Category Archives: Writing

steps to a goal – How to Think Sideways

* I know most of my Wander-Bird visitors are here because we know each other on the How To Think Sideways Forums. On the off chance that you arrived without coming across Holly Lisle’s many writing classes, may I introduce them to you by way of the story of how I took her How to Think Sideways class and am hard at work creating stories I’m proud of?

It’s a little meandering (I am a Wander-Bird, after all), and when you get to the bottom there’ll be a link to one of the big classes that won’t be offered again for some time. So, while this isn’t exactly an advertisement, it does recommend a product. If you’d like to skip this post, no worries. But if you want to join a group of writers working hard to tell good stories or at least hear how I figured out my hidden skill of taking persistent small steps (every journey, right?) and building something from the ground up (like the Great Wall?), then keep reading!

the obligatory, "I'm at the Great Wall" selfie

 

Speaking of the Great Wall, in 2008 I was living in Beijing, with my nerves a little frayed from the big city, my poor command of Mandarin (the northern accent also threw me after being used to more fluid southern accents), and life in a small apartment with kids. I really wanted a project. A writing project, to be specific. I wanted to move my desire to write out from the realm of journalling where it was slightly furtive and without purpose. I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but didn’t know how to either fit it in or to go about coming up with something worth writing a ‘novel’ about.

One of those “DUH!” moments occurred – I was homeschooling our kids, why not incorporate it into what we were already doing? This was a stroke of brilliance – both kids jumped in, happily (especially since I gave them all of November off from other subjects if they’d commit). Oldest Kid learned to type because of it (and dang, she’s fast now!) while Youngest Kid (who was in first grade) wrote hers by hand and they both ended up completely unafraid of writing and pleased to indulge their Youngest Kid, writing her storyimaginations. They’ve gone on and done NaNo several more times.

So, I had figured out how to fit writing into real life. Now I needed to know how to make what I wrote into a novel.

I searched around for instruction and even in 2008 there were a lot of online resources, so I bopped around for the first week or so trying different options but continuing writing without a solid sense of where I was going. It worked, sort of, in that I got a lot of words down. But there were serious structural flaws – from the plot itself to what was going on in scenes (or not going on, as my characters listened to crickets). It didn’t help that I wrote it out of order as well.

That ‘novel,’ Call the Rain Home, is a poster child for The Many Ways Novels Fail.

I won NaNo that year (as did Oldest and Youngest Kids), and though the story wasn’t finished and it was a mess, I was bitten.

Unknown

This fiction writing thing! It could be awesome!

I still had no clue how to write a real story (remember, I’d been mostly just writing observations and brain-dumps in journals, with some poetry now and again) and I felt the pain of novice-hood by the end of November. I loved the story I’d come up with and it made me sad that it was a broken and unfinished thing.

That’s why even as November was wrapping up, I was still shopping for a method to make a story work.

And that’s when I came across mention of Holly Lisle on the NaNo forums. To my delight (and that of my bank account) she had tons of free information on novel writing. With her help I was able to fill in critical but missing parts of my story, tie pieces together, patch It up a bit so that it could walk over the finish line feeling like a story.

When I returned to the US in 2009 I was ready to go in deeper, though.

file0001906291170After years of worrying my “lack of calling” to death I made a commitment to writing that, to be honest, I’m not sure I understood at the time. Or, if I understood it, I was probably too fearful to dig deeply into it. It wasn’t just a financial commitment, though of course paying for a course like How to Think Sideways WAS a financial commitment. More importantly, It was a commitment to learning and to labor –  motivated by knowing that my deepest self was in search of something.

Part of me wanted something desperately

– a creative life
– certainty that I hadn’t just let something keep its Dream Status without ever paying attention to what was at its heart
– to learn how to do something well
– to write

I wanted to stop praising myself in my head for having done nothing beyond fostering the idea that I “could do something if…”

That wasn’t praiseworthy, it was delusional.

Does it seem crazy that a novel writing course could help even at the deep levels of self-perception?

It’s not.

