Ties that Bind: Do I repeat myself?

WordItOut-word-cloud-2111782I discovered yet another layer of revision by making a “word cloud” from my manuscript. I simply pasted my entire manuscript into the tool at WordItOut. You can easily see my overuse of certain words.

I’ve spent the last two mornings removing about half of my uses of know. Only a little tedious. I found most of them were in dialogue that I thought sounded conversational, but was merely boring, you know? Now, maybe I’ll just do that with all the rest.

Thanks to Joan Dempsey over at Revise With Confidence for the link and the insights.

Have you tried this with your writing? What did you learn?

Ties that Bind: How friends challenged me to write a (better) novel

knot on fingerBless their hearts. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

My dear friend, Joan, challenged me to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  While Joan was a NaNoWriMo veteran, I was a virgin. Why not? I was retired now and I’d had this story of love and friendship (inspired by a few real events) rolling around in my head for years. So I rolled up my sleeves, stocked up on coffee and chocolate, and spent the month of November tapping out 70K words. Sure, it was a little rough in spots and probably had a few gaps in the plot. Nevertheless, I believed I could get it into shape during the following year. 

That was in 2008.

Cue the deep, resonant voice of an omniscient narrator: “Little did she know…”

Soon afterward, I ran into another friend, the legendary Western Nevada College writing teacher, Marilee Swirzcek. She was enthusiastic about my accomplishment and invited me to join the local critique group that she had founded. Advice from Marilee and other writers? Sure. Sign me up!

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The founder of Lone Mountain Writers, Marilee Swirzcek

I attended a few meetings of the Lone Mountain Writers and critiqued pieces in a surprising variety of genres. Romance. Horror. Memoir. Fantasy. Christian Fiction. Sci-Fi. They all had one thing in common, though: excellent writing. I knew I needed to up my game.

Months went by as I continued to polish my first fifteen pages. I was sure the group would be awed by my as yet untapped literary genius.

Here’s what I heard instead:

  • Beautiful writing, but where’s the story?”
  • “What does your protagonist want and what are the stakes?”
  • “Where is the conflict, the drama?
  • “Who is the POV character? And why does it seem to switch in the middle of this paragraph?

Gulp. While I had read a literal ton of books and had written opinion pieces for the local newspaper for a decade, it appeared I knew nothing about writing fiction. Nothing. I could certainly recognize a compelling story, but did not know how to create it. Yet.

Fortunately, the group included several English professors who could offer both criticism and encouragement in equal measure. The group has been discerning and honest and, more importantly, patient.

They have now read most of my 111K manuscript—twice. Last week, I printed a hard copy of it (300+ pages, double-sided, spiral-bound, $40 at the UPS Store, BTW) with the intent of doing a whole read-through and edit while on a long ocean voyage (18 days, Sydney to Honolulu) this month. Yes, my highlighters, sticky notes, and flash drive are already packed.

What I hope to do here is to document the next few stages of the process. You know, recruiting a few beta readers and doing a final edit—if there is such a thing. I’ll also be choosing how to publish. Shall I try to find a traditional agent and publisher or self-publish? Only e-books or hard copies too? And with whom? If this is to be a DIY project, then the issues of learning to—or paying someone to—format it and design a cover arise. Then there is promotion and, well, you get the idea. There is still a long way to go.

In addition, I’ll finally have a place to point my dear non-writer friends who keep asking when it will be done. I try to reassure them (and myself) that I don’t want to be embarrassed by something that was put out into the world before it was ready. Unfortunately, the wait has also served to raise their expectations. It seems I can’t win.

So watch this space for news of my progress. And please, if you have personal experience with any part of this, I’d appreciate you leaving a comment or link.

Now, where’s my sunscreen?

Book review: Missing your “Daily” fix?

daily-showThe Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests

Chris Smith

If you love and still miss your nightly fix of Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, you will probably want to read this compendium of how Jon and his staff rebuilt “a little nothing cable show.” The format of the book is unusual. Author Chris Smith conducted interviews and presents those with only a smattering of context and connective tissue written by him. He also includes clips from the show. It’s a bit like reading a Ken Burns documentary.

Jon wasn’t the most likely person to replace Craig Kilborn. He’d had a few failures, a few attempts to find himself comedically. And when he took over, there were some ruffled feathers among some of Kilborn’s staff. You see, Jon had ideas of his own about the tone and direction of the show. Under Jon’s leadership, writers would refocus their attention from silly people on the fringes, to the people with power–namely politicians and the media.

“The tone of The Daily Show could be sarcastic and adversarial, but it generally wasn’t cynical or snarky…The humor was always from a point of view that held out a hope that the world could be improved, and I think that tone was essential to its success.” ~James Poniewozik, televison critic

Readers are also reminded of what was happening back then, culturally. “The anchors of the real news were still a trio of white male eminences… But the network news hegemony had been rattled by the arrival of CNN, especially its coverage of the 1990 Gulf War. Now Fox News and MSNBC—both launched, coincidentally within months of the Daily Show’s 1996 debut…And a wised-up, postmodern generation of viewers was hungry for what the Daily Show would soon deliver.”

