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September 2012
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November 2012

Is Your Writing Voice Masked?

Everystockphoto_204443_mYeah, so, that headline is a clever attempt to tie this post into Halloween.  In case my efforts are obtuse, mask=costume=Halloween.  I know, I know, a bit labored. Except that writing voice is an important subject. (Along the same Halloween theme, last week I wrote about Fear and Focus.)

And writing voice is a topic that sometimes causes writers angst.

Because everyone wants a unique voice.  Every writer wants to write in one, and every agent and editor wants to discover one.  After all, there's really nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes, so  the ability to write in a fresh way is truly important.

However, like all desirable things, voice can be elusive.  You put words on the page and they sound blah and dull.  You despair.  You wrestle with the words a bit more and they sound even duller.  You despair some more.  And then slink off for a little nip.  Thus ending your writing session.

Ah, but it doesn't have to be like this.  There are ways to encourage your natural voice to come out.  How, you ask?  Let me tell you how I think it naturally arises, in a two-step process:

1.  Glumping, as in glumping it all on the page, letting the words flow out of you in a mad rush.  This can actually seem counter-intuitive to finding your voice, because let's face it, when you write like this, sometimes what comes out is crap.  But within that dung are jewels to be found, and these jewels continue glimmers of your true voice.  The more you allow yourself to write, just write, the more these tiny glints of voice will shine.

2.  Honing.  After the first draft, wherein you glump, you write another draft and another.  As many as it takes to get the story right.  And then you get to the point where it's time to tinker, when you are looking at every single word and every bit of grammar.  This is where you polish your voice.  A wonderful editor, Chris Reardon says that "writers smother their voice in ineffective writing habits."  Those habits would be things like using a lot of adverbs (I, myself, am the queen of them), writing in passive voice, using cliches, and so on.  Learn what your bad habits are and edit them out. 

As you can see, the process is one of expansion and contraction.  You throw the words on the page and then you go through and edit every single one.  And, most importantly, you remember always that these are two very different processes and keep them separate. 

Et voila, a sparkly, shiny voice will appear.

Do you worry about voice? What do you do to encourage it?

 Photo by clarita.

Fear and Focus

Photoxpress_1687829We don't always think of fear and focus at the same time, but there's very good reason to pair them.

Focus.  It's what we all desire, what gets the writing done.  Because the words don't go on the page without it.

Fear.  It's often what keeps us from focusing.

The kinds of fears we writers and creative types deal with are the insidious ones.  They may very well be so insidious that we don't even recognize them as fears.  Instead, fears can masquerade as a lack of focus. Have you ever told yourself any of the following when it came time to write?

--I don't need to work on the book today

--The kitchen floor needs washing.  I better do it now, instead of writing.

--I need to check my email.

--Writing is too hard, I'll look at Facebook instead

Perhaps some of the following fears are hiding behind this sudden desire to do something, anything, other than write:

--Not knowing what to write

--Not knowing how to write

--Going deep

--Not being good enough

--Being too good

--Putting yourself and your words out in the world.

Interestingly, dealing with issues of focus takes immediate care of many, if not all, of these fears.  Why? Because choosing to focus is choosing to be in the moment.  Choosing fear is opting to be mired in the past or worry about the future.  You can't do either when you firmly in the present.

So herewith, some strategies for both fear and focus.

1.  Remember that you are enough and have enough for what you need in this present moment.  You have all the tools you need to write or create.

2.  Have a curiosity about life instead of assuming an air of knowing everything.  Be present to the amazement of life.

3.  Move before you feel ready.  Send that story out even though you know it's not perfect, commit to writing a novel even though you don't know how.  Such leaps keep our creative selves alive and are one antidote to fear.

4. Stand for yourself.  Take responsibility for yourself and your work.  You committed to writing, now do it.  For some weird reason this always helps me with my fears.

5.  Meditate.  Everyone recommends it for a reason.  It really does help.

7.  Develop a morning ritual and/or spiritual practice that grounds and centers you.

8.  Do ONE thing at a time.  Multi-tasking is death to focus.  My tried and true trick is to set a timer for 30 minutes and only write during that time period.

