Wednesday Wonders: Falling Back

Standard

 

“For this weekend, you get to call yourselves writers loud and proud instead of in a small voice at the end of a long list of other things you do.”

My writing teacher Lois Brandt said this (or something very like it) at the beginning of our Weekend on the Water retreat with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

51opwdfmoal-_sy496_bo1204203200_

Lois wasn’t lying. All weekend long, I talked and heard about books. I talked about my books in progress, I heard from debut authors, and I listened to the faculty tell of how to write as well as what they as editors and reviewers look for when they read. I chatted with my group about their writing and heard what they had to say about mine.

It was glorious. 

Sometimes, I learned, it’s good to be stuck. Sometimes it makes me stop, look at what I’m doing, open my eyes and ears, and hear something new. Sometimes the stuck let me hear old things in a new way.

Gradually, I felt the cement blocks on my creative feet and fingers lifting.

When I got home I found a contest to submit to and the deadline is soon. After that I have my short story who sits so close to my heart I have to crack her open and send her out as soon as I can find a possible home.

And my middle grade novel. This weekend I felt my character wake up inside me as I listened to another writer give me story idea after idea from his own experiences with characters like mine.

Here is what I learned in my two full days at a former convent in Des Moines, Washington:

We do not create alone. 

Even as I sit at this keyboard, far away from everyone I met this weekend and from any of you reading, I feel all of them and you with me.

It’s crazy sappy, yet I have to say it because it’s truer than true.

May you find joy in the people who love life like you do.

And do remember the anonymous quote Kim Baker told us as we went our separate ways:

“You are a ghost driving a skeleton made of stardust on a rock flying around the sun. Fear nothing.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.57.01 AM

img_8503

The published works of the writers I got to meet over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

 

 

 

img_8525

Last on this post, but first in my heart, Amanda Hosch. She told me her book journey from the summer of dreaming about her character to the 6 weeks of writing it in a flurry to the agent to the book deal after three years. She was so elated and bubbled over with book joy. Amanda is now one of my heroes. MABEL OPEL PEAR AND THE RULES FOR SPYING hits the stands and the websites in the fall of 2017. Hooray!!

 

 

 

Wednesday Wonders: How a Retreat Can Help (I Hope)

Standard
file0001098281277

Winter

I am hovering on the edge of doing anything writerly lately. I look at the work I need to do, lift my pen, scribble a few words, and then put the pen back down.

The keyboard isn’t much better. I’ll open programs, stare at a screen, and then wander away to vacuum. Or worse. I’ll click on the Facebook time warp and come up for air thirty minutes later, thinking it must now be time to go to the day job.

Today I had an even better excuse for not getting this blog post started: my internet was on the blink. I fussed for a good half hour with network connections before waking the teen and getting some help.

Instead of all this frittering away, I need to finish character sheets, follow plot lines, and most of all move forward. Somehow.

In an attempt to pull myself out of the funk, this Friday I am going to the Weekend on the Water through the the Western Washington chapter of SCBWI.

I hope the writers and editors there will inspire me and shake the muse back awake. At the same time, that little voice in my head is telling me how many other more motivated people will be there. (If I had the energy, I’d give that little voice what for. But I don’t.)

I can’t even decide if I should drag along the laptop or disconnect for a few days.

So it goes. Sometimes ennui is a wonder all by itself. 

May you find more pizzaz than I have this Wednesday-

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.57.01 AM

Wednesday Wonders: What Would You Say to the Past of Yesterday and Today?

Standard

I’ve struggled with what to write this week. Much has happened.

A double funeral with dear friends who lost a mother and a father in two days.

The kindness of neighbors who could have hurt us but didn’t.

Neither of these are my stories to tell, though. So I won’t.

I did see something that grabbed my eye from another friend on Facebook, however.

14445948_1285630828136149_54274706934146820_n

I posted these words:

Stay in Germany longer. 

I wish I had.

But then I had another thought. I even braved the process of making a meme to put it together here.

its-2036-what

I saw many post things to their 17-year-old selves that imagine I might later say to my today self.

Listen to yourself always. 

Know who you are.

Shut up and listen.

Be kind to yourself.

Do less, love more.

It will be okay.

Chill the (heck) out.

I think I might say all of this to myself. I might also say:

Keep writing. It matters.

At least I hope I’ll say that.

Wherever you are in the world,  I’d love to know what you would say to your 17-year-old self. (Especially you in Brazil. I see you on my stats page and have always wondered how you found me in the wide web.)

