Category Archives: This Writing Life

Reflections on writing

When Summer Is the Hardest Time to Write

For several summers in a row, I have had difficulty putting words together. July and August have been writing dead zones. Each year, I have inadvertently taken a complete writing hiatus in July and come back slowly in August – writing blog posts, but not making progress on my novel.

When the weather cools, the days shorten, and the kids go back to school, I get more writing done.

But I don’t like the break. There is always a little voice in the back of my head telling me I should be writing more. And the further I get into the summer, the louder that voice gets.

Next year, I think I will actively take a break from blogging in July – line up a few posts in advance and relax about the blog. I might even take a vacation from trying to produce new work as well. I could treat it as a mini-sabbatical, a prolonged period of feeding my muse rather than asking her to produce.

In the meantime, I am trying to turn August into a productive writing month. I started well with a post over at An Intense Life about getting ready for new schools for all my kids in September. And, I have devised a little project for myself.

I am a Camp NaNoWriMo Rebel. If you haven’t heard, the people who bring you NaNoWriMo in November started a pared-down version that happens in June and August last summer. I thought about participating last year, but I didn’t want to start a new project and my work-in-progress was in a stage of revision that didn’t fit with the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. So, I skipped it.

This summer, however, I have a lot of first draft writing I want to do. In my class this winter, I did a lot of work sketching out more plot elements and discovering weaknesses in my characterization. I pruned heavily after that class, leaving gaping holes that need filling with new text.

And, NaNo is a great motivator for me to write a lot of new text. So, I am a NaNo Rebel, a NaNo participant who is not following the rules in some crucial way. Some NaNo Rebels write something other than a novel, some work on a work in progress, some work on several pieces; all break the rules but shoot for the 50,000 word count.

I believe in using writing challenges to serve your project. If the challenge doesn’t quite fit, modify it. So I am using the word count challenge as a challenge to generate material to fill the holes in my manuscript. At the end of July, I wrote a list of 31 things to write that will enrich my novel and I will work through those prompts as August continues.

So far, I have followed these prompts:

  • A detailed physical description of the antagonist and the prison from which he escapes (character development)
  • The story of the initial capture of the antagonist (backstory)
  • A phone call between the protagonist and her mother after the first scene of the novel (character development)
  • The first manifestation of the protagonist’s magical powers (backstory)
  • Diary entries in which the protagonist writes about the five kids at school who most impact her life (backstory and character development)

I am not sure how these bits of writing will fit into the next draft of the novel, but it is clear they are going to enrich it. The phone call between the protagonist and her mother is going to go right where the prompt says it should – but the way it turned out means that I will need to add another scene later about how the protagonist and her grandmother respond to the call.

It’s exciting. The novel is moving. My muse is shouting at me; I’m having trouble keeping up.

This is the kick in the pants I needed to get me back to the computer on these beautiful summer days.

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Does Your Muse Have a Groove?

For the past year, I have been struggling with the world of my novel. As it is currently structured, the story starts in a realistic world and a parallel fantastical reality is revealed to the reader and the protagonist as the work proceeds. In theory, it works. My intellect loves it. But my Muse is not impressed. The realistic sections of the book aren’t working and I hate writing them.

Looking at the pictures I have been creating using Mixel, I had what Holly Lisle calls a Muse-bomb – an explosion of insight from the creative source.

Is this an image created by a Muse who hangs out in realism?

What about this one?

Or this?

I think not.

When she critiqued it earlier this year, one of the comments Charlotte Rains Dixon made about the opening pages of the book was that she wanted to know why a character overreacted to a car accident; it was the kind of question that made her want to turn the pages beyond what I shared with her.

This, my friends, is exactly what the beginning of a story should do.

But, the reason I had given this character for such an extreme reaction was the sort of heavy, gritty, realistic, trauma-related reason that appeals to people who like issue-oriented YA. And it wasn’t working for me.

So, last night, I asked my Muse to justify the reaction to the accident in a way that fits with the fantastical elements of the book.

And she came through. Big time.

She gave me an accident witnessed by the character some years ago that involved the shape-shifting near-immortals that populate the world and created PTSD, fear of being crazy, self-doubt, self-censorship, and willingness to believe in an alternate magical reality in one moment.

I can work with that, all of it. It fits beautifully into subplots and plot twists that already exist. And I am excited about it.

I had been asking my Muse to work in my analytical world and she balked. Meeting her half-way is clearly a better approach.

