writing

Revisions, Neuroplasticity, And Me

The End

I did it! I wrote “the end” on my novella last month. For the third time. And there will likely be a fourth time. At minimum.

Writing is a process of incremental revisions. At least it is for me. I dream an idea, spew out the words while learning my characters and the plot, then revise, rinse, and repeat. My first draft is usually sparse on description and a sense of place, overflowing with dialogue. I learn my characters through what they think and what they say, then I learn how they react. The physical always follows the cerebral. I think it’s because I used to be a therapist. Or maybe I’m just wired that way.

Each revision adds layers. Physical behaviors. Grounding in time and space. Nuances that add depth. And with each and every revision I learn something about the story that surprises me. In my novella, tentatively titled I Thee Wed, in revision three there was a bit of magical realism at play in the final couple of scenes. Which makes me wonder just how much about the heroine’s deceased mother should make it’s way into the story. Do I need to add a plot element to encompass this? Or do I take out the soft breath of magical realism that currently resides in this story.

I used to hate revision work. It felt like drudgery to pull the story apart and put it back together again and again and again. I still don’t love digging in to see whether I have knocked the GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) out of the park. Or if I have balance within and between the various plot and character arcs. My brain hurts when I try to analyze my stories that way. For years I felt like it was a sign I shouldn’t be a writer. All because my brain processes story differently.

This isn’t to say I don’t try to use many of the tools of craft and plotting. They are tools, and sometimes while the brain is forging new neural pathway those tools feel foreign and wrong. With continued exposure these neural pathways are reinforced and the brain “learns” these new concepts. This is an oversimplification of what happens as the brain is a highly complex organism, but you get the idea.

Building new skills require repetition. And sometimes looking at the skill in new ways. It’s also important to know that we aren’t going to be come competent with every skill we try to develop. And that’s okay. If it’s a skill necessary to move my story forward, I will find someone who has the skill to review the story and offer suggestions. Freelance editors are terrific for this purpose. So are beta readers who can give detailed feedback. Just know that if the person you talk to is usually paid for this service, be prepared to pay them. No one needs to work for free.

I’ve finished my third round of revisions and am feeling rather happy with the shape of this novella. Perhaps I will have something to self-publish this fall after all!

 

Photo by Herbalizer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dancing in the Rain

Sometimes my life feeds something within the story I’m writing.

I don’t try to put snippets of my life in my stories. I write fiction, not memoirs. But as my writing is an extension of who I am, my life and my experiences feed the fiction.

An example. Today was cold and windy and the air felt like a storm was brewing. I looked out the picture window in my kitchen searching the sky for any signs of impending rain. I had a dog to walk and errands to run and both of these activities would be easier to do when it wasn’t raining.

And it struck me, as I searched the sky, that once upon a time I used to love storms. I would stand on the hill of our former house, the hill that looked out over the western skies, and would dance in the rain. Wild dances, with my head faced up to receive the rain and it poured down. I especially loved thunderstorms, the way the electricity in the air would dance across my skin as I in turn danced beneath the lightening and the thunder.

I  haven’t done that in a very long time, and today as I looked out my picture window, cursing the thought of rain, I wondered why. Why don’t I dance beneath the rain any more? Is it because I’m 46 instead of 26? Because I’m more self conscious? Or is it because as my health has become a slave to weather patterns I no longer feel affinity with the coming storms?

Whatever the reason, I no longer dance in the rain. And neither does Hope, the heroine of my current story. She, like me, used to dance in the rain. She used to live for the feeling of electricity skimming across her skin. Used to life her face to the rain. Used to be the raging storm.  But she isn’t any more. Her life is more…complicated.

And it’s important for the story that she realize this about herself. Realize that she no longer dances in the rain. I didn’t know this until I had my own melancholy realization. My life fed my story. My subconscious worked out a story problem and used my own life to do so.

Introducing My Good Friend Fear

Haunted Trees

As I have stated in an earlier post, I am a writing course junky. I have taken far too many writing courses, actually.

I’m trying to get my writing groove back after the world altering events of the last four months and I’m proud of myself. I haven’t purchased another writing course! Instead I’m procrastinating filling the well by revisiting some meaningful courses I’ve taken in the past.

