent writing, I find myself ruminating upon the much-maligned color gray. Dull, medicore, in-between, halfway, the color of compromise - that's what we usually associate with gray. But I think it's gotten a bad rap. Gray isn't just some washed-out, plain, monotone. There are a vast collection of grays - asphalt, concrete, charcoal, pewter, nickels, the edging of clouds on a fine summer day or the heavy fullness of a thunderhead about to break.

Black and white are the colors of two dimensions. Gray gives shading, depth and nuance. Without it, things are flat. Gray provides fullness of shape.

In my writing and in my reading, I find I am drawn to stories that explore the gray - that is, the messy, nuanced, complexities of life. Simplistic, black and white answers rarely ring true or make for interesting and meaningful characters or stories.

So here's to gray! Go find some!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Now I Am a Real Boy!"

Like most writers, I want my characters to be real. After I spend enough time with them, they seem real to me. They start making decisions without me and taking the story in new, usually quite interesting, directions. When I share chapters with my critique group, the characters become a little more real. "She wouldn't do that!" they exclaim, as if they were talking about a close friend. That's when the characters move from existing in my head to existing in some forcefield of space created by the energy of the critique group. But in a way, at that point, my characters are still Pinocchio-the-puppet, or the pre-fever Velveteen Rabbit. They aren't truly REAL.

I recently gave the "final" copy of my novel to a bunch of friends to read, most of whom knew little or nothing about the story or the characters. The first reader's comments came in. She talked about the characters like she knew them. She felt things for them, and when one of them died, she cried. As I read her comments, I thought, "Now they are REAL." What a remarkable feeling!

Like Pinocchio or the Velveteen Rabbit, my characters couldn't truly become REAL without experiencing love from the person they were created for - the reader.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Novel-writing Postpartum

So I've revised and rewritten and polished and edited and re-read and tweaked and now I believe my novel is done and ready to be read in full by everyone who matters. Now what? My head says, "Take a little break. Then start on the next one." I know that's my plan. But taking a break from this one is hard. I don't feel like I've let go. I don't feel ready to let go. Am I really planning on sending my characters out into the universe on their own now?

I wonder if completing a novel is like giving birth or is it more like grieving? Maybe it's both. Right now, I think I am experiencing some level of shock or denial. It doesn't entirely feel real. I'm not sure what to do with myself. I want to revisit it and at the same time I don't want to look at it or think about it.

Someone may ask me to go back to it, and when they do, I think I will take it up again gladly, with a sense of purpose. But, for now, the crazy push to finish has ended. I must fill not only my time but my brain with other endeavors.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How Do You Know When You're Finished?

Revise, revise, revise. Polish, polish, polish. Critique, critique, critique. Move this bit here and that bit there. Cut that line. No. Put it back in. Change that word. Find another one. Rearrange some more. Add a scene. Delete a scene. Is my head ready to explode yet? Wait. I think I've got it. Read it again the next day for flow. Nope. Something's still not right. Shave a little here. tweak a little there. And I know after all of this I'll show it to someone and they'll still have suggestions and fixes. Perhaps "finished" is a myth. Perhaps everything is perpetually a work in progress. After all, it's created by a human being.

At what point do you tell yourself your work is finished?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Digital Ruminations

It's been a long, long time since I've made any entries here. But I am going a little more digital this summer. I'm preparing to debut my very own writing website and thought it was time to reconnect with my blog. Blog I must for a better platform!

I'm at the Willamette Writers Conference this week, filling my head with the business stuff of writing. The world is abuzz with discussion of e-readers and other digital media, also a topic of discussion at the Pacific Northwest Children's Book Conference two weeks ago. Sam and I met last night with folks who run the Digital Media program at Washington University in Vancouver. I find myself challenged in a very healthy way by this brave new world. I've always been a little nervous about change, but the older I get the more I am taught, time and again, that change is the constant. And perhaps change is healthy.

There was a time when humanity communicated its written literature through cave paintings. We don't anymore, but we still tell stories. The story remains, no matter what the medium or technology might be. In that there is hope.

I recently visited my parents in Delaware. We were talking about our early memories as readers. My Mom mentioned a book she always loved and remembered, a book she searched for when we were kids, searched for over the years, and could never find. She called it RAFFY, CHAMPION OF THE VELDT. It occurred to me that, in the digital age, I might actually be able to use online searches to find the childhood book my 70 year old mother loved so much. And so, sitting in their guest room, I pulled out my laptop, went online via their wifi, and googled "Raffy, Champion of the Veldt." First, I had the wrong spelling of Raffy. Then, I had the wrong title. Finally, I found a quote, that seemed to be from the book, a quote about something called a "honkebeest." So, I entered "Raffy" and "Honkebeest", and, like "open sesame", it threw wide the doors to the many rare and collectible, and not-so-collectible, copies of RAFFY AND THE HONKEBEEST, by Rita Kissen. I ordered it online, to be shipped to Mom's house. A few days later, it arrived. By then I was back in Portland, Oregon. But Mom emailed me a beautiful description of the experience of rediscovering this favorite childhood book, six and a half decades after her father first read it to her. None of this experience could have happened in quite this way without digital technology.

My point? The digital world and the nostalgic, old-school world sometimes coexist not only successfully, but elegantly, beautifully, poetically. I am hopeful.

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