9.  Work hard, play hard.  Focus and concentrate.  Then take a break and have some fun! 

10.  Don't forget physical exercise.  Move your body in some way, whether you like to take walks, do yoga or Qi Gong, swim or ride bikes.  Sometimes we just need to wear the old brain out to get rid of our fears!

Do you have strategies to accomplish focus and banish fear?  Please share.

 Photo from Photoexpress.

A Short Post on Commas

I'll be honest.  This is a short post on commas because I don't know much about them.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I'm a writing teacher, coach and soon-to-be-published novelist.  I've got me an MFA.

And commas still confuse me.

I tend to put them in manuscripts, both mine and my students'.

But I noticed that the editor of my novel took a lot of my commas out.

This morning I worked on a student packet that needed commas after clauses of sentences.  So that meant, of course, that I had to explain to my student why I put the commas in.

And I will admit that I was pretty hopeless at it.  (If you want an extreme emphasis on grammar, don't ever hire me.  If you want great ideas about story, character, and setting, I'm your gal.)

Commas, to me, are like art: I know when they go in a sentence, but I don't necessarily know why.  So here's the explanation I offered my student and the one I offer you:

Read the sentence out loud and any time you pause, put a comma there.

That's it.  That's all I've got.

Maybe you have something better?  Some general piece of advice about commas?  A nifty site that reveals all the secrets of the beast?  Please comment.

**And if you do want to hire me, here's the scoop.  I've got amazing clients doing great work at the moment.  Wouldn't you like to be one of them?


On Writing By Hand

Every morning I wake and lie in bed for a moment, my mind scanning the day ahead.  And then it clicks: I'm writing! More specifically, I'm working on a novel and the writing is going well.

This thought fills me with excitement and I jump out of bed.  (Delicately, so as not to shake the house.)

I drink a large glass of water, (12 ounces to be exact), then grab a cup of coffee and head to my current writing spot: a comfy chair in the corner of the living room.

And then I write the novel. 

By hand.

The old-fashioned way.

I work in various colors of ink, depending on which pen I grab.  All my words go into the same spiral-bound notebook, though I'm nearly finished with the first and will need to start a new one soon.

Some days I write three pages, others I write a paragraph.  Some days I read over scenes and add to them, others I think deep thoughts and then write. 

The point is, I'm making steady progress.

Sometimes I start out working on one scene and get an inspiration for a different one.  So I work on that.  My spiral is filled with notes and directions to myself, such as: "1A Scene in Car," or "3B Goes After Scene in Restaurant."  I'm doing my best to stay organized as I write, but this is one of the disadvantages of writing by hand.  And it's also one of the things I love--the sheer crazy rawness of the actual pages, with addendums and arrows and additions and crossed out words.

I laugh whenever I think about or working on my novel in this way.  I laugh when I discuss it with other people (as I have been doing with clients and in my Get Your Novel Written Now class).  I don't know why my novel is coming out this way.  I only know that it is and that when I sat at the computer to write it, the words didn't flow, period. 

And now they are flowing, so who am I to argue with my muse?

I'm experiencing the pure joy of writing.  I feel freer writing this draft in this manner than I have in ages, and I'm allowing myself to go directions I wouldn't otherwise go.  (As for the quality, who knows?  I'm not worrying about that at the moment.)

By the way, during my writing sessions my husband wanders the house, getting ready for work.  My asthmatic dog, who is over a hundred in people years, coughs and hacks.  My cats meow.  The radio is on.  My friend texts.  All this is happening as I write and still I keep going.  I could easily move to the chair in my quiet office buy my muse demands I sit in the living room.

And so I do, and marvel at how different this process is from the last time I wrote a novel. 

Every book is different.  Everyone's writing process varies.  I can give you tips on what works for me and others most often, but to be successful you've got to find your own way.

Find yours and get started.

How about it?  What's your process?  Does it stay the same or vary?

