A Writer’s Greatest Gifts: Time and Critique. So Why Not Writeaway?

Taking the ferry home from the Orcas Island LitFest last weekend, I could not get to my notebook fast enough. Twenty hours of writer-panels (I wasn’t able to attend the full weekend) had left my brain so full of ideas and challenges for my own writing that I could hardly speak to anyone. Now, a week’s worth of hard writing work later (journaling, deep character background, pitch practice, scene revision, and everything in between), I am so grateful for the chance to have attended.

And I want to remind my fellow writers of what a self-gift it is to stop, drop and enroll in SOMETHING every now and then, just to realign the wheels (and unmix the metaphors). Literary festivals are great for this. Writing conferences, even better.

But best of all…if you can afford it…is a Writeaway. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you why you can afford it.

First of all, what is a Writeaway? It’s a Writing Getaway–the brainchild of my friends and fellow writers, Mimi Herman and John Yewell. In the words of their website, “We provide writing instruction, fabulous food and company in beautiful places, and a safe place for you to take a writing vacation with your muse, and maybe a good friend.”

Yes, you read that right: Writing instruction. Fabulous food. Beautiful location. Support, personalized critique, a new writing community. Time to work…and do all those things my own brain needed to do after only 20 hours at a LitFest.

In case you need some creds: Mimi & John are better than good writers; they are passionate teachers of writing. (Big difference, right?) Mimi is the 2017 North Carolina Piedmont Laureate and a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. Since 1990, she has engaged over 25,000 students with her warm and insightful teaching. A Warren Wilson MFA alum, her writing has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic and other journals.John is a writer and editor with an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University and twenty years of experience in journalism.

John & Mimi: ready to read, write & listen (and drink wine)

The shiniest, most awe-inspiring Writeaways of Mimi and John are held in castles in France and Italy, like these:

OK, you can close your mouth and get back to writing now. Dinner’s at six.

But they also offer domestic Writeaways in North Carolina, where they live.

Carolina-ish enough for ya?

Don’t live in North Carolina or feel like flying there? Mimi & John also offer the best choice of all (in my opinion): a Build-your-own Writeaway. 

“Have you ever dreamed of getting away to your favorite place to write – with friends and family, your writing group, your book club, high school pals, or colleagues from your creative writing program? Choose your own adventure and we’ll arrange housing, workshops, conferences, and fabulous food and drink for you and four or more of your favorite people. Let us know a little about yourself, and we’ll start planning.”

I can kind of, SORT of, imagine what it might be like to read the above and NOT think: HEAVEN! Yeah, I suppose some writers are the solitary type–and bless them. 

But if your Muse comes alive with a little stimulation BEFORE the necessary writerly solitude…oh, my. Why wouldn’t you consider a Build-your-own Writeaway?

Because of the cost, you say. Of COURSE there’s a cost. But Mimi & John are so passionate about what they do, they’re willing to work with writers to keep the budget as modest as possible. No castles. No fancy digs. Homemade meals. Whatever it takes to get you there. The time, expertise and inspiration is what you’d be paying for. If you’ve ever gone to a writing conference and come away thinking, “Well, about half of the workshops were worthwhile,” the Writeaway is the perfect answer, because it’s all tailored to YOU.

So I encourage you to check out this Writeaway Link for yourself. (And just in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not being paid to advertise. I’m just a big Mimi & John fan.)

If you do end up doing yourself the favor of signing up, though–please drop my name! We’ll all be thrilled. 

Writing Prompts: A Hate-Love Relationship

“I don’t have TIME for writing prompts. I have serious revisions to work on!” 

Those were my thoughts a couple of weeks ago when my writing group met without anyone’s writing to workshop. We’d made a commitment, as a group, that when this happened, we would do writing exercises. Whoever hosted that week got to assign one.

My writing colleague/friend chose, “Create a list of scents from your childhood, good and bad. Then pick one and write about it.”

Luckily I LOVE my writing group. So I submerged my bad attitude in a pool of pleasant acquiescence. Inside I was thinking, “Argh. I’ve just ripped the guts out of chapters 5-8 of my new novel–the last thing I need is to be freewriting about my childhood!” But I followed instructions.