Years and years ago I took a course from author and teacher Bob Mayer titled Warrior-Writer Overview: How to Go from Writer to Author, Creatively and in Business. Bob is a former military man with a long and varied career that includes time in Special Forces. He has more than 40 books published and teaches novel writing. I don’t know if he teaches this course anymore. I do know that the course kicked my ass when I first took it. And it’s kicking my ass again.

I’m revisiting the second lesson and the thing that has struck me most so far is fear. Right now I’m supposed to be writing out goals. Instead, I’m circling the exercise, an oily feeling deep in my gut. Bob states that anything that causes anger or causes us to be upset is something that we need to look at because anger is a sign that change is needed. That oily feeling, it’s not anger, but it is upsetting. I thought I had banished this fear to the ends of the earth. Instead, it crawled out of the ooze and is attempting to freak me out. All it took was one little exercise to resurrect it.

I talked to a friend last night and we talked about fear. Fear can be a good thing. Fear can keep you from injury or from doing something stupid. Fear can also keep you from doing something risky that will benefit you in the end. Fear can be your ally or it can be your enemy. Today, fear is the enemy. I’m learning, again, to push through it. To identify it and to see it for what it is – a stumbling block that will keep me from truly attempting my dreams.

A few years ago I was part of a writer’s loop where we had little exercises where we were to write about something that was going on in the moment. I was going through some soul searching about my life, my job, my career, my goals and I was honest about where I was at in that particular moment. Funny, eleven years later and I’m struggling with some of the same fear.

In this moment I am surround by my demons. A gut-wrenching, stomach-twisting, brain-paralyzing fear that I will never write. That I will never finish. That I will never accomplish my dream. That my passion is misplaced. That it’s all an illusion created by a dissatisfied soul. That I am lazy. That I am rebelling against the better angels of my nature. That 9-to-5 is what I am born to do. All I am born to do. Nothing more. Nothing less.

In this moment I stare at the sunflowers I have positioned to the right of my computer at work. In this shades-of-grey cubicle, they offer sunshine and whisper to me incoherent words of hope. I stare at them and I am grounded, if only for a little while. Until the demons start to seduce me again.

In this moment I crave silence in my soul. So I can hear my thoughts. So I can find my voice again and speak. So I can have peace. So I can know that peace does exist and isn’t a wistful wish tossed up to a falling star.

In this moment I hear the clack of keyboards, of good, dutiful worker drones pushing through their call lists, connecting with applicants who desire higher education. I hear muted conversations and nasal cackles. I feel alone in the middle of business and not a little lost. I want to jump up from my cubicle and yell and convince someone that there’s more than these glass walls and shades-of-grey cubes and pointless conversations trying to sell the idea of knowledge. I want to toss my project lists to the four winds and dance on my manager’s grave. I want to shuck this life of expectations and conformity and politics and perceptions.

At the same time, i feel naive in this want because no matter where I go or what I do, the world is made up of shades of grey and politics and perceptions. Visionaries are lost by those who are afraid of different. 9-to-5 means shackles but it also means regular pay. Security in exchange for freedom. I’m torn. I’m tired. I’m afraid.

So where do we go from here? I stop talking about change and I start enacting change, that’s what. The next exercise I have in this course is to create and claim some goals. I’m going to do that. And post them here. Fear has a way of keeping us from making time to pursue our dreams. Goals have a way of creating concrete ways to move through the fear and toward our dreams. So even though I’m torn, tired and afraid with my writing I’m not going to let fear win. Not this time.

Thanks, Bob, for this course. And to think I almost didn’t sign up. That would have been a tragedy!

Photo by Dan Zen via Flickr (cc by 2.0)

NaNoWriMo 2016

NaNoWriMo Story Prep

I figured since I’m not currently working, and since I have a story burning up my neurons, I’m going to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year. I came late to this decision so I had to get my ass going on character interviews and plot points and all those pesky things. And…this will be my first year attempting to plot before writing word one.

I’m a bit of a pantser. No, I’m most comfortable pantsing my way through a story. Which makes revisions hellish. And finishing a story sometimes impossible without going back to the beginning and throwing most of what I’ve written away. I want to build a career out of novel writing so this year I decided to try a plotting method. I’ve done a lot of reading on   various types of novel writing techniques. I’ve taken courses. Lots of courses. Or I’ve purchased and started them. I don’t finish because something inside me rebels at the thought of plotting.