Beyond Free Writing

Letter-texture-imagination-43303-lI'm a huge fan of free writing ( writing to prompts, when you set a timer and write, not stare off into space, not think deep thoughts, write, just letting your hand move across the page), and I recommend it as a practice all the time.

I even have a page on my blog devoted to prompts.

And yet....

Sometimes free writing does not serve writers well.

Sometimes free writing can take you away from the subject at hand.  Sometimes free writing is hard to reconcile with your work in progress.  Sometimes it can feel silly.  And when writing time is so precious, who wants to take time to write on some random topic?

Or what if you're a new writer, free writing away, and suddenly you feel the desire to shape one of your free writes into a story?  What then?  How do you move beyond free writing?

Here are some suggestions:

--Use a sentence, line of dialogue or description from your current WIP (work in progress) as the prompt.  This can open up all kinds of avenues for your story.

--Use a random prompt, but hold the idea of your WIP in your head as you write.  I find that when I'm engrossed in a WIP, I automatically default to writing about it when free writing.

--After a free write, go through and highlight all the sentences you like.  Then use these as prompts. (Alternatively, you can cross out everything you dislike and use what's left.)

--Try transferring your free writes to the computer.   I always find this step pushes me to rewrite, revise and shape.  Before you know it, a story might emerge.

--Challenge yourself to write flash fiction during your free writes.  By letting the words flow freely and attempting to create a full story, you'll train yourself to think in story.

--Do a free write in the voice of your character.  Pretend it is her writing to a prompt instead of you.

--Free write a description of something in the room you're sitting in.  This marries free flowing words and directed writing.

That's all I've got for now.   But I bet my wise and wonderful readers have some good ideas.  How do you move beyond free writing to crafting your words?

My students and clients use free writing and all kinds of other exercises to get words on the page.  And it works!  I've got people ripping through books and stories at the moment, writing like crazy.  Wouldn't you like to be one of them?  Email me and let's talk.

Photo by svilen001.

Baby Steps to Writing a Book

Beach_clouds_wind_244169_lI've been having some issues with my left knee, which sometimes makes it difficult to walk.  Now, I've been a walker for 30 years, so this is not a happy thing for me.  But I put a brace on and perservere as best I can. 

My favorite walking routine begins with a hill.  My knee doesn't like hills or stairs much.  And, probably if this hill were further along my route, it wouldn't be such a big deal.  But the hill is at the start of my journey and the knee is still stiff and resistant.  So the hill looms large.

The other day as I walked up it, I had an epiphany: I don't have to do the damn hill at my usual long, fast stride.   I can do it slowly.  I can take baby steps.

And guess what?  Slowing down and taking smaller steps is all that is necessary to get up the hill without bothering my knee. 

The same thing is true in writing.   Take writing a book, for example.  The thought of it is daunting to many people.  All those pages!  All those sentences!  All those words! How do you go from idea in your head to finished manuscript?

You do it with baby steps, that's how.

Books get written one word at a time.  I know, duh.  But we forget this. 

So, how can you create some baby steps for your book?  What follows are some suggestions for a loose path to follow. (My creative muse demands that everything be somewhat loose.  He doesn't like being boxed in by routine or rigidity).

1.  Brainstorm Topics.  Make a list of potential topics.  If you're writing fiction, make a list of potential scenes, characters, and settings.  This list doesn't have to be organized or in order.  It's just a starting point.

2. Freewrite.  Now that you've got a list, you can start writing from it. Don't overthink it, don't have an emotional reaction to the topics on your list, just write to them.  Set a timer and write for 20 minutes without stopping.  By the way, this process will likely create more topics.  Add them to your list.

3.  Stay Organized.  You can be organized without being rigid.  Keep your writing in a folder or binder or file on your computer, categorized in a way that makes sense to you. 

4. Start to Shape.  Now that you've developed some material, you might want to start shaping the flow of the book.  You can make piles of finished free writes on the floor, or write topics on index cards and shuffle them about.  Again, this process will generate more ideas because you'll see where the holes are.