In addition to the behind the scenes “how the sausage gets made” details, readers are also reminded of the personalities, tragedies, disasters, and political fights that Jon and his team of writers, producers, and correspondents helped viewers see more clearly through satire. Indecisions 2000 -08. 9/11. W. Mess O’Potamia. Sarah Palin. WMDs. The financial meltdown. Anthony Weiner.

In Jon’s words:

“We were serious people doing a very stupid thing, and they were unserious people doing a very serious thing, and that juxtaposition really landed.” 

 “…the show always did best when it existed in the space between what was presented as public policy and the strategizing that went into creating it. That was the defining thread of the show, that sense that we were being sold something.”

“If your world does not include enough access to different people, and their world does not include enough access to you, you are speaking from ignorance.”

Correspondents conducting field pieces interviewed real people who really believed the things they were saying. Interviewers confronted them with the contrary view in a humorous way, and then let the tape roll, giving full voice their (contradictory, hypocritical, sometimes scary, sometimes hilarious) perspective. Daily Show alums include Samantha Bee, Lewis Black, Steve Carell, Nancy Walls Carell, Wyatt Cenac, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal, Assif Mandvi, Olivia Munn, John Oliver, Rob Riggle, Mo Rocca, Kristen Schaal, and Larry Wilmore. All of them give credit to Stewart for his mentorship in building their careers.

“I found out…that I had a political point of view…I don’t think I would have done that if Jon hadn’t shown me a way to do it and still by joyful and inventive about it, rather than being finger-waggy.” ~Stephen Colbert

“…because now all I want is to part of something that’s smart, silly, and has heart at the same time. Why can’t everything have all three?” ~Al Madrigal

Sure, this is a book for fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, but it’s also a tutorial in how to build a team to do important work while having fun. It’s a bit long, but I never once thought of giving up. Recommend.

“He started out to be a working comedian, and he ended up an invaluable patriot. He wants his county to be better, more decent, and to think harder.” ~David Remnick. Editor in chief, the New Yorker

 

Book review: The art of making something from nothing

lucy-bartonMy Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout  has written a gentle book with no real plot or movement except back and forth in time. A young mother and writer is hospitalized for many weeks with a serious but undiagnosed illness.  At her husband’s request, her estranged mother comes to stay with her–in her hospital room. She’s there 24 hours a day, refusing the cot she is offered, refusing to leave, or to sleep.  This visit—the only way her mother seems capable of saying, “I love you,” –brings up painful memories of the unhealthy, dysfunctional family they shared. Lucy realizes “… how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts.”

While there, the mother relates stories of other people’s unhappy marriages, seemingly unaware of her own.  Lucy reflects, “I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the cervices of my mouth, reminding me.”

When her mother-in-law reminds her that she “comes from nothing,” it rankles her. “But I think: No one in this world comes from nothing.” Indeed, the “nothing” others may see is the stuff from which we create our lives. Nothing isn’t nothing.

School and books save Lucy. As she writes her novel, her mentor assures her, “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Her advice is to go “… to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” And she does.

While Strout’s writing is poignant and evocative, I was left wanting more of a pay-off or big reveal. I remember having similar thoughts when I read Olive Kittridge. Have you read either of these? What did you think? Is there enough here to make a good story?

olive
Also an Emmy winning HBO mini-series

Do you believe in magic?

big magic

At first, I thought Elizabeth Gilbert’s  latest, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear was only for writers and other artists. But as I read, I found it reminding me that we can all live creative lives. A creative life is simply one that isn’t satisfied with merely working to pay bills. Do you like to make stuff? Do you like to cook, sew, garden, decorate your home, play with model trains, build birdhouses? You are entitled to a creative life. Yes, you! Everyone is.

I’ve included just a few of the many passages I highlighted in bright pink.

Relax and work hard

Gilbert tells us not to worry about being good enough. If the work makes you happy, it doesn’t matter what others think. The work is what’s important.

“We are all just beginners here, and we shall all die beginners.”

“A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.”

“Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat.”

Where ideas come from and where they go…

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form… Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

Gilbert tells a great story about the novel she didn’t write. After getting an idea and starting a novel, some life-altering circumstances caused her to set it aside. Boxes and boxes of research sat idle for years. When her life settled down and she was able to start again, the idea had fled. She was simply no longer interested in it. Later, Gilbert discovered that that idea had flitted into Anne Patchett’s head and that she was now working on it. That idea turned into her book, State of Wonder. Clearly the lesson is, if you don’t do the work, the idea will find someone who will. Get cracking!state of wonder

Success and failure

 “You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.”