I am, absolutely, NOT Holly’s best, brightest, quick-outta-the-gate and off-the-presses, student. At least not if you look at my publication (non) record. But if you could see the total revolution that’s occurred in my head, you’d be astounded. I went from being a goal-less dreamer to someone with an enthusiasm for projects and the plans and skills for accomplishing them. I went from never admitting to anyone I was writing to being willing (and nearly ready) to put my work into the world where it can be read (and judged, let’s be honest) by anyone who comes across it. I’m braver, more focused, less prone to fearing my life will amount to nothing.

At the beginning, like a lot of people, I had a history of being my own worst enemy and from its first lesson, How to Think Sideways starts students on a path that gets the enemy out of the way.

Always of two minds: that I *could* write something good (maybe, someday, if given a chance) – and that I would never write something good and who was I fooling. I benefitted from the How to Think Sideways curriculum that helped me look self-sabotage right in the face and decide to stop indulging.

It also gave me tools to change those habits.

Here’s how Holly describes it:

In Section One: Sideways Thinking on Ideas, you’ll learn to clear out the four thinking obstacles that have stood in the way of your success in the past, you’ll learn how to discover your own “genre” that you can take with you wherever you go in the publishing world, you’ll learn how to work with your Muse, you’ll create ideas on a time limit—but without pressure—and not just figure out which ideas are worth writing, but learn how to improve your keepers, and you’ll discover how to find—or create—the market or markets in which you’ll start your career.

For me, Holly’s methods for making friends with your creativity are keystone practices that carry into the entirety of the course and beyond. From the beginning there are systematic methods as well as tips, tricks and exercises related to fiction writing and “creative life in general.”  A lot of it is transferable to short fiction and that’s what I’ve been focusing on lately. But it doesn’t stop there – and it’s not a recipe book – it’s customizable and can be tweaked to fit your own style (or genre).

Full disclosure – I’ve not written a novel with it. Yet. When I do, though, it will have been possible only because I took this course that covers everything from learning to hone in on consistently good ideas that matter to you, how to pace a story by planning scenes, how to keep your creative side happy without sacrificing the logic of your story, and working with agents and publishers as well as producing and publishing your work independently.

Here’s how it stands for me at this point. I’m still a novice and still learning to write a good story – but I’m so much closer than I was before. Now, instead of hiding my passion for writing, I start with the assumption that I can improve and I actively go about learning how to do that. Then I practice, then I test myself. In the coming months I’ll be putting my fiction to the test in a collection of short stories.

Five years ago that would have seemed impossible.

I’m one of Holly’s serial students – so some of what I’ve learned has been from her other courses and workshops, but the key that unlocked the door to freedom from the Fake Dream Perfection Someday trap was How to Think Sideways.

It’s been empowering and educational to work through the lessons, often in conjunction with other writers.

If you’re interested, I recommend you look into it and make a decision in the next two weeks. Holly’s moving her courses to a new website and the migration will make it impossible to support new sign-ups until the move is done. So, if you get in this month, you get to join with a  group of fellow writers (there are benefits to that, especially in the forums) who all start this month too.

There won’t be new openings until after the site move (at which point every existing student will be rolled into the new site, still maintaining access to all the course materials, etc.).

I started HTTS as part of a group and it was great to have classmates working on the same problems and sharing solutions and support. In the last few years Holly kept the course perma-open, something that probably has benefits, but by reverting to once or twice a year open enrollment periods, she’s giving you the best of both options: you can engage with others as you wish – or not, maybe just going through it at your own pace without active involvement with other students.

And that’s key – at your own pace – I think the thing that makes Holly’s teaching method applicable to so many people is that the emphasis is on always keeping close to your creative mind, to finding ways to keep to your own purpose (after honing in on what it is) and breaking everything down into manageable steps.

So, while I’m not currently novel-focused, I’ve still learned a lot from the course.  If this sounds like something you could benefit from, here’s where to find the course: How to Think Sideways 

Be forewarned, it’s not an inexpensive class – but to me it’s been worth every penny I spent on it. Do take your time, if it interests you, to read through the description to get an idea of just how comprehensive the class is.