Here’s what my pen wrote:

Most people would call it a stink, not a smell: goats and their manure, goats and their milk. Goaty. Yes, hay is involved, and other sweet notes: warmth; cream; the nuzzle of a muzzle; baby-goat lips; that conversational “meh-eh-eh.” But mostly: ew. Little pellets everywhere, like those imported chocolate cordials, only made of shit. But they didn’t smell like shit. They smelled goaty. Hearty. Healthy. Researchy. Unique. Cute. Intelligent. Second-class but proud of it—“alternative,” like my school, my entire childhood. Goat Barn. Who has goat barns? No one I knew. Who could tell proud stories of being butted, of making “milkshakes” by bouncing a goat on one of the gangplanks across the muck? Who could use a goat as a safe spot in a game of tag and turn her teats into milk-guns?

Don’t worry. This stroll through the goat barns of yore is not going to cause a sudden veer toward memoir. I’m still working on chapters 5-8, and I’m still blogging about–as you see–whatever I feel like.

But this writing prompt, unwelcome as it was, did me an unexpected service: it reminded me of how important my weird childhood is to me, how I treasure that uniqueness…

My folks still have a goat or two, just for funsies.

…like everyone treasures his/hers/theirs. How we define ourselves gives us the courage to move forward. Sometimes that self-definition inhibits, and boy, when that happens, we have work to do. But when it empowers? We need to run with that.

So now, when my revisions start getting the better of me, when I start to wonder, Is this work even worth it? Is anyone even going to read this? Who cares?…all I have to do is think about that goat barn. And I’m armed “to the teat” with a powerful sense of worth.

Darn right, I have a story to tell. I was practically born in a barn. Thanks, Writing Prompt!

That same writing friend also shared this post, “On Hating Writing From Prompts,” by Alice Lowe, on Brevity’s Blog. Writing? You’ll love this. You know why.

 

 

Confessions of an Imperfectionist: On Second Thoughts, I’ve Nothing to Confess

I am proud to call myself an imperfectionist. Are you one too? Take this simple test to find out.

  1. When frosting a cake, do you skip the “crumb layer” and just start slathering that stuff on there?
  2. When sewing, do you skip the basting step, and use as few pins as possible?
  3. When doing carpentry, do you conveniently forget the mantra, “Measure twice, cut once”?
  4. When practicing a piece of music, do you more often than not say “good enough” and move on?
  5. Do you like yourself anyway?

If you answered No to any of these, congratulations–you have standards. If you said Yes, welcome to my world. Imperfectionists unite!

Nothing like working in the worlds of food, crafts, or arts to remind me how much I don’t care to push myself that extra step. After fifty-some years, however, I have found the one area where I can’t stop polishing, tweaking, fixing, de- or re-constructing: WRITING.

It’s hopeless. I’m a words girl. When it comes to words on the page, good enough is never good enough.

I think I know why. Writing was my first success, something people have told me I’m good at since grade school. Therefore continuing to improve has a high promise of reward, and I think the urge is deeply rooted in my psyche. Adult stuff like sewing? I’d have to work WAY too hard to get any compliments there.

(courtesy bernijourney.wordpress.com)

(courtesy bernijourney.wordpress.com)

Come to think of it, I’ve had compliments on my pies from a young age too. So there you go.

Yup--perfect.

Yup–perfect.

Am I on to something? Anyone else out there a perfectionist in only SOME areas? What are they, and what accounts for their special place in your otherwise imperfectionist life? Note: all you perfectionists out there, feel free to chime in too.

Themes to Me Thomebody Needth Kicking Out of Her Comfort Thone

“Your problem is,” said my website angel consultant the other day, “your website theme doesn’t include a menu with social media buttons. You need a new theme.”

That’s what came out of her mouth, anyway. This is what I heard:

“Return ye to that fearsome Land of Tech where live every vile Insecurity and Fear of Failure your puny writer mind can devise!!!”

Yep. I have to go back to  Wordpress Central, whose user-friendly greeting might as well say, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

(Orig. drawing Dr. Guillaume Duchenne, presented by Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia)

(Orig. drawing Dr. Guillaume Duchenne, presented by Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia)

So…this should be interesting. I’m gonna take a few days off to welcome Son One home from his year abroad and celebrate a couple of late holidays with the whole fam. (Merry Thanksmas, everyone!) Then I will pull on the big-girl panties and try. To. Update. My. Blog. All by my ownself.

You should know by next week how that went. Wish me luck, people! Oh, and send me recommendations for great, easy-to-read WordPress themes if you have any.

See you later! And Merry Thanksmas. 

 

Fair Trade…Fiction? A Different Take For Writers (and other artists)

As a consumer, I try to buy fair trade chocolate and other imports-from-countries-with-iffy-production-practices. As a writer, I never made the connection between that and buying people’s books (or other art) until I read this post by Author & Social Media Maven Kristen Lamb. What IS wrong with encouraging reading “consumers” to support the writers who provide their steaming daily cup of fiction? Nothing, right?