“Recognizing that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”

Live beyond fear, not without it

Gilbert recognizes that a certain amount of fear is necessary for survival, that those without any fear tend to act like sociopaths or out-of-control toddlers. Not people we should emulate. How does she deal with fear? Here’s the letter she addressed to her fear before starting a new project, what she likens to a “road trip.”

“Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting—and, may I say, you are superb at your job… But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way…You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote…above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”

Finally…

Big Magic may be my new favorite graduation gift. In spite of the author’s magical thinking the book is loaded with very practical advice for how to live a creative, productive, and happy life. Furthermore, it’s delivered in a direct, cheerful, kind, generous, and encouraging voice. Gilbert values curiosity over passion. She argues against trying to make creativity pay one’s bills. She argues for keeping one’s day job, living frugally, and traveling. She also argues against going into debt to pay for advanced degrees. Pulitzer prizes don’t often go to folks with MFAs.

My advice? Treat yourself so some Big Magic and read this book.

 

 

What’s next?

51GBwdc6RGL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

After You by JoJo Moyes

My book club chose to read this after finishing the author’s very moving and successful Me Before You. We simply needed to know if Lou Clark ever got a happy ending. The answer is well, sort of.

The book picks up a year or so after Will’s death. Publicity surrounding his controversial decision impacts everyone connected–even Lou’s family.  Lou moves to Paris for a while, but is still struggling to find a way forward. She returns to England and, with money Will has left her, buys a little flat in London and works unhappily in an airport bar. The flat is just a place to sleep. She hasn’t even properly moved in until an unexpected and troubled young girl claiming ties to Will shows up. Out of loyalty to Will, she feels obligated to become involved. And that makes all the difference.

Well, that and the fact that when she falls off her roof she has a “meet cute” with a hunky paramedic.

Moyes has said that this sequel was hard to write because so many people loved Lou and had so many expectations for how her life should turn out.  She understood that some people wouldn’t like it, no matter what she wrote and had to write the story that she felt was true to the character.

Granted, Me Before You is a hard act to follow. While After You is not quite as compelling, it is satisfying. Moyes does a beautiful job of setting the reader in the midst of family and personal struggles as Lou makes uneven progress through her grief. There is humor and sadness and tension and love and letting go. I recommend it if, like me, you need to know the rest of the story.

One novel idea about getting smarter, not just older

100 day
The kindergartners dressed as if they were 100 years old on the 100th day of school.

This post is in response to a brief blog-versation I had with the charming Brian over at Bonnywood Manor after he kindly nominated me for a Liebster Award. Liebster means “favorite” in German and the nomination carries along with it some obligations, which I am politely, humbly, and gratefully ignoring. Brian was curious about my creative process and the critique group to which I belong. Therefore, instead of accepting the award, I wrote this. If you have something to say about writing, creativity, or lifelong learning, please do so in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts. XO


In this photo, my granddaughter is celebrating her 100th day of kindergarten and being “100 DAYS SMARTER.” It got me thinking, shouldn’t we all celebrate getting smarter? Am I still learning?
I like to think so, but some of that learning is accidental. For example, perhaps we should have gotten an estimate to replace the roof on this twenty-year-old house before we made our offer. Or maybe drinking several cups of tea with my sushi at dinner the other night wasn’t such a good idea. I guess that’s what they mean by “live and learn.”

Other times, however, I’ve set out to learn a new skill. On purpose. I’ve put myself in the uncomfortable situation of being potentially and embarrassingly bad at something. Like blogging. Or yoga. In short, I’ve risked failure. At my age, being new at anything is refreshing—scary and humbling–but refreshing. Even exhilarating.
Case in point, at the urging of my friend, Joan, I wrote a “novel” in 2009 during NaNoWriMo. The quotes are because my “novel” was merely 70,000 words of collected scenes and sketches, held together with hope, Dove wrappers, and sticky notes. It added up to a word count, but little else. I knew I needed help massaging it into something meaningful (readable even?), but what kind of help? How much? And who do I ask?
Enter another friend, Marilee, who just happened to be a legendary writing instructor at Western Nevada College and founder of Lone Mountain Writers, a local critique group. LMW has been meeting every other week for over twenty years and has among its past and present members several published poets and authors such as romance writer, Wilma Counts. Marilee invited me to join. I accepted.
During my first few meetings, I observed the protocol and learned the ground rules. Up to four pieces are emailed to the group ahead of time so we have a chance to read deeply and make notes. Submissions can be up to fifteen pages. The group responds round-robin style with each of our oral comments limited to two or three minutes, all while the author remains stoically silent. We hand over our marked up copy to the author who only at the end may ask questions, defend, or clarify something.
I was profoundly impressed by the variety and quality of writing. Many people were working on novels. And for the most part, they didn’t need help with grammar or punctuation. The discussions focused on elements of fiction: plot, point of view, character, structure, pacing, voice, etc. These are the things a reader may not even notice, except in their absence. It’s what makes a reader want to invest time and thought and heart in the work. That stuff.
Consequently, I waited months before I worked up the courage to submit. I’d been writing personal narratives and opinions for years, but fiction was new to me. I polished my first chapters until (I thought) they sparkled. I just knew the group would be blown away by my literary genius. Instead, what I heard–repeatedly–was, “This is excellent writing, but you don’t have a story here.” Apparently, what I had was a mess of good writing.