Does your creative imagination have a strong suit, a world view, a groove? What happens when you work outside that range?

When Your Work is in Other People’s Hands

Waiting.

I pitched my novel on Wednesday night. It went well. I got some feedback about some possible improvements to my pitch, but I was one of three people who came across as knowing what they were talking about.

And now we are waiting, waiting to hear which two are being considered for submission to an editor who rarely looks at unagented work.

I hate waiting, so I am doing other things: spring planting, house cleaning, LEGO organizing, and having friends over for dinner.

I am not expecting to be selected to move all the way through the process: one of the novels has a hook that is too juicy to pass up. The marketing potential is huge, and the writing is good – it needs polishing, but it is well on its way. Although that novel will not be the only one to be considered for passing on to the editor, I am sure it will be in the mix, and I think the package is good enough that the marketing hook will get it selected.

But, I do not know. And so, I wait.

Waiting for rejection is part of the writer’s life. We must find ways to handle it, to not pause our life and writing while our babies are out in the world to be judged.

I am drawing on my experience as an actor after auditions, reminding myself that I have done my best and letting go of whatever outcomes may be.

My attitude to auditioning changed completely when I directed Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night<
in college. For that show, the lead female and a secondary male must be mistaken for each other. Two women auditioned who could have played the lead. No man auditioned who could be mistaken for one of the women, so I cast the other. And the woman who could have played the lead wasn’t right for any of the other female roles, so I couldn’t cast her. I used weaker actresses who fit the characters better to make the play as a whole work. For this actress, it was the lead or nothing and my choice depended on who else auditioned.

After that, I knew I would’ve never understand all the thoughts any director goes through when casting. All I can do is show up, do my best, and see what happens.

Yes, the waiting sucks.

But, there is no point in wallowing in it.

I have editing, writing, and living to get on with.

Dealing with Nervous Energy

This evening, I will be pitching my unfinished novel to a panel of strangers.

This is part of my novel-writing class and is mostly an exercise. But, it isn’t just an exercise. At the end of this evening, the panel will choose two of the pitches and request the first 20 pages of those manuscripts to share with the owner of the bookstore where our class meets. She will then show one or both of the pitches to the Chief Acquisitions Editor of a major publisher, with whom she has a personal relationship. The last time she did this with one of my instructor’s classes, the editor asked to see the full manuscript.

This is not a drill.

I have not been focusing well for the last three days.

This afternoon, I yielded to the wisdom I have acquired over three decades in theatre. I took a nap. (For those of you worried about the kids you know I homeschool, they were occupied and I was right near them.)

I have been writing this novel for over two years. I have been revising my pitch and synopsis for a month. A few extra hours of revising and prepping were going to make me more nervous, not improve my performance tonight.

And, sure enough, when I woke up, I was calmer.

My nerves will be on fire again later tonight, but I have to trust that I am as well rehearsed as possible and that I know my work. Tonight I will focus on deep breathing, relaxing my eyes, and talking to the panel with energy and enthusiasm. It is all I can do at this point.

I don’t know when I will hear whether or not my work will move on to the next stage of this process, but I will surely have another strong emotional response at that time.

How do you manage your nerves when you have something important at stake?

Getting The Work Out There

Ship often. Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly.
Seth Godin

Today, I am thinking about shipping. Shipping is scary, but must be done.

I don't usually think of myself of a seamstress, but my kids love these "sock monsties" that I made them for Christmas.

When Seth Godin talks about shipping, he means getting your stuff out there into the world.

Shipping has always scared me. I have a tendency to assume that people will judge me by my work and that I will be deemed not up to snuff.

It’s always a little unnerving when people read my work and like it, even more so when it inspires them or they ask for more. There’s still a voice in my head doing the internal equivalent of looking over my shoulder to see if the person is talking to someone else, then looking back, pointing to myself and mouthing “Me?”

I am starting to realize that I how I feel is immaterial. The truth appears to be that I produce some words that some other people get something useful from. I think most of us do. Not always, but often enough that keeping our thoughts to ourselves is actually a disservice to the rest of the world.

If I have an idea that might help you, I do you a disservice by not sharing it with you. But, because I have no idea what of my material might resonate with you, I have to find ways to get most of my stuff out where people can find it.

It is the best way I know to be of service.