This goes back to the first story I tried to write. Emphasis on the try as it was a hot mess for many reasons. I was so excited to try my hand at writing that I told EVERYONE about it. I basically plotted it during impromptu conversations and at a point I knew all the nuances that made the story. And then didn’t have any drive to actually finish writing it.

At that point I figured that the first draft of a story must be about discovery. It was like I needed to discover the story as I wrote it or all motivation was gone. So I would write that shitty first draft and have a story that needed help. Lots of help. Sometimes total rewriting from the ground up. I tried plotting in different ways several times after that first story, but nothing clicked with me. It was like my brain shut down and my ability to actually apply anything about plotting I had learned didn’t exist.

About five years ago I learned about Candace Haven’s FAST DRAFT technique. It was a revelation that allowed me to write without a lot of pre-plotting. And made me get out of my own head. In fact, I’ll be using the fast draft technique during NaNoWriMo to get this story idea out of my head and onto the page. I’m also loosely using Susan Bischoff’s plotting techniques from her new book The Story Toolkit.

I’ve taken a lot of writing courses over the years. Some I’ve even applied. I figure life is all about learning and growing. And in order to grow as a writer, I need to spend time learning more about the craft of writing. NaNoWriMo offers me a chance to try a new technique. It’s only for thirty days. The pressure is off. And right now I’m not writing for contract so my deadlines are my own. Having the structure of NaNo helps me build my internal motivation muscles.

This story is for me. And I’m going to share my journey online, another thing I’ve never done before. I’m going to try to post an update every day. They may be brief, but it’s important to me to be active here.

I’m also active on Twitter, and will be tweeting about my progress, among other things!

Let NaNoWriMo 2016 commence! And happy writing!

J. R. Ward, Writing Courses, and Mentorship

First, I must have a total fangirl moment. The incomparable J. R. Ward responded to one of my tweets with just the words I needed to hear to pull myself off the brink of panic and despair. Like, seriously. I’m printing these out and putting them on my laptop so I can remember this always. Because one of the things that makes writing difficult for me is that sense that I’m not good enough. Yes, it’s all tied to my inner demon bitch. But it can be paralyzing and cause anxiety attacks.

JRWARD tweets

J. R. Ward is one of my writing heroes. While I don’t want to be her, because I want to be myself, I would love to be able to write stories that are as emotionally compelling as her stories. And I get there’s no magic bullet or formula for writing. It’s hard work, y’all. Beautiful and sweaty and challenging and rewarding and soul crushing and spirit filling work. But it’s still work. And sometimes it’s lonely and more soul crushing than it is spirit filling. In those moments, words like J. R.’s, they matter. They matter a lot.

And it makes me want to be the kind of writer who is willing to pass on the love, you know? Even if I never publish. Even if my writing becomes something that is just for me. I want to be able to pass on hope and encouragement. And where it’s valid, my writing journey. You never know who may need that kind word while they are in their own dark place.

Speaking of writing journeys, I did something I told myself I wasn’t going to do. I purchased yet another writing course. I say “yet another” because I have purchased probably thousands of dollars worth of courses, books, conferences, etc., over the years. And most of the things I buy, except for the conferences, sit on my shelf or my computer and languish. It’s not that I don’t want to learn, I do. It’s that, well, let me start with the first course I purchased.

In 2008 I purchased the beta version of Holly Lisle’s How to Think Sideways writing course. It’s an excellent course that I never made past the first four months because my life imploded. Then I lost my job in a company downsize. Then I found a new job almost right away. Well, the why’s aren’t important, but this started a trend of purchasing writing courses and not actually finishing them.

I finally realized I’m a knowledge junky and use the act of learning and acquiring knowledge to procrastinate. I procrastinate because I’m afraid my writing will never measure up. Or that I can’t really spin a tale. My dream is safe as long as it’s simply a dream. It all comes back to that inner demon bitch, doesn’t it?