It’s available to new students starting February 27th until  March 5th, 2015 and then after that enrollment will be closed for at least nine months, maybe even a year.

If you do end up joining in, let me know. I’d love to cheer you on!

***

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an affiliate of Holly’s, meaning that I make a commission if you decide to purchase through one of the links I provide. This doesn’t change the price you pay at all.  If you’re interested in her many free resources, try here: http://hollylisle.com/my-articles/writing-how-tos/

I hope any of these products help you in your creative journey.

***

image credits

– yes, it’s one of those obligatory “I’m at the Great Wall” selfies

– that’s Youngest Kid, writing her story

– compass photo by irkengirdib on morguefile

Making a Career – Writing as a Hobbyist

the writerAt the end of November, when the residual effects of the move and settling in seemed to taper off, I sat back down with my trusty computer and started to write again.

Over the last few years, fiction writing has seemed to be a more and more viable option for writers to make a living – made more so due to e-readers and the vacuum that existed momentarily when traditional publishers couldn’t fill readers’ desires for ebooks. The ensuing indie-rush is well documented by others who have been following it longer and with deeper understanding than I have (see The Passive Voice, Hugh Howey… etc. etc…).

I’m in a weird state of limbo, personally and professionally, which may set me up to be in a good position for attempting an indie career. First, by having stayed home with the kids when they were young, then needing to be flexible for our various international moves, employment stability (other than the freelance copy-editing) was never my focus. Even if I had wanted that kind of thing, that is. By conventional standards, I’m not in great job-market shape but I have the time and energy to devote to creating a home-based livelihood.

I am So. Not. a Career. Person – in that traditional sense. That generally expected and single-minded trajectory is soul-killing to me; hence the “professional traipsing” found in my ‘about me’ page. So, while I’m willing and eager to work hard on my writing (to improve it so it makes sense and is a pleasure for others to read) and I have reached a point, twenty years in the making, where I’m excited to send it out and see if it resonates with anyone — I may not be full-time, career writer, material either.

In a recent article, Kristine Katheryn Rusch, points out how the indie publishing landscape has changed. In the past few years it seemed like anyone could make some money penning books (in certain genres, especially) and throwing them up on amazon.com. That writing world wasn’t for me either – first of all, it required tons of social media presence (I lasted about 3 months on twitter with one or two feeble-death-throes thrown in for good measure and I have happily withdrawn from even my personal facebook doings. God, I’m such a hermit!). There was also the tactic that worked for some (who, one hopes, haven’t qualified as career writers, but who did manage to at least make some money): put your drafts up for sale and see how many suckers you can reel in. For obvious reasons, that was a no-go for me too.

Rusch’s article is a straight-shooting description of what one needs to do to be in this, and make a living with it, for the long haul. Those characteristics include (as I paraphrase them):

  • a nearly constant desire to tell stories and a single-minded focus on doing that
  • repeat performances of – write a novel, publish it, sell it, write a novel, publish it, sell it
  • don’t stop doing the above two things ever, or your sales, and therefore your livelihood decline. Go! Go! Go!
  • always be on top of figuring out ways to make your business better. It is a business and you must keep up with the market.

Given what I know about the traditional publishing route (“Oh, here,” say the publishers, “let me wrap you in this contract while I hang you on a spit. It’ll keep the juices in while we put all your work in perpetual “e-print” so you can never get the rights, or cancel it at our whim…you’ll taste much better at the end of your little writerly career seasoned with just a *taste* of royalties.”), the only sane response is, ““HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, WHY would I want to go in that direction?”

Now, informed by Rusch’s (and others’) educated assessment, I may be having one of my characteristic “Ohmygod the big picture is a scary picture!” moments, so maybe later I’ll have to admit that this post should’ve been taken with a grain of salt, because this was all SO DO-ABLE!!!  But… meanwhile…

this is how it looks at this point, knowing what I’m going to currently aim for, knowing what I know about both my limitations and my strengths:

– I don’t currently have any backlist to speak of. Nor do I currently have ‘frontlist’ – therefore, I will not sell anything until I have something.