When you’ve read it, let me know what you think. Take it away, Kristen!

(Courtesy theoatmeal.com)

(Courtesy theoatmeal.com)

I think consumers could change publishing if we let them. If we stopped assuming they didn’t care, that all they wanted was cheap books no matter the consequences.

Source: Pay the Writer Part 2—Blood Diamonds & Fair Trade Fiction

My New Year’s Resolution: Keep Writing New Year’s Resolutions, Damnit

Who cares if I still have an unworking Stairmaster in my barn?

[Last year’s resolution: By the end of 2015, I will have either fixed my Stairmaster machine or gotten rid of i])

Who cares if I’m still in the middle of Chapter 16 in a 21-chapter book? 

[Last year’s resolution: By the end of 2015, I will have finished the first draft of Altitude (Book Three of the Flying Burgowski trilogy) and be actively re-revising the first half]

Who cares if I never got beyond the “we should get together for a walk or a cup of tea sometime, huh?” stage of inviting someone I don’t know well for a walk or a cup of tea?

[Last year’s resolution: By the end of 2015, I will have invited someone I would like to know better for a walk or a cup of tea]

As I wrote last year, “The secret to success is having really low standards.” It’s also, I believe, the maintenance of the feeling of forward progress–the alternative to which is stepping into that swamp of grumpiness and self-pity where the only escape is too much chocolate…you see where this leads, right?

So let me take a minute to celebrate the two resolutions that I DID keep last year:

  1. riding my bike in to work at least as often, if not more often, than driving: check!
  2. developing a fitness regimen that includes daily strength and stretching exercises: check!**

** ahem ** Honesty compels me to admit that I officially adopted said fitness regimen all of **cough** four days ago…but HEY. I’ve kept it up for four days, in 2015, so that still COUNTS.

023 (2)

And all of those so-far-unkept resolutions are just that, I’ve decided: not failed, just late bloomers. Who’s in charge here? That’s right. So here are my new low-resolution resolutions:

By the end of 2016 I will have…

  • Finished, revised, and published Altitude
  • Kept up my biking vs. riding to work ratio
  • Kept up my daily fitness regimen (the secret to success here was  Son Two’s idea: “Why don’t you do it while you watch The Daily Show, Mom?”)
  • Made reservations for a 2017 trip to New Zealand to research my next novel (New Zealand?! Good on ya!)

…oh, and that Stairmaster? Maybe the unknown person I invite for a walk or a cup of tea will help me figure out what to do with it.

Got a resolution to share? Don’t believe in ’em? Tell me about it either way. And…Happy New Year!

Does Your Muse Have ADD?

What’s your M.O. when your creative brain refuses to buckle down and do its thing?

Here’s me the other day, arguing with my Muse:

Me: OK, so, Vivian [new character in Book 3] originally was going to ___________, but now I need her to ____________ instead.  [sorry–no spoilers!]

Muse: la, la, la, I can’t hear youuuu….

Me: Help me out here! If Vivian _______ then Jocelyn would have to ___________, and that’s totally out of character.  What should I do?

Muse: Well, I dunno, maybe you could–ooh, shiny! Squirrel! All other indicators that my attention is elsewhere!

Don’t know what you do in this scenario. Me? I took my Muse for a walk in the wind. It took an hour and a half, but when we got back, I had my plot unsnarled, and hey! I got some exercise too.

This has happened to me enough that I even wrote a song about it. Don’t have a recording good enough to share, but all you need are the lyrics:

Muse

My Muse detests the interstate—in fact she hates to drive

But set my bike on a country road and then she might arrive.

My Muse is happiest outdoors; she’s never at the mall

And in a doctor’s waiting room I can’t find her at all.

 

But walk along a windy shore and soon she’s joining me

To whisper, prompt, or point me toward what she needs m to see.

She doesn’t love computer keys, but visits when I think

With notebook full of paper and a pen with real ink.

 

Her favorite drink is Earl Grey—it makes her twirl and leap,

But though wine may make me cheerful, it puts her right to sleep.

She’ll drop in when I exercise; she loves to see me sweat—

Not in a gym all safe and warm, but out in the wind and wet.

 

A nest of pillows on the couch she doesn’t seem to min

But never if there’s company of the distracting kind

Unless it be a small café with loud, generic din

Then she’ll consent to visit me to lay her treasures in.

 

But if I’m stuck inside a car, she’ll trail sadly along

And toss me wisps of poetry to turn into a song.

And though the life I call her to is busy, loud and crude,

She’s granted me these humble lines to show my gratitude.

