Expand or Contract?

Two articles appeared in front of me today. One felt like a door closing and the other one expanded my outlook on life.

The first was in the Fast Company online newsletter by Francine Hardaway, Why Blogging is Dead—and What’s Next.

I hope it’s a lingering death. I love reading others’ blogs and writing mine. I believe people want to be heard and also want to discover new things.

The second article, The Art of Being Still by Silas House, was about writing, my favorite subject. House once asked novelist and poet James Still for his writing advice. Still’s answer was to “discover something new every day.”

Most answers to that question advise you to sit at your laptop for a specific number of hours, or attend workshops/conferences or join writing groups. All good, but limited compared to “discover something new every day.”

For me, what I learn from reading blogs has expanded my life in many areas, not just writing. I’ve read amazing poetry and learned about new writing forms like postcard fiction and tried out a few of them. Each click on a blog is a new discovery. I especially like reading About Me pages. It reminds me that our world is filled with people I’d like to know better.

According to the “blogging is dead” article, in the future people will do all their reading on mobile devices, so long forms like blogs won’t be viable.  I like Twitter, etc., but also think that whatever platform(s) replaces the blog will have to offer enough content for me to “discover something new every day.”

Confuse Your Writing Muscles

I’ve been attending Kaia F.I.T., a women’s exercise program three mornings a week and am now on my fifth week. The philosophy is to confuse the muscles for improved strength and tone. You won’t find giant exercise machines jammed into the room. Sometimes we work with jump ropes or resistance bands or kettlebells or even huge tires. We run, do lunges, sit ups, squats, pushups and all variations of body work, sometimes individually, or with partners, and we often move from station to station, constantly changing from one type of exercise to another. The sessions work our brains as well, keeping track of variations in sequences and repetitions. Afterward, my body aches and yet I feel great because I’ve done something I didn’t know I could do. And I’m getting stronger every day.

What does a woman’s exercise program have to do with a blog about writing? I wondered what would happen if I applied the same philosophy to confuse my writing muscles.

Writers are advised to stick to a writing routine and never let anything deter us. But what if we mix it up and create a writing schedule that changes direction at intervals? I’m going to try it for one week and see what happens.

For example:

  • If you always journal in longhand at 7 am, head to the laptop and do a prompt or write a nonfiction piece
  • If you’re working on memoir, mystery, romance, literary, sci fi, historical, or poetry, do something entirely different like postcard fiction or flash fiction for twenty minutes
  • If you always write alone, call a friend to write with you
  • If you don’t have any writing friends, join a group
  • If you’re in a group, go on hiatus
  • If you write at a desk, take your laptop to the sofa or stand at a counter
  • If you’ve never done NaNoWriMo before, do it. You can start anytime

After a week, check in with yourself. Have you stretched your writing muscles? Are they a little rusty from disuse? Does it feel good to surprise yourself?

In the effort of full disclosure, I can’t take credit for jumping into a rigorous exercise routine all on my own. My daughter talked about how much fun it was and how all ages of women were involved. She encouraged me and invited me to a couple of tryout sessions, and when I was discouraged, she told me everyone had a hard time at first and that I was doing great and she was proud of me.

And that brings me to my last suggestion for today’s blog. If you don’t have someone in your life who pushes you a little, encourages you and believes in you, find someone like that or be that person for yourself.  Now get out there and get confused!

NaNoWriMo Begins November 1

Back in Feburary I posted a blog, How NaNoWriMo Changed my Writing Habit and in it I talked about how easy it was for me to keep to the writing schedule during that month. I thought I’d changed my usual habit of procrastination for all time. Not exactly!