Last year a thread of an idea wove its way through my mind. It’s a good idea. There’s merit to the story, on the surface a simple story, but depths that round everything out and make it interesting. Life is full of deceptively simple stories. I think that’s why this one grabbed at me like it did. But I couldn’t write. I had snippets of scenes, a story idea, but nothing deeper. Nothing more. So I did what I never do. I grabbed a journal and starting writing all the information as it came to be. Nothing is ordered. The journal is a mess. But there are the bones of something there. I just need to excavate and put them together.

How does this lead back to purchasing another writing course? Well, this mad and haphazard way I have of slapping the story ideas together showed me I needed to try something new to capture the gist of the story while it’s in that embryonic stage. Pantsing things completely isn’t working for me anymore. But what to do? And where would I find the “expert” advice I felt I needed?

Enter the advertisement that has been hounding me online for the last six months. James Patterson is teaching his brand of writing over at www.masterclass.com. I’ve seen the ad on Facebook and popping up every damn where for a while. It looked interesting, but Mr. Patterson doesn’t write in the genre I write, and he’s like uber successful. What could I learn from him? Plus, yet ANOTHER course on writing.

Well, I caved. Why? Writing and social media for authors guru Kristen Lamb took his class and blogged about it. And I read and reread her post. Then went to check out the course information. And finally decided, what the hell. He’s uber successful. And success isn’t out of my reach. And mentorship comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Which brings me back full circle to my fangirl tweet to J. R. Ward. Did her tweet promise me mentorship? No, lord no!  We are so not BFFs because she took the time to reply. And only in my dreams will we sit over coffee and talk about the craft and business of writing amazing stories. However, her general encouragement is a form a mentorship. As is her willingness to share some of her process and journey with authors. If you don’t believe me, go get a copy of her The Black Dagger Brotherhood: An Insider’s Guide and read it. She is one generous lady.

In addition, I get to read her books both as entertainment and to see what works for me as a writer, what sings. And maybe I can apply what I find to my own writing. If it fits. I may never sit down and have a serious discussion with Ms. Ward regarding writing. I may never meet her in person outside of book signings and writing conferences. And I highly doubt I will ever meet James Patterson at either. Though never say never.

That doesn’t mean I can’t count these two others, along with a plethora of others (I’m looking at you, Patti O’Shea) , as sort of mentors. As guides along my journey. Their guidance is indirect. Subtle. Definitely not a formal mentorship affair. And 100% on me. I have to do the work. I have to apply what I learn to my own writing. I have to find what works for me. I have to apply that guidance to my writing, while keeping my writing something completely my own.

 

 

When Health Fights the Story

What it's like to walk around in a fibro fog. Barely able to see ahead of me.

Original image via Flickr WANA Commons courtesy of Celine Jeanjean

The writing, she is not going well.

I know why. The weather is changing and my fibromyalgia is fighting me every step of the way. How do I cope? Honestly, there are days I don’t cope. On those days I can be found curled up in ball either reading books or watching movies in an effort to forget the pain. Or my mind is so fogged that I can’t remember what I did a minute ago let alone where the story is currently going.

I’m pulled so far out of the story that it takes me rereading my notes and what I’ve previously written in order to jump-start my writing momentum. And this happens more often than I wish.

This last week has been full of bad fibro days. My hands hurt so badly I can’t type. My body aches worse than the flu, with sharp knife like pains stabbing at the base of my neck. My vision is our of focus and my brain; forget any help from that corner. My brain is so wrapped in cotton balls that it’s amazing I can tease out enough brain power to get Velcro Dog to the dog park for his daily jaunt.

It’s days and weeks like this that can plunge me into a grey funk where I question whether I’m ever going to be able to do any productive ever again.

In the past, when I worked a day job as a project manager, I would fight the fibromyalgia. I had deadlines and people depending on me. The projects I was assigned to were important for the company. I couldn’t be the squeaky wheel. Or worse, the locked wheel that could turn no longer. So I pushed and I did half-assed work (that, incidentally, others thought was great. I wonder what the learning here is?). I would come home so exhausted and in such pain that I would collapse on the couch or on the bed and not move again for hours. Weekends were about allowing myself to sink into fatigue. I was no use, no help. At work, I was productive, but just barely. At home, I was a paralyzed zombie.