DSC03360

 

Yeah. So that’s me. What do you do to get your Muse to settle down? Go for a walk, then let me know.

Happy New Year! Share That Resolution Here

The secret to success is having really low standards.

Joke. Kind of. What I really mean is making sure your goals are achievable, not pie-in-the-sky. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all S.M.A.R.T. goal-y on you. I’m just going to share mine for 2015. And since I know what a difference it makes in motivation to SHARE your goals, I invite you to do just that…as soon as I’ve shared mine.

By the end of 2015, I will have…

  • finished the first draft of Altitude (Book Three of the Flying Burgowski trilogy) and be actively re-revising the first half
  • ridden my bike in to work at least as often, if not more often, than I’ve driven
  • invited at least three people I would like to know better for a walk or a cup of tea
  • developed a fitness regimen that includes daily strength and stretching exercises
  • either fixed my Stairmaster machine or gotten rid of it 🙂

005

Your turn. What are some of yours?

 

On Teenagers, Butcher Paper, Writing, and Confidence: What Have We Learned Today?

Hey, I got to play with butcher paper, markers and stickers again! I got to spend my day with teenagers, then leave without carrying any of their essays with me!

Doesn’t get any better. Plus, it made me think harder about my own topic: What it means to be a writer.

Anacortes High School has about 800 students, mostly white, mostly working-to-middle class. It also has a super-energetic, friendly librarian who invited me to come in and speak to some classes, and to any interested students after school, about being an Author. I did  read them a bit of my novel, The Flying Burgowski, but first I wanted to stir the pot a little.

Anastasia

So here’s an exercise I ran with three different classes of 9th graders.

  1. handed out two stickers to each kid
  2. posted a piece of butcher paper marked with the numbers from zero to ten on its long side, headed “I Think I’m a Writer”
  3. asked each kid to stick one sticker next to the number which best matched how they’d agree or disagree with that statement

Then we all took a look at the distribution of stickers. I asked kids to share why they might have put theirs in the middle, then at the top, then at the bottom. Responses were pretty predictable: “I know I CAN write, but I only do it when I have to.” “I love writing; I write all the time.” “I hate it.”

Veronica

 

Next, we ran the exercise again, but this time the statement at the top of the butcher paper read, “I Think I Could Be a Writer.”

And that’s when things got interesting.

Period One was full of what are usually labelled “Honors” students. This wasn’t Honors English, but one honors course anywhere in the schedule tends to clump that level of students together. Period One had a few stickers at “10” on the first paper, but on the second? Double the number. These guys were confident. When we discussed the difference, their statements tended to be about unlocking their potential and releasing their inherent creativity. They did not use those words exactly, but when I did, summarizing their comments, they all nodded eagerly–Yup, that’s me.

Period Two was the opposite. Remember those clumps of students? This was the clump that would never identify themselves as Honors students–whether they could have been or not. They also had a few stars at “10,” a handful of kids who thought of themselves as writers. But when the statement changed to reflect possibility and the future…those stars fell. Down to 6 and 7.

K and R

“What happened?” I asked the class, and they were ready. Their answers all included references to professional standards, deadlines, being paid, being good enough. Even the kids who thought they were writers now did not think they could pass muster “out there” in the “real world.”

Period Three was larger–in fact it was a class and half, as another teacher brought some students in to join us–and more mixed, harder to categorize. Their sticker pattern polarized on the “I Could Be a Writer” butcher paper, with many 9-10s and 0-2s, and almost no 4-7s.

D and C

So, what conclusions do we draw from this? I have my own theories, but I prefer to use Wing’s World as a classroom today (just as it once was). So, consider this me calling on y’all. Who would like to share first?

OK, Fine, Twist My Arm, I’ll Talk About Writing: The Writing Process Blog Tour

Even though I’m a writer–maybe BECAUSE I’m a writer–I don’t usually blog about writing. But when my friend and writing/publishing mentor Iris Graville invited me to take part in a Writing Processblog tour she joined through the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA program, I was thrilled to say yes.

(Therefore you too WILL BE THRILLED to read the results–got that?)

What am I working on? Having just published my first YA/tweens novel, The Flying Burgowski, earlier this year, I am dividing my writing time now between promotion & distribution (not very fulfilling) and finishing the final draft of the sequel, The Flying Burgowski Disaster (extremely fulfilling).

Like thousands of other writers, I have learned in the past couple of years to quit whining about the challenges of independently publishing, a.k.a. taking responsibility for one’s own marketing and distribution. I’m still astounded at how a batch of phone calls and emails relating to author readings/book signings, or questions about consignment, can eat up an entire morning! But I try to stay grateful for the opportunity to do this at all.