– I am a slowpoke and will find it challenging to keep up with reader demand (should readers demand anything from me).

Those two things alone will make reliable livelihood generation a significant challenge.

Therefore, my option is to work on indie-hybrid publishing at my own speed and on my own terms.

This post is simply serving as evidence that I’m not going into this blind. I know what it takes to “make it” and frankly, the me I am on this date in 2015, is NOT naive enough to think “Oh, I’m the great exception! Read my work, it’s immediate best-seller-millions-making-stuff! I can rest easy now!”

I am totally ground level.

Basically, I’m in a — one-word-after-another, eventually get to decency and work on the next piece — kind of situation.

Therefore, the only rational direction – for me – is to simply do what I love, because I love it for as long as I can with whatever time I have. No matter what, since I will continue writing regardless of its financial viability, I’ll just keep writing. That doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily put it up for free, but it doesn’t mean I’ll give up on it. Any sales will be considered a blessing and reward for service on behalf of readers and myself.

I like what Deena Metzger wrote in A Brief History of a Feminist Mind,

“Literature has taught me the value of a body of work, of the slow, deliberate, heartfull development of form and idea so that one’s work and labor might contribute to the community and the future…”

though I don’t take it so far as her eventual conclusion that art or writing that succeeds commercially is inherently not fully developed or “heartfull,” and it occurred to me that the age old argument between “commercial” artists and “literary” artists is most likely and purely a difference in working process. Some people can produce like crazy and other’s are more slow. I like to hope I can embody a happy medium. Heck, do your art and live your life, right? In this day and age, to live a life requires economic exchange. It isn’t a sell out and I’d say it’s better to make your art support you than support yourself doing something artless.

Quoted on Rusch’s post, Suw Charman-Anderson says, “

“When you do something you love for a hobby and then try to turn that hobby in to a business it can suck all the joy out of that thing you do… If I’m ever going to write again, I need to reclaim it as something akin to a hobby. It’s not, at this point in time or at this point in my life, a business…”

Rusch continues, “But she doesn’t enjoy writing any longer, so she’s trying to recapture the joy. What writer among us can argue with that? I think that’s a wonderful, valid goal, and I think if you scratch a lot of writers who’ve “quite” writing, you’ll find that they, like Charman-Anderson, have simply given up writing in public.”

So, I’m following the joy. Does this doom me to failure? I don’t know. If the system (definition? The ability to write, publish, and find readers) is dependent upon my entering this work with a mindset of marketability, then maybe yes. If, however, all that I need is to remain true to my vision and the stories (or essays or poems) that ask to be told through me, and then see them into “print” and out into the world at whatever speed and abundance works for me, then no, that’s not failure.

There are many ways to be a writer. Scrambling after publication in journals, showing my wares and hoping for the favor of agents and publishers, always trying to keep up with supposedly fickle and voracious “consumers” ? None of these things are my style. None of them will work for me.

A commenter (who isn’t me, but we must be channeling each other) on Kriswrites said, “Will I ever be in the group of long-time authors? If I try to answer that now, I emphasize only competitiveness, instead of joy — It will come down to one step at a time, taking whatever step I can manage, and then repeating. Business or hobby; it doesn’t matter. More, it’s about my own joy.”

Knowing what does and does not work for me actually has something in common with sound business strategy as I consider long-term viability, and so I am approaching this as a hobbyist with a business mindset. I’m starting with realistic goals: write publishable work, make the best product I can. Find my audience, no matter how few or far-flung they are. And by extension, spread my joy.

Income after expenses is gravy.

