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January 2013

On Reading My Own Work: The Issue of Sentimentality

Book-books-collection-415-lTwo stories:

Story number one

I'm sitting at my computer, laughing.  My husband asks me what I'm chuckling about.

"Oh, I'm proofing my novel.  I'm not sure if this is good or bad, but Emma Jean makes me laugh, even though I wrote her."

I've gone through edits, and copy edits, and now one round of proofing, and every time it makes me laugh.  Every time, reading the novel makes me remember how much I loved writing it.  How much I love my heroine, Emma Jean.  How happy I am that the book is being published.

Story number two

This year for Christmas presents, I printed out copies of my MFA novel, Language of Trees, for my daughter and daughter-in-law, because they hounded me for it at their request.  As the chapters came off the printer, I read bits and pieces of it.  Some of it I liked, but some of it made me cringe.  And now when I picture the girls reading it, I cringe anew.

So what's the difference in these two stories?

Well for one thing, Emma Jean has been rewritten, revised and edited within an inch of her life.  Though I worked and worked at writing Language of Trees, I could never quite get it to hang together.  (I'm hoping to change that this year, and I'm giving serious thought to going the indie publishing route with it.)

But here's what I believe the major cringe-worthy factor is: sentimentality.

The best definition of sentimentality I've ever read is that it is unearned emotion.

Language of Trees still has a lot of moments of unearned emotion that have not been edited out.  The kind of thing that makes you wince when you read it.  Oh God, I just remembered a party scene from the novel wherein all the men in attendance fall head-over-heels in admiration of Collie, our heroine.  Ouch. This is embarrassing to me in retrospect because it is a sentimental moment.  Collie has done nothing to earn their ardor but appear at the party.  Unearned emotion.

And, if I'm honest, when I ponder the novel I'm currently at work on, there's lots of instances of sentimentality.  In my defense, it's still a first draft.  The one with holes big enough to drive a truck through.  (I can't remember who told me that metaphor, but whoever you are, thank you.  I love it.)  And some of those holes are unearned emotion.

So I have to admit that printing out Language of Trees was a good exercise for me, pointing out, for future reference, something I want to keep a closer eye out for.  And it gives me a road map for rewriting it.  I can start with the places that make me cringe and go from there.

How does sentimentality tend to present itself in your work?  Is it an issue for you or not?

**If you're struggling with issues of sentimentality or other writing craft problems, make 2013 your year to go full out with your writing.  Consider gifting yourself a writing coach.  There's no better way to make fast progress with your writing!

Photo by lusi.

We Are the Light

Lights_christmas_light_226589_lWe've made it to the eve of another Christmas.

Not only that, we've sailed through what some feared would be the end of the world and many others felt would be the dawning of a new world, with a different consciousness.

There's been quite a bit of darkness along the way.  Recent shootings here in the United States have left many of us with a heavy heart.  The first thing I thought when I woke this morning was: it's Christmas Eve!  And the next thing I thought about was all the families that won't have their children to celebrate with this year.

The other night, my friend Rachel came over for dinner and she and my husband and I did a ritual to mark the passing of the Mayan calendar.  We burned what we wanted to release and wrote down and strung up into a prayer flag what we wanted to manifest.  And while we were doing all this, we talked about dark and light:

  • How one doesn't exist without the other.
  • How it's the darkest time of the year, but as of Saturday, the light is returning.
  • How some believe that there's lots of light flooding into the planet right now but we aren't quite ready to receive it, so thus there's even more darkness than usual.
  • How it's all a matter of balance.

I'm left with one overwhelming feeling this season: that we are the light, and we must be the light for each other.  That the only way to truly change the world is to change what's within and we do that one person at a time.

And so this holiday season, let's all be the light for each other.  Let's practice being kind, and compassionate, and non-judgmental, and open and eager to serve.  Choose how you want to be in this world, how you want to show up for yourself and others, and then be that way.