I’d also love to know what you think your future wisdom for yourself might be.

May you know love past, present, and future-

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.57.01 AM

 

Wednesday Wonders: Door of Doom Update

Standard

img_8377

This will be a short post. The door is done! Done! (I ache to replace the hardware with silver but have no more oomph for that sort of insanity.)

For now, I’m back to my usual groove of teaching and writing. A new quarter begins this Monday and I am gearing up for a poetry workshop followed by my favorite retreat of the year.

The home improvement stores can rest easy once more.

From the blasted start to the blessed finish:

 

Wednesday Wonders: When You’re Not Done Yet

Standard

file3171299616544

Have you ever thought you were done? And then you weren’t?

Yesterday, I thought, was my last day of this never-ending summer quarter at school. I woke up early, eager to get to the day.

I took a shower, fed the critters, and shocked the coffee shop I go to by getting there two hours before my usual. I couldn’t stand the thought of writing at home when I had my last day waiting for me, so I plunked myself down at a small round Starbuck’s table to scribble away before driving on in to work.

I arrived at the school at 6:30 am, thinking I would catch up on all the last minute details and then use a few personal hours to take today off.

But I am not done. I have a staff meeting today, it turns out.

It will be fine. We’ll debrief what we’ve done this year and make excellent plans for the fall.

But I really did think yesterday was it. I’ve had the 16th set in my mind for months.

This tiny tale of a mistaken ending leads me to my latest idea for the blog. 

A friend and I have begun to meet and talk and free-write together over tea. We usually pick a writing prompt and then use it to write about the characters in our current works in progress.

So, my blog-reading friends, here is a prompt for you, should you choose to use it:

When did you think you were done but then discovered you had more to do?

Or for your work of fiction:

When has your character thought she had reached the end, only to discover that she had another day (or more) to go? 

May you finish all your work in good time and then know rest-

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.57.01 AM

Wednesday Wonders: Stretching Some Sentence Skills

Standard

IMG_9200

Not too long ago, I was correcting papers and wishing the writers would not be so inventive with their sentence structures and vocabulary.

I would see something with a phrase, a comma, or an unfamiliar word like ‘thalassemia’ and sigh.

I had an prickly sense that something was off but wasn’t strong enough on the structure to make the fix without some checking. Only after looking up the words and the grammatical structures, could I make the right corrections.

I thought to myself: “If I were writing, I would never have tried it this way.”

Then it occurred to me.

If I stick to only what I know, I won’t grow in style or ability. The writers making those mistakes did me a favor by making me stretch.

Pricilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor also pushed me with the suggestion that I take a sentence from another writer and make it my own. To do this, I must carefully examine how the writer creates the sentence and then craft my own sentence in the same form.

I chose two lines from ‘Welding with Children’ by Tim Gautreaux.

“Tuesday was about typical. My four daughters, not a one of them married, you understand, brought over their kids, one each, and explained to my wife how much fun she was going to have looking after them again.”

The first structure is something I might write on any given day. It’s simple with a subject, verb, and adjective phrase.

The second sentence structure never would have come to me with its interruptions and commas sprinkled all over the place. It’s the kind of thing that gives a grammar teacher headaches, and, yet, it works so well to give voice to Gautreaux’s character and set the stage for his conflict.

Here is my version, using that same foundation, worked through with the meaning of another story:

Football night was the usual. My new friend Susie, never one to worry about style, you know, fiddled with her neon spirit hats, two of course, and listened while Josie the cheerleader was babbling at me once more.

It’s turtle-slow work, this sort of sentence skill building. I know, for example, that the last verb form I used is not quite the same as the original version, but I couldn’t quite make it work. And I sure wouldn’t want to craft like this while trying to make a word count.

Still, I do like it. I like the stretch from both proofing those papers and the sentence work. Language  holds more twists and blind corners than I figure I’ll ever have time to explore.

That’s just the way I like it.

May you stretch in words and other ways-

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.57.01 AM

 

Wednesday Wonders: When to Call the Book Done

Standard

IMG_56803333

The other day my son said, “You know you’ve got a LOT of books on writing on your bookshelf. Have you read all of those?”

Mostly, I told him. (He wasn’t particularly impressed — just astounded that I could stay focused for that long on reading books about putting words on paper.)

And he doesn’t even know about the courses I’ve taken and the blogs I’ve read.