5.  Put it All Together.  When you've exhausted your list of topics, and filled in all the missing pieces that #4 revealed, see if you can't make yourself an outline of how you think it goes together.

6.  Rewrite.  Now its time to make it pretty.  Or have it make sense--remember that first drafts can be crazy, wild and free.  In this step you think more of the reader and how best to present it to her. Bear in mind that this step is often multiple steps, because most books get revised several times before heading into the world.

7.  Submit.  Now it's time to send your baby out!  Which means you have to quit clutching it to your chest and let go of it.  Yes, you really do.  Research agents and editors, write yourself a kick-ass query letter and start sending it out.

I know, I know.  I make it all sound so simple.  Obviously, writing a book is a bit more complex than this.  But, in truth, this process I've outlined is the bottom line of how a book gets written using baby steps.

So what are you waiting for?  Go write!

How do you take baby steps to write?

Image by mailsparky.

Priming the Writing Pump

Priming the pump--an old cliche, right? Yet sometimes cliches have things to teach us. I've been thinking about priming the writing pump lately because I've had a successful experience of it.

Pump_station_rusted_893111_hMy idea of priming the pump is doing a bit of pre-work to get a flow going.  But I decided to look up the exact meaning.  Here it is:

Encourage the growth or action of something, as in Marjorie tried to prime the pump by offering some new issues for discussion. In the late 1800s this expression originally was used for pouring liquid into a pump to expel the air and make it work. In the 1930s it was applied to government efforts to stimulate the economy and thereafter was applied to other undertakings.

(Definition from, a cool site I just discovered.)

And here's how it works for writing.  You're stuck.  You're blocked.  You don't know where to go next.  Your first inclination is to stare off into space, wondering how you'll ever write again.  But then, being the wise writer that you are, you decide to do things a bit differently. So you make some notes about the scene you're working on.  Or you write something else.  You do some research.  You prime the pump.

I had an enlightening example of this in my own writing life last week.  Since finishing the Emma Jean edits and my trip to Nashville, I've been trying to get back to working on the new novel, trying being the operative word.  Progress was minimal because I was stuck on a scene, as in I didn't know where to go with it next.

I made some notes on it.  Jotted down what few ideas I had.  Nothing loosened the grip of my block on this scene. Finally--I'm a bit slow sometimes--I gave myself permission to write out of chronology.  (I did this earlier in the writing of this book but went back to my old stuffy ways.)  I was actually excited about writing a scene coming up in a few more chapters. 

And a funny thing happened as soon as I began writing that scene.  Ideas and images about the scene I'd been stuck on flooded in.  So back I went, roaring through the original scene.  Plus I had good stuff going for the new scene as well.

That, my friends is the power of priming the pump.  So this is my current motto:

Writing something, anything, is better than writing nothing. 

And now excuse me, I have a novel to get back to writing.  (Actually, I have an editing job to finish.  And a newsletter to write.  And a manuscript to read.  But I'm going to find time in there somewhere to work on my novel because I'm excited about it.)

What about you?  How do you prime the pump? Have you had any similar experiences?

Speaking of newsletters, and we were, a paragraph ago, you might want to sign up for mine.  You also get a free copy of my Ebook, Jump Start Your Book With a Vision Board.  The form is to the right of this column.  And thank you.



The very cool photo is from iboy_daniel.

The Writer's Guide to Happiness

Fetr-fitr-ramadhan-53473-hWhat does it take for you, the writer, to be happy?

This is a question much on my mind lately.  What does it take for me to be happy?

Does having my novel about to be published make me happy? Yes, very.

Does not having time to work on my next novel as I finish a big editing job make me happy?  No, not at all.

Would I sacrifice the editing job in order to have time to write?

Now that's a thorny question, because its the editing job that is paying the bills this month.  Ah, thorny questions.  Don't we love them? Yet in the process of pondering and answering these questions, I've come to some conclusions about what makes me happy as a writer, which I offer below.