Story Character Development

A running list of methods to discover or develop characters in stories, compiled from my experience and that of my fellow-writers all over the place:

  • Ask questions of your character, directly – and get a direct answer! (Want to know who’s great at this? Visit Kirsten’s blog – she talks to her characters and her Muse and shares the conversations. I love it! Here’s a recent conversation: Infinity Edge)
  • Mind map (cluster) with the character and his problem or situation at the center
  • Free-write – see what bubbles up
  • Daydream, but focused
  • Collect “scrapbook” stuff (physical or online) – pictures of people who look like your character, collections of things he likes, scenes that evoke the character’s “feel”
  • Move character to a new location, time, genre and see what happens
  • Believe he is real. Treat him as such. Attend to him. What’s there?
  • Start small, non-intrusively – would you ask a stranger to reveal secrets at first meeting?
  • Start writing the story – let the story draw your character out – no pressure to KEEP the writing.
  • Take the character out of his comfort zone (Shy? make him sing in front of others. Used to center stage? put him in a long line policed by pacing, barely contained armed guards)

 

I know! How about finding a magic lantern and asking a genii to help? Who knows what details will float in if you try that method!

arabiannights

Heaven knows I need this list. Characterization is my weakness (or at least ONE of my weaknesses). I have snippets of stories (categorized as “Fiction Going Nowhere) with characters called nothing more than “he” or “she.” Seriously they’re almost non-people, just carriers of Story. Sheesh!

I think that kind of thing won’t fly far in the long term, so… here I am, working at making better characters.

If you’re a writer, too, and interested in a much more detailed and informative take on characterization, I recommend Holly Lisle’s How to Create a Character Clinic. It’s to the point, filled with helpful exercises and… and it’s been far too long since I read it! I think that’s now on the top of my list! [scurries off to read it]

*** How about you? Do you have any tried and true tricks? Any character-revealing practices you rely on? Share them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list!***

***

Official Stuff

 

between the lines: fiction from real life stories

Last week I started the first in a new group of stories. I’m liking how small projects both seem (and are proving to be) attainable goals as I’m finishing up my first short story anthology. Shifted Visions, will be released in 2015 but I’m already under way with the beginnings of another collection as well.

The new group is very loosely based on family anecdotes. I know, it sounds boring, right? But I decided to just let fiction reign and so while they’re founded on a few factual details, the stories have taken precedence… and I’m working hard to make sure they’re worthwhile!

The first one in the group surprised me. It showed me it really is possible to let real-world details provide inspiration but let the imagination take over (and dig deep) for something even more rich. I hadn’t realized, until I sat down with the premise, that I had anything to write about having lived in Thailand over twenty-five years ago. Originally, I thought I shouldn’t set the story there – would I do the culture and the people justice? Could I carry off a story set both in a time (1950s) and a place (north central Thailand) that I’m really not profoundly familiar with? But that was what the story demanded and I accepted the challenge.

I’m pleased with the story in its first draft form and I think it succeeded in turning an off-hand comment said to me by my host-grandmother into a well developed story about a family able to give generously to each other even in a difficult time.

My year in Thailand was incredibly trying for me – and I imagine, for those around me – as I flailed about with the language and in a milieu of cultural practices and assumptions I was completely oblivious to at best, and unable to comprehend at worst. In all honesty, it was a terrible year. Even thinking about it now brings up a residue of all the awkward and embarrassing situations I was in, all the ways I felt like I was screwing up, felt constantly observed in my failings, and stood outside any sense of 20141214_101909belonging. All while trying to smile.

So, the fact that I wrote a tender little story about a Thai girl and her brother – and a bicycle – makes me really happy and I think: maybe that year wasn’t a total bust after all.

I don’t have any of my journals from my time there (one was conveniently “lost” by someone in my host family, the other I threw away in frustration over all the things I couldn’t write in it because I knew it was likely to be read) – so over the years details have lost their sharpness and the observations I made about the country and the people have receded. Only they haven’t, quite, and they show up in the story.

I thought it would be nice to spice up this post with a few photos of Thailand, so I looked through what I have and out of a grand total of one hundred and forty-three pictures, all of poor quality, there weren’t any that look like they describe anything in my story.

:(

So, instead I leave you with my on-the-spot awkwardness and smiles (that’s me, front far left. With coconuts.).