Writing takes a lot of reading.

And, of course, it takes a lot of writing words.

In my online reading, Randy Ingermanson once explained to me that the average writer puts over a million words down before she or he becomes a published author.

The million words could be several different books or it could be the same book rewritten over and over again.

I don’t know how many words I’ve written. It’s hard to keep track.

My very first novel is at the back of my file drawer where it will stay. I think I drafted 50,000 words or so. My second short historical fiction set on Whidbey Island is now around 30,000 words. Here is where it gets tough to track, though. It was 50,000 then I cut it down to 40,000. Then I added some. Then I cut it to the bone at 20,000. I added again to 32,000.

I have a third historical fiction set in Tacoma with a word count around that size, too, including the cuts and additions and whatnots.

Those are the larger pieces that are easier to keep track of. I’ve written scads of shorter pieces, some published, many more not, and some even on this blog. I’ve grown fond of mathematics but not fond enough to actually add up all the single words I’ve written to see if I’ve gotten to a million words. I know publishing isn’t anything like that straight forward anyway.

(You wrote the millionth word! Now you are published! Not exactly.)

P1270121

I declared my my second short novel finished last week. Over the last five years I drafted and revised, took classes with it, had my critique group read and re-read it through and then section by section. I’ve had beta readers take a look at it and acted on all of the feedback I’ve received in one way or another.

I’m ready to stop cutting and adding. I’m ready to turn my attention to other things and let the million words add up on some other project.

At first I decided to consign it to the bottom of a drawer, tucked into a file next to the first one about the fairies and the the other worlds full of trees and magic.

Then I read this by Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor, one of the those books my son saw on the shelf:

“Work never sent out is very likely never completed. The author never has to stand by it, for better or for worse. It is never exposed to a stranger’s eye. It is never received with love, hate, indifference, or with interest. It has no audience, no public. As a result, the writer is never obliged to see it through a reader’s eye.”

Well, then.

I guess I’ll send those several thousand words out, roll with rejections, and get down word counts in revising my third novel.

I suppose I knew that all along from my music and drawing. Unless I share what I am doing, the art wilts in a corner. More often than not, I never make it at all if I know no one will ever see it.

May you know the joy of calling things finished even if that means you have to take a risk to get there-

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.57.01 AM

 

Wednesday Wonders: Cross Pollinating Your Art With New Forms

Standard
Paint brushes

Display of paint brushes

It’s an absolutely crazy idea but one of my colleagues and I are going to start an art club at work.

It’s crazy because who has that kind of time?

It’s crazy because I should focus more on my writing.

It’s crazy because we so often want to flee the building at the end of the day. This will mean staying a bit longer after most have left.

It’s crazy because making art is just crazy all by itself.

But the idea won’t leave us alone. Kelsey showed me photos of her huge canvas paintings and I showed her my sketches. We both oohed and ahed over each other’s cell phone screens and shared what we love about visual art.

I have discovered that the craziest ideas are sometimes the best. And when they are not, those wild adventures are still pure fun.

Every time I stretch myself creatively, I meet amazing people like Kelsey who give life a little more sparkle when I need it most.

Best of all, my writing always gets better for the other art forms I practice as long as I protect my time with words. Something about playing and relaxing with new expressions helps me to let go of the tension I sometimes bring to the art form I feel the most compelled to create.

Maybe what she will make will look like this:

abstract-lion002

And maybe what I draw will look like this:

file4401347376052

If that happens, I know I will get a good laugh out of it at the very least. I love the way I can relax with drawing and painting because I am not trying to impress. And, every so often, I can move that over to my words and let go of my unreasonable longing to be the next great writer. It’s a gift that music and visual arts gives to the take-it-too-seriously writer side of me.

I am so grateful.

The art begins next month. I’ll let you know how it goes.

May you find pure crazy creative fun,

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.57.01 AM

P.S. Deadline for the novel is tomorrow. I am on track in spite of the fun you just saw here. Or maybe it was because of the fun. Anyway…hooray!

Wednesday Wonders: How a Storyteller can have Superpowers

Standard

She-Ra 12

 

My mother-in-law Vivian likes to read popcorn Christian romances. You know the type. There’s a swooning woman and a shirtless guy on every cover of the stacks of books she keeps close at hand. God is always a player in these stories so they are not exactly Harlequins — but they aren’t far off.

