Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Little More Time To Write, with an App

I have a new technique for squeezing a few more minutes of writing into my day.

I’m typing these words into Evernote on my smartphone while my laptop is booting. As soon as my laptop boots, it will sync Evernote with my phone and I will be able to continue on my laptop. It feels ridiculous, but it is one of my new tricks for getting more words written.

Making time to write is a challenge for me. I have at least one of my four young children at home and needing close supervision from 7am until 8pm every day. It is easiest for me to write early in the morning and late at night—when they are asleep.

This morning, I have 20 minutes before the kids wake up, just enough to get started on something. First thing in the morning, it drives me crazy to spend time I could be writing waiting for my computer to boot. Using that time to make a cup of coffee derails me. Once I get into the kitchen, household chores distract me, and, before I have written a word, the kids are demanding breakfast.

Now, my laptop has booted and Evernote and OpenOffice are up and running. I save my note on my phone. Evernote transfers the file to my laptop and I cut and paste the text into the word processor to continue. There. Much better. Typing on the full-size keyboard of my laptop is more efficient and more pleasant.

Jane Chin’s piece How I Write inspired me look for ways to increase my daily writing time. She describes the interruptions that occur during her writing day and how she has changed the way she writes because being at home with a toddler does not allow her large chunks of concentrated time for writing. Her piece made me realize there must be specific ways I could use the tiny chunks of time in my day more efficiently. There had to be a way to use my smartphone for writing instead of playing Angry Birds, if I could find a decent app.

I heard about Evernote before I had a , but it took me a long time to try it. I probably would have hated the app if I hadn’t become comfortable typing on the phone before trying it. Now, when I write on my phone, it is just challenging enough that I have a physical awareness that I am choosing to take the path towards more writing rather than the path to more relaxation. It reminds me my writing is important. And, after a few minutes of typing on the phone, I have the momentum to continue writing after I move to my laptop.

I know the trick with building habits is to start small, start with something doable. Starting my writing time on Evernote while I am waiting for my computer to boot is doable. And, so far, it has propelled me into writing without being distracted by checking email because I am already writing before the computer is ready for me. I have not had time to mentally derail yet. It’s a new trick. I have to stick with it a month or two to see if it works. But for now, this is how I am playing with getting myself into my work when I am short of time. It is only a few more minutes of writing, but every minute counts.

I’m always looking for new ways to squeeze more writing into an already full day. Are there things you do in tiny amounts of time that push your projects forward?

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Back to the Doodling Board

Please, doodle at work

Sunni Brown, The Miseducation of the Doodle

Do you take life too seriously? I often do.

I am a Serious Person in recovery. I am also a Sensitive Artist. These two personas have been in conflict recently. Imagine the following  – it’s been going on inside my mind.

Playing With Paint

Serious Person straps Sensitive Artist to the chair and says “Produce creative stories to make the world a better place.” Sensitive Artist curls up in ball and hides, “I can’t take the pressure.” Serious Person then steps in and creates, but the result is pedantic and uncompelling. Sensitive Artist withers in shame that this is the product associated with her name and finds comfort in Shiraz and chocolate rather than in writing. So, Serious Person drags Sensitive Artist to laptop and the cycle begins again.

This is what happens when I let that Serious Person persona have too much control.  Oh, I know, she’s useful when it comes to doing my taxes, but she’s not much help writing a story until the final stages of editing.

Painting with my daughter this week, I remembered the joy of being creative in a medium where I have no expectations for myself, where the process really is the product. And, this joy makes the Sensitive Artist happy.

Playing With Colour

While my daughter attempted symbolic painting, I just stroked the paint on the paper, feeling the way the cheap paintbrushes caught on the paper and noticing the way the paint came off the brush unevenly. I looked at the paint colours in front of me and the paint on my paper and decided to try a new colour just because it appealed to me in the moment.

And it was fun.  I even liked some of what I created. But more importantly, I reconnected with the playful side of creativity and my Sensitive Artist persona came out of hiding. The next few things I wrote had a freshness that has been missing in my work recently.

What do you do that helps you tap into your playful creativity when the world looks too serious? Do you have tricks or games you play? Let me know in the comments.

Storytellers Matter to the World

“[T]he fact that every life counts is built into the work we do.”

Roger Rosenblatt, Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing

I spent the morning of September 11th at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. James Dewar read an excerpt from his poem about the attacks ten years ago, but otherwise the anniversary was not on the agenda.

The featured speaker was Ian Brown, who spoke about writing The Boy in the Moon, his memoir about raising his severely disabled son, Walker. Walker suffers from cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Among other issues, Walker has extreme developmental delays, compulsions to hit himself, and an inability to speak.

Two ideas in Brown’s talk resonated deeply with me. First, he spoke of how the severity of Walker’s condition forced him to face the reality of the world rather than his hopes for the world; in return, he got ‎”a refuge from the survival of the fittest.” Secondly, he described the job of writers as “to celebrate the individual in the face of doltish generalities.”