I have increased my rate of shipping recently. I am writing more for this blog; my fiction is out in the hands of readers for feedback; I am writing once a month on issues associated with giftedness for An Intense Life; and, I have been publishing improvised poems over at A More Playful Life.

All I can say is that the thrill of having people respond to my writing is intoxicating. The more I do, the more I want to do.

I don’t know where this is all leading, but it looks like it might be a wild ride.

Thanks for being a part of this journey.

Giving Pages to a First Reader

I did something very unusual this morning. I gave my son pages of my WIP and asked for his feedback. I am revising these pages to submit to an editor for feedback by the end of this week and was working on them next to him as he was working on school work.

He asked me if they were part of my book and I felt moved to see if he wanted to read them. And he did. And then, I asked for feedback. Asking him for feedback was terrifying. I wanted him to respond honestly and I also wanted him to have liked it and want more. I would have been mortified if he hated it and horrified if he lied to make me happy.

It took every ounce of patience I had to not look over his shoulder as he read, and I cringed the few times he pointed out proof-reading errors. But, having handed over the pages, I had to live through the result.

He needs to be asked direct questions in order to discuss what he has read, so I asked him to tell me what he knew about the characters from the first few pages. I did my absolute best not to ask leading questions. I am pleased to report he understood at least as much about the characters as I had hoped the three pages would convey. He did use his knowledge of me to pinpoint the age of the two kids more accurately than the “older than me” that he inferred directly from the text, but he is 8 and has little frame of reference for judging between a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old – which is an issue I will be discussing with the editor.

He did indicate that he would have preferred it if the stakes had reached life or death proportions within the first three pages, but when asked if he would have kept reading if I had given him more pages he said, “yes.”

He then asked me some really good questions. The one I liked best had to do with the narrator. The latest draft is in first person and there is no reason within the first three pages for anyone to address the protagonist by name. He wanted to know how the reader would get to know her name. (And yes, he figured out the protagonist was a girl from what I had written; I was so proud of us both.)

My son is not quite my ideal reader, but he is close. He reads more middle grade fiction than YA and my novel is definitely heading in the YA direction with this draft. He prefers science fiction to fantasy, and genre fiction to realistic fiction. My WIP starts in a realistic mode, but is definitely a fantasy. More importantly, he neither lies well nor continues reading when he is not enjoying himself.

The biggest compliment he gave me was an hour or so after he gave me back the pages. He asked if I had the next chapters ready for him to read. I don’t, but I have a new incentive to get them written after this morning.

It took a lot of courage for me to give him the pages, but I am extremely glad I did.

Do you have a first reader you usually turn to? Or does it depend on the work?

Reflections on Daily Blogging

Well, I did it. Every day in March, something new appeared on this blog. It has been a fascinating experiment and I thank everybody who came along for the ride or found me in the middle of it. And, this is the end. Time now to reflect on the past month and make some decisions about how I want to proceed from here.

What have I learned?

  • My Muse is a busy woman.  Writing every day has made me pay closer attention to my sources of inspiration. And she has made me a font overflowing with ideas.
  • Writing for an audience every day is invigorating for me.
  • Breaking thematically related ideas into a series is better than trying to link them all into one complex post.
  • I get a thrill seeing my blog traffic numbers go up – and they have gone up hugely.
  • I get deep personal satisfaction from conversation with commenters.
  • It is not in my nature to write short, simple posts.
  • People read my work. And are moved by it. And seek it out.
  • Writing for this blog every day forces me to spend too much time blogging and not enough of my writing time on my fiction.
  • I have seen some patterns of topics and headline styles that seem to correlate with higher traffic.
  • Combining daily writing for myself and blogging every day has led me to writing about deeper and more personal issues.

What Now?

  • No more blogging on the weekends. My weekend writing time all goes back to my novel.
  • I do plan to write A-Z improvisational poems about InterPlay for  A More Playful Life. However, I am hereby giving myself permission to spread the posting of such poems over 2-3 months. I will be done before the kids are out of school for the summer.
  • In April, I plan to post to this blog on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We will see how that goes.

I want to thank the folks who put together NaBloPoMo for the inspiration.

For now, I am off to enjoy the rest of my weekend without blogging.

Cheers,

Kate

Dare to Be Yourself

This is the beginning of a series examining the power of truth-telling in life and art.

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”

May Sarton

Do you hide parts of yourself, locking them up inside away from the world?

Do you keep them hidden out of fear, out of a sense that they are nobody’s business but your own, out of shame, or because you don’t even see them?