This is why I quit the day job a year ago. And why the writing has only been barely productive. I’ve also been in creative recovery. I had to find the joy in the story once again. And I found it. It’s a good story, if a basic one. But there is beauty in simplicity, and this story, she is beautiful.

If only I could write it. Every day. Stay connected to the rhythm and the prose. I do so much better when I’m able to remain rooted to my story. So much better.

What’s a girl to do when she really can’t sit, or lay, down to write? She beats herself up. Which is the opposite of productive. It’s so destructive, it can destroy that fragile bud of confidence that’s growing out of repaired and replenished soil. Negativity is the salt that destroys the earth. I refuse to be my own salt.

Last night I had insomnia, another symptom of fibromyalgia. I wrote for a bit, because I was up and the computer was on. The words were a hot mess, but they were on the page. And this is the shitty first draft so get over it already, girl. Just get over it.

After I wrote my hot mess, I started sorting through a box of old papers from college. I’m attempting to declutter the house so it’s less of a giant to clean and organize. This box has been sitting in the office for years, just gathering dust. I was almost manic in glancing through the notes and tossing. Glance and toss. Glance and toss. Glance and, whoa, now this is interesting. I found some notes from a psych course I had taken to earn my M.A. in Psychology. The notes were around self-care. I had written in big bold letters, “BE KIND TO YOURSELF!” Even then I knew I was my own worst enemy.

What does it mean to be kind to myself AND still be a productive writer, keeper of the house, and slave to the dog? Especially on the not so great days.

I don’t know. Not 100%. I know attitude is key. And that there must be tools out there that will help me write when my arms and hands just won’t cooperate. I know that I can research on those days, or read and edit. I can email or message friends and let them know what’s going on. I can look for something joyous to bring me laughter. I can fill the well instead of depleting it.

I don’t have a solid plan other than to make a list of things to try, and evaluate what works and what doesn’t. Experimentation, life at it’s best.

And I know that I need to incorporate mindfulness now more than ever. Acknowledge what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling without judgement. And just let the thoughts go. Or counter the negative thoughts with the truth. Which means knowing what is true. Living in the moment. Just. This. Moment. The past is done. The future, it’s not written and definitely not guaranteed. Now is what I have. So take things one moment at a time.

Today may not be a great day to contribute to the story. That doesn’t mean I’m a failure. Or that this story will never be written. It means I accept today for what it is and fill it with things that I can accomplish. That I enjoy. That will make tomorrow’s return to the story all the better.

The story, she may not be going so well. But I am.

The Mystery of Voice

Once upon a time I attempted to figure out the mystery of voice. I had been in and out of writer’s groups and conferences and reference materials and I stumbled on the notion of voice. My writing voice. What was it? What genre did it fit best within? How could I be true to my voice while continuing to grow as a writer?

I turned to an author and teacher who I admired and enrolled in a six week online course on discovering voice. A friend had previously taken this course and raved at how it helped her determine her voice, which helped to determine the direction her writing would take. I wanted that confidence so I signed up for the next offering and learned…not a lot.

That’s not quite true. I learned that my voice has a poetic cadence. I learned that I cannot mimic someone else’s writing voice to save my life. Which is probably a good thing. I learned that I was confused about voice and how several of the exercises related to a writer’s storytelling voice. I felt rather slow. I hate feeling like I just can’t get something.

Upon finishing the course, all the attendees were invited to a private email loop for all the writers who had ever taken the course. There were continuing exercises and discussion related to writing voice. I participated in several. It wasn’t earth shattering, but it was nice to have little exercises where I could write and be myself. It was also a great place for some ego boosting. Come on, you all know that there are points in time when we need a good ego boost. We are feeling low and discouraged and we need a reminder of what is true. This group did that. The author/teacher disbanded the group a year later. I miss it every day.

I was cleaning up email the other day and I found all the emails I had kept from both the course and the group. I read through them all, wondering if years later I could finally grasp that elusive concept of voice. I know I don’t have it all, but right now, voice is the feel of the writing. The word choices. The cadence. The rhythm. It’s how we tell our stories. I’m an intuitive person. I intuitively make my word choices. I can’t tell you why I make any one choice over another. I just…do.

Below are two exercises from this exploration of voice experience. The first is a timed writing about the topic of a first kiss.  I had five minutes to write, and I fictionalized my very first kiss experience. I wrote it more like an memoir than a story.