One thing that I am in droves is grateful.  Grateful for so much in my life, my writing, my family, my friends.  But more to the point here, I'm grateful for you.  For those of you who have been reading me forever or you who just landed on the blog recently.  I'm deeply grateful for you.  My goal is to be a light in the world of writing and creativity and it's my readers who make this possible.

So thank you.

And Merry Christmas--or Happy Holidays, depending on what you celebrate.


Photo by rueben4eva.

12 Ways to Kick-Start Your Writing

We are writers. Comedy-funny-failure-746-l

And writers write.  No matter what, we write.  No matter if the world seems like it is going crazy or if we're going nuts within, our job is to write. To pour it all out on the page.  To be chroniclers and bear witness.

And yet.

Sometimes this writing, this flinging words at the page, is beyond us.  And no matter how hard we want to do it, we just don't seem to be able to.  The words won't come.  We can't drag ourselves to the page.  We sit at the computer and stare off into space. 

But here's the conundrum: when you're a writer, the only thing that makes you feel better--the only thing that makes you feel like yourself again--is to write.  So when you're not writing, you feel even worse.  Oh, it's a vicious, mean cycle, I tell you.  And the only way out is to get started writing again.

So, herewith, I present you with 12 ideas to kick-start your writing.  The only thing you have to do is experiment with them and see which one works for you.  Promise me you'll do that next time you're stalled and not just sit pretending to write when you're really playing Spider Solitaire.  Because one of these ideas will lead you back home again.

1.  Switch it up.  Write by hand if you're used to doing drafts on the computer, or vice versa.  Every time I get stalled on my novel, I switch to writing in a spiral notebook, et voila, the words flow once again.  It's magical.

2.  Choose a random word from the dictionary.  Combine it with another word or use it as a one-word prompt.  It works great if it's a word you don't know because then your mind can go in any direction it wants.

3.   Use a sentence box.  This takes a bit of advance preparation.  Cut apart old manuscripts into sentences and put them in a bag or a box, then draw one when you get stuck and use it as a prompt.  You can also do this with words and draw several, then string them together.

4.  Pick a prompt.  The key with prompts is to pick one, any one, without thought or emotional investment.  And then just write like crazy.  Don't try to stick to the topic of the prompt, just write and see where you end up.  I've got tons of prompts on this page.

5.  Use the first line of a favorite poem as a prompt.

6.  Use the last line of your WIP as a prompt.

7.  Re-read your recent work.  If this doesn't get you back in the flow, go over notes you've taken.  Look through notebooks you've compiled about the work.  Maybe something will strike you in a new way.

8.  Read a book on writing.  Often I don't finish reading writing books because I get so many ideas from them I go to the page and never get back to the book.

9.  Draw a card for guidance.  You can use a Tarot deck or one of the gazillion types of guidance decks from various authors.  I once went to a psychic who used a regular old deck of cards.  Have no idea what she saw in them, but the reading was fantastic!

10. Create a ritual.  Light a candle, put on some soothing music, drink a glass of water--whatever works for you.

11.  Cut out images to inspire you.  I describe this in more details in my free Ebook, Jumpstart Your Book With a Vision Board, which you can download to the right.

12.  Doodle to get your mind going.  I'm a doodler.  I doodle when I listen to lectures or in meetings.  It doesn't mean I'm not paying attention--to the contrary, it keeps me anchored in the moment.  Lately I've been reading about the positive effects of doodling, and I think it's beneficial for writing, too.

Those are some of the ideas that work for me.  How about you?  Do you have any sure-fire kick-starters that you rely on to get you going again?  Leave a comment and share.

Photo by robchivers.

26 Acts of Kindness, One of Which is a Giveaway


Update:  Amber Hart is the recepient of the coaching session!  Amber, email me and we'll discuss details.

For the entire Christmas season, I've walked past the Salvation Army bellringer by the front door of my grocery store.   He's a cheerful sort and always greets me.  I smile and say "hi" back.  And I shrug and say "Sorry, I can't contribute because I never carry cash." And then I walk on.  I go about my way, feeling guilty but not guilty enough to do anything about it.