Celebrating the individual and providing a refuge from the survival of the fittest for myself and others are two of the needs that drive me to tell stories, whether on stage, on paper, or at InterPlay workshops. Knowing this is crucial to my identity as a creative person.

In the face of traumatic events like the attacks of September 11th and the enormity of the damage that to the national pysche of the United States in the wake of those attacks, the question of whether storytelling is valuable pops up, uninvited and unwanted, but inevitable. And my answer is Yes.

Stories matter. Fictional stories that allow us to imagine alternatives to a world that is otherwise paralyzingly bleak. True stories that allow us to see individuals as whole people with feelings and families rather than as personifications of Otherness. Simple stories that allow us to connect with the lived experience of another human being. Mythic stories that allow us to create a moral compass. They matter. All of them.

Without these stories, we become less vibrant as individuals and we become less able to function in community. Fear and isolation run rampant in North America these days. Compassion, interdependence, and community are in short supply. Stories have the power to open our minds and our hearts, sometimes even against our wills.

To have stories in the world that can work their magic, there must be storytellers.

And so, I raise my proverbial glass to all the storytellers of the world. We are the magic makers, the meaning makers, the humanizers, and the beautifiers, and the world needs us.

Have You Written Your Million Words of Dreck Yet?

“[W]rite out your million words of dreck before you’re at the place where you’ve learned enough to be really ready to start to publish your works on a regular basis.”

I found this quote from Johne Cook, sci-fi writer and editor of the space opera e-zine Ray Gun Revival, in a post on the value of stories that fail at Wordplay.

I love a million words of dreck as a measure of the learning needed on the journey towards regular publication because it gives a sense of the scope of development required. A million words is a lot, approximately 10 novels.

I had the mixed blessing of winning the first short story competition I entered. I was thrilled to see my story in print and to cash the associated cheque, but I still had a lot to learn about writing fiction. When I fret over the less successful pieces I have written since that first story, I remind myself that I am still a beginning fiction writer.

I spent decades writing copious non-fiction, well over a million words, but only sporadic poetry and short scripts. The jump into novel-length fiction is a huge leap, one I believe I am capable of making, but one that is requiring time, diligence, practice, and a lot of words.

But, it can’t be enough just to write a million words.  Analysis, critique, feed-back, and striving to improve are part of my growing process.

I am constantly developing my craft. My first attempts at novel-writing showed me I needed to get a grip on plotting, so I spent almost two years studying plot and working on my ability to craft a plot. Recently, I have focused on developing characters and worlds. And through it all, I continue to work on wordcraft – structuring sentences, choosing vocabulary, and making the details count.

Study plus writing. I’m well on my way to a million words of fiction, and the dreck is getting better.

When You Kill Your Darlings, Save Them

If you have ever looked for advice about editing, the phrase “kill your darlings” has likely crossed your path. The phrase is attributed widely, but probably harkens back to Arthur Qullier-Couch, who exhorted writers to “Murder your darlings,” in his 1914 lecture On Style.

I prefer the advice from Kurt Vonnegut in How To Write With Style because it is more explicit and less open for argument about what it means.

Have guts to cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Kurt Vonnegut

On a related note, this week, I was reading Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel and Chuck Wendig’s 250 Things You Should Know About Writing and came across what amounts to the same piece of advice in both books: save what you cut. Morris advocates saving everything in an “Outtakes” file. Wendig’s instruction is more brutal: “Gotta Abandon Your Baby? Butcher Him For Spare Parts.”

The combination of “be willing to cut” and “save everything” proved useful in my work this week. Two years ago, I abandoned a novel that deals with the same themes as my current project. The first project was a realistic YA and the active one is a middle grade fantasy. In both, the protagonist is a gifted girl coming to see that her uniqueness has benefits and is not merely a burden.

I abandoned the first project because I couldn’t fix plot problems in the second half. In my current project, I have been struggling to establish a realistic world before I shatter the illusion of normalcy and introduce magical elements.

A solution to the problems of both books emerged this week. After ruthless cutting, I realized that despite superficial differences the second novel essentially places the protagonist of the first in a new environment.

As soon as this became clear, I started the mental work of combining the realistic part of my first novel with the fantasy of the second. Between the two manuscripts, I have good work on character development and world building in both the realistic and fantasy worlds, and the elements of a plot that will force my theme to the fore. To make it work will take massive revision, but my instinct is that a mash-up of the two stories will be stronger than either story individually.

Thank goodness I saved everything and have both hardcopy and the digital file of the abandoned novel waiting for me when I get home from my vacation. I am anxious to start butchering that baby for spare parts. Talk to me in six months time and I may be calling it my “first draft” instead of my “abandoned” novel.

I’m exhilarated by this new use for work that felt wasted.

Have you ever gone back to an old failure and discovered material in it that you could use? What was it like to realize that old project was viable in some way after all?

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