20141214_101746

And a Santa Claus (awkwardly smiling) to fit the season.20141214_101828

wayward words, where have you gone?

dry hills

 

“You only dreamed you wrote it,” said my ever pragmatic oldest daughter in response to my frustrated sigh. I’d spent a good part of the morning rifling through stacks of papers, flipping through the spiral notebook that I’ve been slowly filling with essay drafts and fiction snippets. But there was no sign of the story I could have sworn was right there among the other ink-filled pages – other than an initial, mind-mapped rush of images that had led me into a world, a scene, a brief moment of my characters’ lives. The story itself, that I clearly remembered having written, was gone.

“Write it again,” said my academic husband who could probably re-sculpt a lost paper out of his notes and citations. “That’s not the way it works,” I said, feeling the few remaining shreds of the story float through my mind, cloud-like and a little wispy. It had been one of those things that just appeared. In the basement, actually, on my way up from putting the laundry in the washer. I’d floundered about a little that morning (not an unusual state for me) and had finally remembered to just up and ask my Muse-mind what he was interested in.

“Lonely houses,” he returned. Lonely houses? Hmmm, interesting, I’d thought. And then he gave me the rest in a flash, literally in images and sensations. The unrepeatability lies in the perception – an all-senses go! moment, barely contained in instances like this, until I write the “thing” down. I promise, I wrote it down. I have no idea if it was any good because though I think I re-read it once, it went the way of everything I’ve written lately, which is to just sit and wait for me to do something with it. In the notebook.

I wish remembering it here would bring it back but all it’ll do is sound second-hand, like a half-heard joke minus the punchline. The point was the experience of the flash, the writing it in that sometimes-entered “I’m in the thick of it” almost-trance, and then, the written thing itself. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be in the notebook and I feel a little lost without it.

Maybe that’s the essence of lonely houses, too. Once alive, full of life even, situated in a particular place. When they lose their people and their purpose all that’s left is a feeling of what was. Accessible only to the one or few who knew them and recognize the rest of what’s left behind as remnants.

Here, as memorial to this lost, lonely house, is the remaining foundation of its story, found only on the mind-map on which is sketched some plumbing work under gutted cabinets, the walls and all the broken windows (beware of nails and fragments, loose wires and run-on sentences):

  • “my lonely house,” he says…it is, in its own way, beautiful though dying and doing so without grace, just dilapidation
  • not the ones in towns but the ones forgotten by most, off in the hills in the summer
  • the whine of cicadas – scream, buzz, shrill, drilling summer through your ears. Then they stop.
  • still, late afternoon air, hours before an evening breeze can remind you that at least it makes its way toward the coast
  • the live oaks do not move, do not whisper. Their shade, lined with prickled leaf-litter, does not comfort, it crackles.
  • little girl comes out from the side, stays in the shade. Does not sigh, merely squats near a stone, picks it up idly, rolls it from palm to palm, puts it down and looks off into the distance. Mama is sick again.
  • nothing, of course, is watered in the yard. The faucet does not work. Anyway, there is no garden so what would be the point of water? It would only benefit the star-thistles which scratch the calves of girls who venture past the house shadow in their sundresses. Better not to wear a sundress in the sun anyway: sunburned shoulders and a little poison oak blister where she carelessly let the daughter of the mother-of-all-poison-oak bushes touch her where it reaches across the foot-path edge on the way round the west ridge – away from the dirt road – out where the view of the valley unfolds.
  • behind their old car a silver sedan from town clicks and pings and its engine fan shuts off with a finality not heard in the conversation in the house until her father says, “we can’t pay for that, and anyway, she’ll be fine in a day or two – always is and she doesn’t need to go to the hospital.”
  • an airplane bores its way through the pale blue sky and is gone
  • she goes up the cement steps to the unshaded hollow-core front door, opens it and slips in before the murmured voices can rise above the stillness outside. She closes the door so nothing can escape.
  • far off in the distance, unseen by the girl or her mother, clouds gather themselves and somewhere – somewhere else, it rains, out of season.

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image source: Michael W. Murphy on flickr (creative commons license)