Until yesterday.  When I finally went out of my way to make sure I had cash I could contribute and I ran back to put $20 in the bucket.


Because of Sandy Hook.

Because it was my first act of kindness to honor the memory of the children who died there.

Let me explain.

Yesterday, newswoman Ann Curry tweeted her #20Acts idea--that each of us could commit to doing 20 acts of kindness to memoralize the Sandy Hook children.  I thought it was a great idea which would aid me in turning the helplessness I felt into some kind of action.  And so I tweeted about it and then went to take a shower.

Upon my return, I had a tweet from a producer at NBC News, saying he wanted to talk to me about my tweet.  This may be hard for you to believe, but in many ways I'm a very private person.  And the thought of being on TV terrifies me.  Is there a stronger word than terrify?  Because if so, that's the word I'd actually choose.  However, I had just written and published my post on choosing the word fearless as my word for 2013. 

And so, heart pounding, I emailed him.  My phone rang literally three minutes later and I had a nice chat with this man.  He was working on a story on the #20Acts for the news that night or the next.  But, here's the deal.  He ended up not interviewing me, because I hadn't done anything yet.  Granted, it was still morning in my time zone, but I didn't even have any plans formulated that I could share with him.  (I hasten to add that he didn't exactly tell me this, but I inferred it by our conversation.)

How lame is that?

Pretty damn lame. 

And so I resolved to follow through.  And I knew immediately that my first act would be to finally, finally, finally, give that bell ringer some money.

I've been thinking about acts of kindness every since and I've realized that in a weird way, they are linked to being fearless.  Because sometimes being kind feels scary.  What if the person you're being kind to rejects your overtures?  What if you end up looking silly?  What if it makes you feel uncomfortable?

What if we all make an effort to find out if these fears are true?  (Because, you know, they really aren't.)

This morning I thought and thought about what my next act of kindness would be.  And I realized that I don't have much to give, but I could give what I do have--and that is a coaching session.  I will read up to 20 pages and discuss them with you in a phone conversation.  Or we can talk about overcoming writer's block.  Or whatever you want.

I wish I could give a coaching session to every one of you.  But I can't.  So I'll choose one person in a random drawing from the comments.   I'm asking you to leave a comment detailing an idea or two for an act of kindness that you can perform.  This will give the rest of us ideas, too. I'll draw a name on Friday and announce the recipient on the blog that morning.

I look forward to reading what you plan to do.

PS:  Many people are now changing the hash tag to #26Acts of Kindness, to also honor the teachers who died and I'm following suit. But in the interest of journalistic integrity, I do note that the original idea from Ann was #20Acts.

Note: only the commenters who actually write about an act of kindness will be entered in the drawing.  The idea is to spread this and encourage all of us to take part.  You don't need to have done the actual act yet, but please plan on doing it for certain.

Photo by C.P. Storm

It's One Powerful Word For the New Year

For the last two years, I've been in the habit of choosing three words to guide my next year.  (You can read the posts explaining my word choices for 2012 here, a check-in post here, and the words for 2011 here. For another blogger's take on the process, check out Sandra's post at Always Well Within.) 

But this year I'm doing something a bit different--choosing one word.  That's because this one word has been pulling at me for a month, insisting it is the word, and the one and only word that will mark my 2013.  In general, I am a "more is better" kind of person, and such is the case with choosing words for the year--why choose one when choosing three is so much better?

My word won't let me do that this year.  And so, with no further introduction, here is that pesky word that won't let go of me:


I want to be:

Fearless on the page.

Fearless in my personal life.

Fearless in my career.

A Course in Miracles says that you've got two choices: love or fear.  So, by definition, this year is going to be about offering a whole lot of love.  But to me, the opposite of fearless goes even deeper than love, if that is possible.

To me, the opposite of fear is faith.