Last week in my Friday writing group, I wrote this piece about procrastination in response to one of our prompts:

DRAFT FOUR

Boot up laptop, organize notes, open novel

Get coffee

Make two trips back to kitchen to perfect ratio of coffee to soy creamer

Sit at laptop. Find page 246

Old girl’s toenails click on hardwood, white muzzle appears at office door

Fill her food dish, add one tab Benedryl , one-half tab arthritis med, one-half tab pain med

Sit at laptop

Coffee is cold. Trip to kitchen to warm in microwave

Old Girl has spit out her meds

Wrap a chunk of last night’s chicken breast around pills and pop in her mouth

Sit at laptop

Read first sentence of Chapter Twenty. Too many prepositions. Reword it

Read again. Too choppy. Add prepositions, but not as many

Check emails. Friends tell about new haircut, how the kids are doing, how busy they are

Respond to emails. Tell friends about weekend plans and new gray sofa

Look at clock. Close gmail

Read first page of Chapter Twenty. Decide that it should be part of Chapter Nineteen so cut and paste

Check Facebook. Niece posted adorable photos of new twins. Six political commentaries, a hs classmate so proud in his camo outfit, shot an Elk and posted photo of its severed head. Delete photo

Check time. Close Facebook and resume editing novel

Old Girl whines for a walk

Close laptop, find shoes, jacket, key

Slow circuit around block takes longer every day

Open laptop

Chapter Nineteen no longer ends on a cliffhanger.  Delete last change and add back to beginning of Chapter Twenty

Stomach growls

Read paper with breakfast

Check time. Open laptop

Redundant third paragraph on page 292. Reword

Phone rings. He asks, How’s the writing going?

She says, Worked all morning. Need a break!

NaNoWriMo starts in two days and I’m gearing up to write again. I’m hoping for a repeat of my good record last time. If you are doing NaNo this year I’d love to hear how it’s going for you. I plan to blog about the process as the month, and my writing progresses!

Voice is Everything

Before writing this piece, I dug through my bookshelves and checked the Internet for definitions of voice in fiction writing. I discovered that most writers needed anywhere from a paragraph to an entire book to define that one simple word. They talked about voice as the author’s style, personality, character, attitude or even point of view.

You don’t say I like the voice, you say I like the book.

Defining voice is difficult because it’s an abstract term.  When I’m reading a novel, if it grabs my attention, I don’t stop to analyze how the writer is handling voice. I am instantly lost in the story. If the writer’s voice is stilted, boring or derivative, I close the book.

Learning about voice through my critique group

I belong to a mystery writers’ critique group that includes traditional, fantasy, romance, police procedural, noir, thriller, suspense and more.

Until I started working with my group I had never analyzed voice other than to read about it in books and articles and wonder if my writing had it. We read five pages of each other’s work in progress and get together to talk in detail about what we like, how we feel about the characters, sequence of events or direction and what stands out as a red flag, not believable or out of context within those five pages. We ask lots of questions.

It’s valuable feedback for us to receive multiple perspectives at once. And here’s the surprise: I don’t even have to know who the writer is because I recognize the voice.

What I’ve learned is that a writer’s voice shows itself in different ways. One of the writers in my group writes wry, humorous noir stories in a sly and mischievous voice. Another writes fantasy in such a matter of fact way, the reader instantly loses any skepticism about the subject matter because the voice is so true and believes itself.

One writer knows her setting so well the reader automatically accepts it as a story you can trust, and another’s voice is defined by her extensive poetry background.

Having said all that, it’s still easier to hear another writer’s voice than my own, but one thing I have learned is that voice is everything and if it is distinctive and true, you keep reading.

Facing the Dragon

Last year my writing group produced an e-zine. I wrote about it in this blog because it was a big leap for me to submit a piece and read it aloud to an audience of approximately 50 people.

I’m writing about this again because even after a year of writing with and learning from some of the amazing writers in this group, I still froze when asked to submit to the e-zine. I’d produced a large body of work during the year, but none of my drafts seemed remotely ready to be shown to anyone else. For an entire week I read through the pieces and eventually chose two and polished them. For another week I fussed over how unworthy they were and debated not sending. But then something happened and I submitted my prose poems, warts and all.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

I recently saw Ray Wylie Hubbard perform at the Palms in Winters, California. Early in his career, other artists made his mix of country, folk and blues songs famous. He said that at 42, out of fear he’d never performed alone until he read something that changed his life. A friend gave him a book of Rilke poems and this sentence turned his life around:

Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) 

A scruffy old unshaven mop-haired overweight country singer from Texas spouting Rilke might just have changed my life too. It doesn’t matter whether my work is as good as anyone else’s. What matters is that I faced the dragon.

What precious treasures are your dragons guarding?