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But the story in my head kept pushing me forward. It wouldn’t let me give up.

So I kept listening and learning. I read books on writing and revising. I rewrote and resubmitted. I attended a local writers conference and got feedback from a real, live editor. I “killed my darlings,” deleting lovely little bits of writing that didn’t serve my story. I learned not to take any critique personally and to listen to those who shared my vision for my story. I smiled and respectfully set aside advice from those who wanted my story to become theirs. (It needs more explosions! How about some robots?)

Now, five years and countless drafts and revisions later, what I hear is, “This is the best thing you’ve submitted,” and “I finally like this character. I understand her now.” Whew.
So while I may not have a cute hat to wear to celebrate getting smarter, I nonetheless feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s enough to keep me going. Good thing, because it’s not done yet. But neither am I. I’ve invested too much time and energy to quit now. I’m smart enough to know that.come this far2

Yes Please

yes pleaseI like Amy Poehler. She and Tina Fey are two of my favorite Saturday Night Live writers and performers of all time. So, after reading (or rather listening to) Tina’s memoir, I thought it was only fair to read Amy’s as well. It too was made available to me electronically for FREE from my public library.
Amy offers some life lessons from where she stands at the middle of hers. In her mid-forties, she’s the divorced, sleep-deprived, working mother of two. Here’s some of what she’s learned.
1. Be kind. Don’t text anything you wouldn’t want the world to see. While she does drop a lot of names, if you’re looking for juicy, mean-girl gossip, you won’t find it here. Even her ex-husband is treated with kindness and gratitude. Furthermore, Amy apologizes very publicly for an unintentional (on her part) hurt she caused some fine people with an SNL sketch she did years ago, demonstrating that it’s never too late to apologize. It takes a weight off your heart.
2. Find your tribe. Surround yourself with smart people so you can learn from them about the craft you are pursuing. Amy, like Tina, credits years of improv for helping her learn to collaborate. No one does it alone.

“Do work that you are proud of with your talented friends.”

3. Be brave. Failure isn’t fatal. You will survive.
4. Decide what your currency is. Don’t fight it. Be true to you. Honor your innate and unique gifts by putting them to work.
5. Work hard. Amy credits her success to years of hard work and little bits of progress.

“You have to care about your work but not about the result.You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.”

6. Give back. Teach others and allow them to have what you have.

While the book is not hilarious, it is humorous and touching and honest with some unexpected wisdom and a reminder that kindness counts, even in show business.

A road trip with Tina Fey…

bossypantsBossypants is the perfect audio book for your summer road trip, especially if you’re traveling with your daughters, sisters, or girlfriends. I mean, Tina reads it herself so it’s like she’s there in the car with you. But seriously, if you are (or know) a male who just doesn’t get why we’re still talking about feminism, it could work too. It’s that good.

Tina is funny and smart and full of self-doubt. She offers her life story as an instruction manual for parents on how to raise drug-free, adult virgins.  

She also credits much of her success to the lessons she learned in improv. Whatever the situation, respond with “Yes, and…” rather than arguing. She explains it better, of course. Tina is also a fan of surrounding yourself with smart people. Good advice whatever you do for a living.  

Has Anyone Tried Kindle Scout?

Some of my writer friends might find this avenue to publishing interesting. I’d never heard of it.

ReadTuesday

Image from ShutterStock Image from ShutterStock

KINDLE SCOUT

Amazon has a relatively new publishing program called Kindle Scout.

http://kindlescout.amazon.com

It’s publishing, not self-publishing, but more accessible than other traditional publishing. And readers have a much more involved role.

Authors submit complete, copy-edited manuscripts, and readers check out the covers, descriptions, first 3000 words, and bios.

Readers vote on their favorites. It’s not strictly a popularity contest, as the book with the most votes is NOT guaranteed a publishing contract.

However, it is important for authors to garner votes, as those votes are needed to get the attention of the Kindle Scout team. Maybe it’s to show them that the author has learned the basic marketing skills needed to attract readers. Once the book has the Kindle Scout team’s consideration, it must thrive on its own merit. But without their attention, it will just fizzle.

Kindle Scout pays a $1500 advance and 50% royalties…

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