Todd was tall and gangly, with a greasy face, an eager smile and a shock of red hair that amused me. I was sixteen when we met at my cousin’s house, visiting my relatives in Victoria, and Todd intrigued me. I had not had a boyfriend. I was blissfully unencumbered and loving life as a woman who did what she pleased when she pleased. Okay, as a teen who finally had the keys to her father’s car.
Over dinner, Todd shyly flirted. His attempts were almost laughable, but I was feeling generous and he was trying. He listened to my young feminist self talk about why it was stupid for women to shave and why we were the smarter, more intelligent sex. He laughed at my jokes and he wasn’t scared away when I announced that I was going to run the country some day. Looking back, I think he was either in shell shock or saw me for the mark I was. I was so sure of myself, so certain that I could control any male who came near me. I knew they all wanted one thing. sex, and I was in control now of when and how I would give that. Or if I would. I was sixteen and I was free. Or so I thought.
We went walking after dinner, down the dark, treelined road. The moon wasn’t up and the stars were wild pin pricks in the sky. Todd’s arm settled on my shoulders and I felt powerful. So I stopped and looked at him and asked him if he wanted to kiss me. Like an eager puppy, his eyes widened and his hand shook, almost violently. I walked my fingers up his chest in the way I had seen the Femme Fatals in the movies dance their hands across the chest of the man they were about to ensnare. My hand curved around his neck, tugged at the hair at his nape and my smile deepened as his breathing caught. On tiptoe, I settled my lips on his and kissed him, my tongue gently caressing his lips, my mouth exerting a little pressure. I thought I was working magic. The rise in his jeans told me I was working something.
Then, before his arms could come to life and touch me, before he could use his mouth on mine, I pulled away and started walking again.

There is more to that story. Pieces of the tale colored with anger, violence, and shame. Still, as I read this snippet, I see my earnest, over-confident self. I can feel that night. I can also sense that things are about to turn very, very wrong. I don’t know what the writing of this says about my voice.

This second exercise was one of the impromptu ones that were tossed out on the voice class alumni loop. It’s a timed writing, again. I don’t remember how long we were to write. We were to answer the questions “What in this moment what frightens you?” and “What in this moment excites you?” I remember at the time of the writing that there was nothing that excited me. I was plagued with doubt. When it comes to my passions, I’m often plagued with doubt. It’s a theme in my life I’m working on. I want to change my narrative and live in hope and joy. But on this day I didn’t feel like it was ever going to happen. I was never going to be big enough to live my big dreams.

When I shared my fears I wasn’t expecting feedback. I wasn’t expecting anything. In fact, I regretted hitting send once I wrote it.

What happened was something that spoke to that terrified writer within me. I have these snippets printed out and pasted them by my computer. These have pulled me through whenever I’m too much in my head. The last one, that’s the one I read to myself most often.
I can’t help with the security angle, but I can assure you that you are most certainly a writer, and all you have to do is let it fly. Wonderful post.
I echo Barbara’s sentiment — you are a writer! Reading your post, I heard the keys click beneath fingers, the low conversational buzz. You brought me into your world which is the hallmark of a writer, isn’t it?
What a cool post you did on Barbara’s loop!  I just read it.  With every word you used to question whether you’re a writer, you actually *proved* you’re a writer.  Powerful stuff.  Way to go!
Whoo-wee, girl!  That’s a lowdown secret sly and fancy voice thang you got goin’ on!  That’s one of my rewards! Your voice — I want more of that! I often think others can describe our voice(s) more accurately than we do ourselves.  So sure, use my description as you see fit!  I’d love to know I helped you get a deal, sell a mss., launch a career.  Or just blather.  Not that I believe you blather.  You got that lowdown secret sly and fancy voice thang!
I agree. I think we need to rely on others to describe our voices more accurately than we can ourselves. Lowdown secret sly and fancy voice thang. Never in a million years would have used those words to describe my writing voice. But dayum! I read those words and something inside me loosens and I know with everything that is within me that I can be big enough to live me dreams. Hell, I AM big enough. So what if I can’t pinpoint my writing voice. The point is that I write. And that I’m true to myself. Isn’t that the point for all of us?