Tips & Trickery: Courting the Muse

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I recently had the delight of speaking on a panel at the Chicago Writers Conference with the fabulous Chicago writers Christine Sneed and Miles Harvey. Our panel was succinctly called: The Process. The Chicago Writers Conference–in case you don’t know, but you should–is a very fine one that has a particular emphasis on the business of writing and getting your work out there and noticed. So we three (Christine, Miles, and I) got to step back from that a bit and talk about getting the work on the page. Here are some of the ideas I shared.

  • Some writers suggest you treat your writing like a job, but I would say do all you can to avoid that. Who gets pleasure when they think they have a job to do? I love writing, and I have a number of paying writing gigs that I also like. Still, just knowing that those paid gigs are like a job waiting for me to quit lollygagging and get to work on makes me avoid them until I can’t anymore. Make your writing fun. Think of it as purposeful play.
  • Make your writing play a joyful habit. (21 days.) David Huddle’s The Writing Habit has good advice.
  • Make room for your writing. Set up a writing space just as you like it, or go somewhere comfortable and quiet (or noisy if that’s your bag) and get writing. Make it so when you find that place, when you come to it, you start yearning to write.
  • Make room (time) in the day. Try setting an alarm to remind you that it is time to write, and a timer to let you know when you can get up from the desk. Be reasonable with these. If you are not a morning person, don’t think writing will get you out of bed. If you need to get up and move around every half hour or fifteen minutes, or ten, don’t make yourself sit at the desk for longer than that. Building your writing stamina muscles, just like building other muscles, takes patience and practice. Caveat: learn the difference between needing to take a break and avoiding the work.
  • Create your rituals. I love good pens and journals. When I see my journal on the coffee table, I want to write. I usually play three games of Free Cell on the computer before I start to write on the keyboard. I walk in quiet or use the machines in the gym without headphones or the TV on; I think about my stories, I talk in my head. The rituals can feel special and important. Sacred, perhaps. And this sense of importance can fuel your writing.
  • Always carry a pen and paper. Write in your journal. Ideas slip away. You’ll say you won’t forget it, but… All words on the page count, even these jottings. Still, you need to commit to finishing things, not just scribbling ideas for future projects.
  • Unplug, disable, turn off all distractions.
  • Take it a little at a time. Anne Lamott calls this “small assignments.” Do not let the immensity of a potential project overwhelm you to the point of paralysis.
  • Plan your rewards and stick to them. 2 pages? A glass of wine. 5? A piece of chocolate cake. 100? New shoes. You get the idea.
  • “Don’t get it write, get it written.” –James Thurber. Turn off your perfectionism, or at least put it on hold until the words are on the page.
  • Find prompts and jump starts to make sure you consider the narrative possibility and potential in everything, every day. (Check out the hundreds of prompts on this site.)
  • Make a writing buddy–someone whose work you admire and who is both kind and demanding of yours. (Hi, Gail! Hi, Jana!) Plan a getaway, even if that is simply taking turns to write in one another’s homes.
  • If a writing project has gone stale, put it aside for a few weeks. Then have someone else read it aloud to you. How does it sound now? Ready to get back to it?
  • If you have left your characters alone for too long, write your way into their dreams. What did they dream on the last night you wrote their stories, after you finished telling the story up to that point?
  • If much time has passed since you last sat down with this work, read what you have again, and then set it aside, and have your characters narrate a summary: “Previously, in chapter 1…” Like they do on TV.
  • Hit a wall? Look up from the page, stand up from the desk. Don’t write. Do something else, let your mind work on its own while you do the dishes, do a silly drawing, take a walk, knit a pair of socks.
  • Don’t let too much time pass without writing, you may scare yourself off. If you can’t face the piece you left behind just yet, write something else. A letter, a blog post, a “how to,” a haiku, a Twitter story. A small assignment that you can finish relatively easily, reminding yourself that finishing is something you are capable of.
  • Read. Read. Let other writers remind you how wonderful the world of writing can be, let them invite you into that world.

→Write on, my friends. And as always, thanks for reading! – PMc←

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My Writing Process ~ A Blog Tour

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Today is My Writing Process – Blog Tour Day, a sort of literary roundtable/chain letter kind of thing. Once a week, writers all over are scrambling to be part of this global writing community, and I want to thank Eileen Favorite, author of The Heroines for inviting me to take part as well.  You’ll want to stop over to her site, http://eileenfavorite.com/, to see what she is working on now.

The idea is that we each answer the same four questions about our work and our process…so here goes:

What am I working on?

I am nearing the finish line of the draft of a novel, Climbing the House of God Hill. It takes place in New Hope, the fictional small Midwestern town of my story collection, The Temple of Air. The story revolves around a scandal involving a home-schooled girl and a neighbor. The tensions lie in the conservative, mostly white town’s coping with this new neighbor (an immigrant from Latin America who lives with his large, brown-skinned family); the blossoming sexuality of a teen-aged girl; and the intolerance of certain members of the new church in town, the House of God. The novel is set against the backdrop of a small town facing economic downturns and a sometimes provincial world view, in the aftermath of the tragedies of September 11, 2001 and while the US engages in more than one war.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

An interesting question, but as opposed to being different, I would rather think of this book being part of a continuum of realist novels that depict ordinary people in somewhat extraordinary times—if there is such a thing. Is it extraordinary to face financial hardship, war, tragedy, prejudice? Or are these times that we find ourselves in more or less the same as all others?