Faith in my ability to splash words on the page.  Faith that this is the bottom line of what I need to do in the world.

Faith that good will triumph over evil.  That somehow, someway, we will transmute horrendous events like the Newtown Sandy Hook massacre.

Faith that love really does trump fear.

I'm not at all sure I know how to be fearless, and I'm guessing that's why the voice within was so insistent that I choose this word for 2013.  Because lately it seems that little things have made me anxious.  That fussing over my writing is easier than just letting the words flow.  That obsessing over the possibility that something bad might happen is more common than enjoying the moment.

And, somehow, that wise voice within knows that striving for a practice of fearlessness is the antidote to all of the above.  I'm not about to go jump out of an airplane or climb Mt. Everest.   The kind of fearlessness that most interests me is the kind where I meet the demons within.  The ones who say the words I put on the page are silly.  That nobody will think my novel is funny.  The ones that remind me how many other talented writers there are in the world.

Yeah, those.  Responding to them fearlessly is my number one task this year.

So that's my word for the year.  Are you choosing a word or words for 2013?  Please share it or any thoughts you might have about this in the comments.

***By the way, if putting words on the page is a goal for you in 2013, you might consider giving yourself the gift of coaching.  My current clients are accomplishing great things.  Wouldn't you like to join them?  Check out my coaching page here.  It's a wonderful present for yourself.

When to Write in Scene

Reading a manuscript yesterday, I was reminded that, while most writing teachers (myself included) insist advocate that students write in scene, there are also instances when you should not write in scene.

Sometimes writers dramatize events that don't warrant a full scene.  And then the writing just seems flabby.  Not much is happening, but there's a full-blown scene written.  I believe this is a subtle reason that many manuscripts fail.

But how are you supposed to know when to write a scene, then, for God's sake?

I have a couple of answers that should be helpful.

The first is a tidbit from an author and writing teacher whose name I've forgotten. Here it is:

Fast is slow and slow is fast.

What does this mean?  It means that if you would experience the event slowly in real time, write about it fast (i.e., in narrative, which can be used to compress time).  So, for instance, if your character spends a lazy Sunday morning reading the New York Times, dispatch that in a sentence or so.  It it not an event that warrants a scene.  On the other hand, maybe that character steps outside and notices her husband trapped under a car when the jack collapsed.  In a split second, she races to the vehicle and lifts it from him in a rush of adrenaline.  This is an event that you want to slow down and linger over, writing every sensory detail in a full blown scene.

Make sense?

The other helpful tidbit is actually several tidbits, or, a list of guidelines as to when to use scenes.  This has been bouncing around in my mind for years, after reading it somewhere and putting it into use, but I also saw it recently in a discusssion of Sandra Scofield's book on writing scenes, called The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer.

Here are three reasons a scene should exist:

1.  To advance the plot

2.  To reveal character

3.  To set up something that will re-occur later

Of the three, I think the first two are the strongest, though certainly the last has its merits as well.  What do you think?  How do you choose which events to put in scene and which to write in narrative?  Any tips for how to write in scene?

Never Be Average

Sunset_heaven_serenity_248986_lOne of the jobs of the writer, as I see it, is to be a chronicler of events and people.  We are here to tell the tale to others.  To witness and write about it, whether what we witness is something small or something big.

What I have to witness today is the passing of two friends.

The first was the father of one of my close friends.  He was a delight, a man who lived life on his own terms to the very end and expected the same of everyone else.  "Never be average," was his motto.  And he wasn't.  I stayed with him at his house at the beach a couple of times, helped him work on his autobiography a little bit, and enjoyed Broasted Chicken night and cheap drinks (he treated) at the local Eagles Aerie.

I adored him.  I didn't see him often, but I miss knowing he's here in this world, being his wonderful self.