In the Brave New World of publishing, the Big Scary Gatekeepers have lost their power. Or, looked at another way: I am now my own big scary gatekeeper. Let’s just say I have learned a great deal, but have a long way to go before achieving my Masters in Gate-ology.

How does my work differ from others in its genre? The Flying Burgowski is a coming-of-age story with a supernatural twist. Like Harry Potter, or like Stephen Messer’s Windblowne or Joni Sensel’s The Farwalker’s Quest, the heroine, Jocelyn Burgowski, discovers that she has special powers. Joss can fly! But unlike those novels–in fact, unlike nearly every other YA fantasy novel I have read, The Flying Burgowski is set very much in the real world.( I suppose I could draw a parallel with the Twilight series in that respect, but the similarity ends there. Oh, wait, no–my book is set in Washington State as well. But that’s IT. No vampires, sparkly or un-. And no sexy werewolves.)

I greatly admire authors who can build effective fantasy worlds. I lost myself in Tolkien’s and C.S. Lewis’s books at a young age, and I am a thoroughly unapologetic Potterhead. But I find more personal meaning and challenge in imagining how one might deal with magic in THIS world. Kids these days have some pretty awful issues to deal with, and so does my heroine. How does a superpower help or hinder the scaling of an obstacle like, for example, an alcoholic parent? That’s what I’m interested in.

I should add here that Victoria Forester’s middle-grades novel, The Girl Who Could Fly, is nominally set in the real world. But that world is drawn with such exaggerated characters as to be nearly fantasy, in this writer’s opinion. The Flying Burgowski’s darkness is a more recognizable, straight-from-the-news-headlines kind of darkness. That said–it’s not a sad book! I promise it will make you laugh, no matter how old you are.

20140226-130402.jpg

Why do I write what I do? I did not set out to write for young adults. In fact, the first two novels I wrote–one which will remain forever in the bottom drawer where it belongs, the other which I hope to publish someday–are for adults. The Flying Burgowski story idea simply visited me one day and took me for a ride. I’m still riding. But I don’t assume I will necessarily stay in this age-group for future projects. I do love that readers are finally figuring out that YA writing can be right up there with the best, though. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have helped expand the readership. There are some great YA books out there! (Check out this Goodreads YA group to see what I mean.)

How does my writing process work? First of all, I am extremely blessed in being able to write as my part-time “job,” (along with working part-time in a bakery), since walking away from my 20-year career as a high school teacher a few years ago. In those days I had to get up at five to write for 45 minutes before leaving for school. I hated that routine, but it did produce my first rough draft. Now my kids are grown and gone, and I am financially able to do what I want for the most part–a blessing for which I am unendingly grateful.

Secondly, I am married to the most wonderful man, who created a Writing Barn for me. Well, it’s the upstairs half of a barn; he gets the downstairs for his shop. But up there I have a large, mostly empty space with cedar walls, a little decorative pottery, a toilet, a hot-water kettle for tea, and a beautiful (but not too dominating) view. Best of all: no internet! Therefore, no distractions.

It is COLD up there, especially in the winter, and since I never write for longer than 4-5 hour chunks, it’s really not worth heating all that space with the wood stove, cozy as that sounds. So I have a space heater on a timer, to pre-heat my writing spot, and…don’t laugh…I write in a sleeping bag. I’ve always written from a semi-lounge position on a bed or sofa, so the sleeping bag fits right in.

001

I always start by reading aloud what I wrote the day before. Then I pick up from there. If I get stuck on an issue of plot or character development, I go back to my Outline page and just blah-blah-blah as though I were having a conversation with myself. Though it’s tempting to delete the blah-blah-blah from the outline after I’ve solved it, I leave it there as a reminder of my thinking process. It usually comes in handy thinking through the next snag.

Next week the Writing Process Blog Tour continues with another writer I admire. Shan Jeniah Burton lives a passionately playful life filled with lovely chaos, intertwined with her chef husband,  two endlessly fascinating children who keep outgrowing their clothes, and a rotating cast of furry companions.  She’s traveled the country, and counted among her backyards the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Everglades, only to settle on the same sleepy country road in upstate New York where she grew up.  She is particularly fond of words and dreams, imagery and photography, nature, history, music, and fictional people with green blood and pointed ears. Please click here to go to Shan Jeniah’s blog, Lovely Chaos.

But, as always, I love hearing from my own dear readers. Can you relate to my writing process? How does it compare with yours, or the one you hope to have someday?