But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?

What my work—this book—has to offer is a frank portrait of a young girl who is eager to experience the physicality of the man/woman thing, a community point of view that is designed to draw the reader into the story and the community, a strong sense of place, and a picture of the Midwest that will be both familiar and troubling, and at times joyful and startling.

 Why do I write what I do? 

I am intrigued by recognizable characters (my neighbors, the kids I grew up with, my relatives) and how they get through their days. (Cue movie narrator’s voice here:) In a world of complicated relationships at the closest, most intimate level, as well as at the broadest, most global level, I find it remarkable that any of us connect at all. And so when characters do—in good ways and bad, in love and distrust, in need and desire, in joy and despair—I want to explore these connections through the writing that I do. I am also interested in those characters that face isolation, either through circumstances or by intention, and they, too, find their way into my work.

How often are we misunderstood, do we misinterpret? Misjudged, misguided, mistaken, misaligned, misconstrued, mistreated, mis… well, you get it. These “misses” inform my writing as well. If things ran smoothly to a satisfactory ending, with no missteps or mismatches or mis-anythings, there would be no real story, would there? Or no story of interest to me, I guess I mean.

In a recent interview, Richard Bausch said “…I am always interested in the hurt people carry around.” And Kurt Vonnegut told us this: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

It gets me into trouble sometimes, this dark streak in what I write (as does the unflinching sexuality,) but readers who know and seek out my work aren’t squeamish, and they are willing to look into the shadowy, gritty, sexy corners with me.

How does your writing process work? 

I remember reading once E. B. White (I think it was) saying in response to an invitation to be part of a series on writers on writing something like: “How about writers on not writing. I know more about that.”

Sometimes it feels like that to me; I spend more time not working than I should. I carry my stories with me as I move through the day, work on them in my head while I run or work out, while I do dishes, while I read, while I talk with students. But it is getting it on the page that really matters, and sometimes I have to trick myself into doing that.

“Here,” I tell myself, “just sit down for a minute and look at this chapter ending again. Is it exactly right? No? Well change it, then. Good. And now that you’ve changed that, what do you think the first line of the next chapter should be? And the next?”

“Here,” I tell myself, “try that part of the book near the ending in your journal here. It doesn’t really count handwritten like this, just see what happens….Well, what do you know? You’ve written four pages.” (I am a big fan of the journal, by the way.)

“Here,” I tell myself. “Work on this writer’s process blog for a bit. Talk about your book until you can’t wait to get back to it.”

The physical part of the process is this: write in my journal for some time (stuff to clear my head, story parts, budgets and practical things that distract me,) coffee, laptop on my lap (this is new, I used to work at the desk,) coffee, commit some words to the page, read them out loud, tweak, keep going until I can’t. A chapter might take a week or two or three or four, reworking along the way, rereading out loud, listening. Finally the chapter is reformatted and put in to the file that is the novel proper, printed, put into a binder that is a book draft in the making. (I like to lift it up, test its heft and weight as more pages are included.) Coffee. Back to the journal, work out things there, talk about what I’ve done, what’s to come, issues, questions, things I know I eventually will need to do when I go back to redraft the whole. Coffee. Read parts to my sweet and patient and encouraging husband, Philip Hartigan, who says great things like: “Excellent! When do I get to read the whole thing?” And “Oh, that’s good. When do I get to read the whole thing?” And “I can’t wait to read the whole thing.”

So I guess it boils down to just a few key things-

Coffee

Journal

Laptop

Cheerleader

So there you have it, my little part of the international My Writing Process ~ Blog Tour Day.

Next up are at least two (and I hope three!) writers whose work and personhood I admire greatly. They will be answering these same questions next week, April 7, 2014. Check ’em out!

Samantha Hoffman is a runner, a reader, a film and theatre buff, tech geek, blogging queen, personal assistant, chef, wine enthusiast, animal lover, volunteer, lover of life and…oh yes, a writer.Cover with frame

Her stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Dieter’s SoulThe Corner Magazine in London and numerous other print and online publications. She also writes a popular blog about life in Chicago, at samanthahoffman.com.

What More Could You Wish For, is her first novel.

 

Tony Romano is the author of the novel When the World Was Young and the story collection If You Eat, You Never Die. Coauthor of the text Expository Writing: Discovering Your Voice. Born in Italy, raised in Chicago, and, he tells me, will be happy never to see snow again.

Read Tony’s blog at tonyromanoauthor.com.1054179

Mystery author number three…soon to come!

→Thanks, Eileen, for the invitation. Thanks Samantha and Tony and Mystery Writer for playing along. Thanks everyone, as always, for reading! – PMc←