The second was my childhood friend.  She'd been in ill health recently and I hadn't had the chance to see her in quite some time.  I kept up with her progress through reports from her daughter and sisters.  I'm pretty sure her passing was a release from pain for her, though that doesn't make it easier for those who are left behind.  The way I want to remember her can be summarized in one word: funny.  When she was feeling good, she was one of the funniest people on the planet.  We spent hours laughing together as teenagers.

And that is a damn good legacy to leave an old friend.

This business of chronicling: sometimes it doesn't seem like enough.  I read about people curing cancer and saving children in Africa and worry that being a writer pales in comparison.  Do you ever feel this way?

And yet, bearing witness is important. It's how we remember.  It is how we can galvanize.  It is part of what makes us human.

And so I put away my feelings that writing is not enough and just go do it once again.

Because when you're a writer, it's the most important thing you can do in the world.  And just that act alone insures one thing: that you will never be average.

 Photo by a_kartha.

Advent for Writers

Stil-life-apple-45710-lFor as long as I can remember, December has been a creative time for me.  This used to puzzle me.  Why would the darkest time of the year be a rich, fertile period?  For so many, the gloomy short days are depressing and anything but creative.  Wouldn't it make more sense for my wildly creative time to be in, say, mid-summer, when the days are long and gardens (and life) is fully abloom?

But then I remembered the season of Advent.  For many in the Christian tradition, the month of December signifies a period of waiting.  A time of preparation.  A run-up to the big event--the birth of Jesus on Christmas day.  (Never mind that even the Pope himself says we got the actual date wrong.)

This realization helped to explain things.  No matter what faith you practice, or whether you are religious, or spiritual, or agnostic, this time of year is imbued with the energy of preparation.  And preparation can be crazy creative.

Coincidentally, however, it's also a crazy busy time of year.  There are trees to decorate, presents to buy and wrap, family dinners to arrange.  So how best to balance a need for creative preparation with the demands of the holiday?  Here are a few suggestions.

1.  Take time to make time.   One of Mahatma Gandhi's forms of meditation was spinning (yarn, not partaking in aerobic activity).  One day when he had an especially busy schedule he told his aides, "It's a busy day. I better take extra time to spin today." (This is a paraphrase.  I have searched and searched for the exact quote.  If anyone knows it, I'd love to get it from you.)  It can be counter-intuitive, but taking time to meditate or journal might well be the best way to fly through your duties.  Such activities center and calm you and enable you to release your worry and angst over getting things done, thus giving you extra time to work on creative projects.

2. Simplify.  I'm crazy about Christmas traditions.  Probably a bit too crazy.  I love the holidays and put a lot of pressure on myself to do them up right.  But the last few years I've realized that what I love most about the holidays is spending time with friends and family.  And so I've allowed myself to keep some of the holiday decorations in their boxes.  And I buy far fewer gifts for people.  I enjoy the holidays a lot more and as an added benefit, I actually have time to write during this season.

3.  Dive in.  Or, make every minute count.  Whatever you're doing, do it well.  Do if fully.  Do it with a whole heart and a whole mind.  (Except for those times you're standing in line at the post office or the grocery store.  Then, do this.)  Chunk your creative work down into easily doable sessions.  You can get a ton done in a few minutes if you are focused!

4.  Remember who you are.  Who are you?  What's most important to you?  2013 is my year to be a novelist, the job description I've wanted all my life.  But as I get wrapped up in my teaching and blogging and other duties, a day or two can go by without me participating in activities related to writing novels.  At this time of year especially, I can forget who I am.  Remind yourself of who you are often and that will lead you back to your center.

5. Bring love to it.  You've got two choices in how you can respond to a given situation--with love or with fear.  Though it's not always easy, responding with love is far and away the better option!  It is that difficult and that simple.

What are your strategies for remaining creative during this time?  How do you enjoy the gifts of the Advent season?

**If you're having difficulty finding time to write this holiday season (or any time of the year) why not consider the gift of coaching for yourself?  There's no faster way to make progress on your writing than to work one-on-one with a coach.  Learn more about my coaching here.

Photo by benedeki.