What would it be like to share them?

I have been explicitly thinking about the things we don’t talk about ever since seeing the title of Azar Nafisi’s second memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories.

There is a power in claiming our experience as true and sharing it. Not only for ourselves, but for each other.

Parker Palmer, in his article Now I Become Myself, excerpted from his book Let Your Life Speak, wrote, “It is a strange gift, this birthright gift of self. Accepting it turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else.” He goes on to point out that, “In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.”

One of the ways we betray ourselves is by keeping silent about our experiences.

And, one of the ways that we redeem ourselves is by bringing those secrets into the light.

If we dare to be ourselves, we set ourselves up for our own mental health. But more than that, by revealing our weaknesses and our struggles, we allow other people to see our humanity, to be touched by our stories, and to take healing power from our stories.

In this series, I will be reflecting on both the things that I have kept silent about and on the relationship between truth-telling and art. I hope you will join me.

Improv v. First Draft

For the A to Z Blogging challenge over at A More Playful Life, I have a plan and a decision to make.

Within two days of signing up for the challenge, I had titles for all 26 posts: all related to InterPlay practices and principles or concepts that I connected to through InterPlay. But, I ended up moving instead of writing the actual posts, so now I have a long list of titles and a head full of ideas.

I don’t have time to write thoughtful posts for all 26 days. My novel is too important.

On the other hand, I have been wanting to articulate InterPlay in my own words for years. I have started doing that on this blog and in other places, but I still feel there is a lot to do.

So, I have decided to write poetry about the topics: short pieces of the “A is for Affirm, B is for Body Wisdom…” variety in the style of an ABC primer.

In order to get them up rapidly, and in the spirit of InterPlay, my thought is to write them improvisationally and not revise.

But, the idea of having written words in a public forum that I have not revised freaks me out a bit. One of the beauties of improvised spoken words is that they disappear on speaking.

So, I am debating whether I should let the improvised texts sit out on the website unrevised or plan on revising them.

What do you think?

Returning to My Literary Roots, Part IV

The literary roots I described in Parts I, II, and III of this series are all books that influenced me during my childhood. For my last post in this series, I want to do something a little different. I want to talk about my current work in progress.

The emotional core of my novel lives in the questions I ask about the darkest days of my childhood. Although the adults in my life loved me, my peers saw me as a freak and they excluded and teased me. Even the people I thought were my friends consistently told stories of adventures they had with friends outside of school, adventures that didn’t include me. I wondered what was wrong with me and despaired of ever having friends.

Eventually, I discovered that I could minimize my suffering by stifling my feelings and repressing my reactions to the world. But, this is a bad habit and the unintended consequences have not been pleasant to live with.

Over the past two decades, I have slowly been breaking down the walls that I put up in order to survive. In the process, I have come back to creative writing. It has been an indirect and not always conscious journey.

About a year ago, I realized my novel is trying to tell a story that gives a redemptive reason for the outsider status that tormented me. And, to tell this story with emotional truth, I must first connect with the pain that needs redeeming. Making this connection has been my struggle over the past year.

Last week, I started The Fundamental Novelist course because I wanted to shake-up my process and see if I could break through some of my internal barriers. Two of the exercises I have worked on as homework have helped me do exactly that.

In both cases, I started with a seemingly innocuous memory associated with my years in elementary school and wrote the exercise from that starting point. In both cases, I ended up revealing emotional material I had been unable to tap into directly.

Both of these exercises are from Alice LaPlante’s book, The Making of a Story. The first involved finishing the phrase, “I don’t know why I remember…” and then continuing to write. The second involved using a dozen or more details to create a compelling description of a place.

Between them, these two exercises touched my memories and brought them to conscious awareness. Once the memories that provided the impulse for the novel were awakened, my creative muse took over. The night after completing those exercises, I woke suddenly at 2am knowing how to present those emotional realities in the context of the novel. The scene that would reveal my heroine’s initial pain pulled itself together in my sleep that night. I still need to write the complete scene, but I wrote a detailed outline that night and have a picture in my mind’s eye.

I wrote last month about the need to write fearward, to go to the places that hurt us and to let our writing bleed onto the page. In my case, the roots of my story are the pains of my childhood. And I am thrilled to witness myself finding ways to open those wounds enough to write from them.

May we all have the courage to face the wounds from which we must heal.

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