But before we go there, let me remind you of one thing: the Dalai Lama himself says that the purpose of life is to be happy.  Ergo, the goal of being a happy writer is an important spiritual motivation.  So quit feeling guilty about it and see if you agree with what it takes to make a writer happy:

Process.  Or, to put it another way, writing.  Being involved in the actual process of writing is the single most important thing to make a writer happy.  Obvious, right? I know, I know.  But sometimes we get so engrossed in the peripheal stuff that we forget this.  If you need some help writing regularly, I've got seven practices that will help.

Balance.  Sitting at the computer and writing all day makes Charlotte a dull girl.  And a broke one.   I tell myself I'd love nothing better than to write all day, but when the opportunity presents itself, I procrastinate.  I need variety--a little of this, a little of that.  Working on a huge editing project makes me long for my novel writing.  And vice versa.  It's all about the balance.  There's also the idea that writers need something to write about--as in a life well lived.  You've got to do a bit of both, with the trick being not too much of any one thing.

Support. The writer's life can be a lonely one.  Something that can help it not be quite so lonely is finding a community of like-minded writers.  I wrote about this topic last week, in a post you can read about here.  Never underestimate the happiness that connecting with other writers can bring.

Joy.  What brings you joy?  And why do I ask?  Because joy feeds writing.  For too long we've believed the opposite, that only angst-ridden writers produced deep work.  It's time to put that outdated paradigm to rest.  Joy is what gets my creative juices flowing. And having my creative juices flow makes me happy.  So what brings you joy?  Watching the sunrise through the trees? Taking your dog for a walk? Spending time with your family? Swimming in the ocean?  Only you know.  And only you can make sure you spend time in doing what's joyful for you.

Rest. A rested writer is a happy writer.  An unrested writer is a cranky, anxiety-filled disaster waiting to happen.  Don't buy into the old, stupid paradigm of the over-the-top writer staying up all night only to crash for days after.  Rest--eight hours of sleep at the least--fuels a consistent writing practice.  And that will make you happy.

So, did I get it right?  What would you add or subtract?  What makes you a happy writer?

**The one thing that makes me happier than anything is writing novels.  My Get Your Novel Written Now class starts next week, join me?  Read more about it here.

Photo by Hamed Saber

On Not Knowing What to Write

Seed_weeds_weed_242627_lI wanted to write a blog post this morning, but my mind was empty of ideas.

This is an unusual situation for me.  Usually my brain is brimming with thoughts to share on writing.  Not today.

Was it because I just returned home from Nashville last week?  Because I'd finished the greater part of a big editing job? Maybe my brain was dead because I'd turned in the Emma Jean edits before my trip?

Who can say?  And does it really matter when the end result is the same? (To ask why, I've learned, is often useless speculation.  What matters is what.  As in, what can I do about this situation?)

I assigned myself thought exercises.  Told my brain to cook up a topic.  That didn't work.  So I pulled out the little paisley notebook I use for blog ideas.  Actually found one I hadn't used and started working on it. 

Until I realized I really didn't care much about the topic at the moment and my heart wasn't in it.

And then my friend Sandra tweeted a link to this post.  (Because, of course, when the muse is absent you go look for it on Twitter.  Right? You do, don't you?) And I thought, why not dive right in and see what happens?

And here I am, I've made it this far.  And at this very moment, my thoughts are turning to control.  And how much of it I unwittingly exert over my creativity.  How rarely I allow myself to plunge onto the page, unfettered, as I have with this post. 

For instance, I always start a post knowing what I'm going to write about (except for today).

I always have at least a starting point when I start work on my novel.

Hmmm.  It occurs to me that this is why morning pages are so good for me--I just open up my Moleskine and begin to write.  And whatever comes out, comes out.  Of course, nobody sees that except for me.  So the control gets exerted when my writing is for public consumption.

Which makes sense--and yet.  And yet, I think I could benefit from more unfettered writing in my life.  More journal entries.  More crazy fun flash fiction.  More sitting down and having at the novel without worrying about exactly where its going.

And so I vow to try to loosen up a bit.  I'll keep you posted.

What about you?  Do you tightly control your writing or let it rip?

Photo by hberends.