Once I picked up a book with a title something like Breaking Love and read the first chapter. The writer knew what she was doing with an engaging opening scene and tension that made me wonder if Priscilla was ever going to unfreeze her heart after that last horrendous breakup with Jonathan because she needed to in order to save the farm.

I always thought these book were just silly things that Vivian read until my father-in-law Jim got sick. A retired home health nurse, Vivian took care of him for about two years as his health got slowly worse and worse from diabetes and cirrhosis caused by medications.

As he sunk deeper and deeper he became less and less engaged in the world around him. I could see Vivian becoming more and more alone in caring for him 24 hours a day.

One day I asked her about this. She said yes it was lonely but she often lost herself in her books. I could see how much those stories of Pricillas and Jonathans meant to her.

The writer in me perked up. Sometimes it feels as though the job I do with words is not worth much to others. People often ask me to do it for free. It is a vital piece of what I do in my paid work but not recognized much for its own worth. I work with student nurses who will likely save physical lives in their careers. The value of what I do is not nearly as clear cut.

But a story that could ease my mother-in-law’s burden. Now that was worth something. I honestly believe those silly plot lines saved her sanity and helped to heal her breaking heart in a way that no pharmaceutical could have.

Recently, I heard another story in a Radiolab podcast that reminded me of Vivian and her books.

In this a father desperately wanted to do something to help his premature daughter as her translucent body slipped back and forth between life and death. She was born at twenty three weeks and 6 days and was not at all fully formed.

_DSC5721

A baby much healthier and older than the one in an incubator whose father read to her.

He started reading her Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The mom and dad noticed that her oxygen saturation levels went up whenever he read — unless he tried to act out Hagrid’s voice. Then her numbers went down. His wife made him stop scaring the baby but he kept reading.

DSC00028

Maybe the little girl was not reacting to the story. Maybe that is not a medically sound analysis. But it was clear to me that the dad needed to read it like he needed her to keep breathing. (She lived and is now a five year old ready to begin kindergarten.)

I realize what I am saying here contradicts what I said last week about writing for myself and not worrying about the interest or approval of others. I have found that most good life answers have an opposite side to them.

I do need a reason to write outside of myself. It can’t be my everything but when I hear how much stories matter to others it helps me to keep going.

In fact, I am such a sap that the story about Harry Potter and the baby made me cry.

That’s why I do this, I told myself. I don’t know that it will help a grieving widow or a desperate father. But what I do is for me and it’s also for others who might need the story I’m writing as much as they need any other kind of medicine.

I don’t know that what I write will work for them. But it’s worth a shot.

May you find your own story medicine-

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.57.01 AM

Wednesday Wonders: When Your Art is Worth Saving

Standard
IMG_7219

By Sydney Zylstra (retrieved from the attic in 2011)

“You know all those paintings your mother makes and then throws out?”

My sister and I nodded as my dad said this. We knew.

“Well, I pulled a few out of the garbage and stuck them up in the attic. Remember to get them out of there when I die so she doesn’t toss them.”

I understand why my mother wanted to throw those beautiful pastels away. It helped her feel free to make mistakes and go on to create more when she knew she didn’t have to keep or share what she created.

She probably felt something like Molly in this clip Jody Casella shared with me recently:

I also get why my dad didn’t want to let them go. He couldn’t see her mistakes. He only saw a picture worth saving — something he didn’t want in the trash even after he died.

I am drawn to that video of Molly and the memory of my dad stashing away my mom’s art. And I’m happy to say I no longer feel like dipping my manuscript in alcohol and setting it on fire over a gas burner. 

Instead, I keep this mantra by James Scott Bell posted near my computer screen:

“It can be fixed.”

That helps enormously when the mean voice in my head chatters on about all that is wrong even as I work to make it better.

And I’m glad Dad saved the pastels. A year or so after he died, my mom found them on my wall and stopped, looking them over for a slow minute.

I held my breath, praying I would not lose my treasures.

She surprised me by insisting they needed a coat of sealant to protect the surface. She then took them down and returned them to me, never suggesting that I throw them away.

Those canvases covered in flowers still hang in my hallway, reminding me to look at what’s worth keeping even when, at first, I might not think my characters have led me down the right path. 

May you know the joy of creating and the power of saving your work-

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 6.57.01 AM

Extra wonders:

IMG_7186

Seattle waterways before the Ballard Locks and the ship canal connected the lakes to the sound.

IMG_7202

My book and I loved this trip to see my Seattle family and visit the locks. So much to research for us here!

A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.