How did the famous get it done?

A Facebook friend recently shared an interesting post with me – The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

Apparently, Ray Bradbury could write anywhere and when Joan Didion was nearing the end of a manuscript she had to sleep right next to it. E.B White says, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” My sentiments, exactly. White wrote in the middle of his home with everyone in his family roaming around him. Kerouac had some weird lighting and blowing out of candles ritual. Susan Sontag wrote everything out longhand with felt-tipped pens, then typed her work, scribbled all over the typed copy and then typed it all over again. Henry Miller advised that if groggy in the morning, one should type notes. Afternoons were for serious writing and evenings for hanging out in cafes or sketching. Anais Nin did her best work in the morning and Kurt Vonnegut depends on Scotch and water by about 5:30 in the afternoon to get through his days. Maya Angelou writes in the morning, shops for food in the afternoon and does serious cooking in the evening – if she writes nine pages in a day, she may end up being happy with three. William Gibson, my favorite futurist writer, drinks coffee, does Pilates a couple of times a week and if he gets stuck on the writing he goes out to mow the lawn. Good to know how a guy who can predict the future with such eerie accuracy spends his days.

Ernest Hemingway’s thoughts are my favorite – When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you will do it all again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through. Ya, I guess so Mr. Hemingway  – if every day you’re done writing feels like good sex, no wonder you can’t wait for tomorrow. I mean, even it if was mediocre sex – it might still keep you heading back to the old keyboard. Just read an entertaining blog post on the Brown Road Chronicles  that elaborates on how writing is like sex – check it out.

Reading how other author’s get the writing job done has got me thinking about how I work. The jury is out on whether this is worth sharing or not but here goes. There are four desks in the cabin but I can only work at the kitchen table. I listen to The Beat 92.5 on my laptop very loud – which means a cord running over to the speakers on the window sill; I’m always getting caught up in that cord. The table is usually so full of papers and books I can’t see the top. I have an eighteen inch statue of the Nike of Samothrace that I totally love – it’s on the windowsill, right in my sight line whenever I look up from the keyboard and out to the lake. She’s flanked by two huge pinecones I carted home from a trip to California a couple of years ago. I drink coffee all the time and eat right over the keyboard – I know it’s gross but what the hell – no one is anywhere near enough to see me and I do have a fancy little brush to whisk out the crumbs now and then. I’ll eat anything that is quick to prepare – I almost fell over with joy the other day when I found an old package of dried noodles leftover from Emma’s last visit to the lake – easy and fast – the only criteria that really matters at all.

The old and decrepit dog lies on the bare tile right at my feet and every time I get up I trip over her – she is stone deaf so never hears it coming and I never seem to get used to the fact that she is always right there. So with tripping to the right of me on speaker wire and to the left of me over the dog – I’m quite content to stay put in the chair.

If I’m alone here, I basically work all the time. I’m usually going by 5:00 am. I do force myself to get up from the table at least once every couple of hours to walk around a bit and stretch and do some stay-sane type of task – hang up laundry, put a log on the fire, run to the bathroom, feed said decrepit dog, take said dog outside for a pee, answer the phone, make more coffee. Then it’s back to the grind.

So, that’s how I’m trying to get it done. Let me know a couple of the highlights of how you work.

DSC_0754

We saw this little gem on a downtown street in Sacramento and couldn’t resist a picture.

 

DP Challenge – What’s the best piece of advice you ever gave someone else and didn’t take yourself?

I see the DP challenges all the time, like the rest of us Word Press junkies who are always checking our stats and trawling around the blog world – this one I couldn’t pass up.

I used to throw a statement out to my students when I taught undergrad courses in helping skills and communication – giving advice is an act of arrogance.

Students would invariably have a strong reaction to this statement – that was the point, and to be fair it is overstated in its absoluteness. But I was trying to get a discussion going and challenge the idea that helping – be it in a professional capacity or with friends and family – is about telling other people what they should be doing. Let’s be honest here – that is what advice usually amounts to.

I feel so strongly about this that it has crept into my novel. Here is a small excerpt from Disappearing in Plain Sight

Liam didn’t want to give Lisa-Marie advice. He believed most people roll out the advice-giving wagon without thinking about what they’re doing. It’s arrogant to imagine you can ever know what someone else should do. He had no idea if Lisa-Marie should take her shot with Justin. His twisting gut told him it was a mistake . . . . On the other hand, Liam’s gut was always twisting and he didn’t know for sure what other people felt or wanted.

There, in a nutshell, is my opinion on advice giving. We seldom know enough about another person’s situation to weigh-in with a – you should do this – type of statement. We think we do, but we don’t and therein rests the arrogance. The other person will be the one to live with the consequences of taking our advice – do we want that on our conscience? It’s far more productive to be a good listener and allow people to explore their own situation and feelings and come to their own decisions.

I often faced very heart-felt comments from students on how giving advice was what their whole idea of helping rested on – they had always been the one in their family and in their various relationships to tell others what they should do – people actually valued them for playing this role.

I would set up an exercise where students would sit with a partner and listen to this person speak for three uninterrupted minutes. Going into this exercise, most students felt it would be easy – after all it was a course on helping skills and improving communication and many students took the course because they were considering future work in a helping field. And after all – what is three minutes?

After the time was up, we would discuss how the listeners managed. Invariably they shared that they found it extremely difficult to just listen and not interject with advice or share their own experiences of a similar situation. They often said the three minutes seemed like forever.

Try this exercise yourself – most people will find it very difficult to listen to another person talk for three minutes. (I’m not saying stone faced listening here – active listening – giving the other person non-verbal positive feedback to keep them talking.)

OK – conclusion – what’s the best piece of advice I gave to others and didn’t take myself? Simple answer – don’t give advice! I’ve broken that advice so often I can’t even count the times. And I know better! There you go – true confession. My most notorious advice-giving has been with my grown children. And I’ll tell you this for free – giving unsolicited advice to your own kids is quite unproductive.

Oh what fools we mortals be . . .  and all of that.

My advice – try listening instead of telling other people what they should do. Oh, oh – there I go again, giving advice.

 

 

 

Open Your Mind

Open up your mind to the possibility that 1 + 1 can equal 48, a Mercedes Benz, an apple pie, a blue horse.

DP Challenge – find the 3rd line on page 82 of the closest book at hand and write your blog post based on that line – the above line comes from, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.

(I know, I know – you’re asking yourselves – was that book really the closest to hand? Honestly – I was printing up yet another hardcopy of the never-ending story for yet another round of final edits and reading blog posts while I waited and this book was lying right on the desk next to me when I read the DP Challenge.)

So, what on earth does that sentence, in all its glorious isolation, mean to me?

For a writer, it could mean that a good story is a story with a twist. The thing that will really grab a reader is the unexpected – the blue horse when it seemed as though the author was going to pull out the same old same old. And this seems to be true for all areas of writing from big things like plot to little things like a common metaphor or analogy – give it a twist and you get people’s attention.

But wait – another part of my thought process has just kicked in here – what about the other side of this equation? What about the times our reader desperately needs 1 + 1 to equal 2 – go to hell with the Mercedes Benz and apples. The reader needs to believe in some constants in the worlds we writers create – that there are things to connect with and that these important touch points aren’t going to be blown off the map. What about that? Don’t we owe our readers that, too?

OK – maybe it’s like this . . . As writers we strive for what I used to understand, in another life, as internal consistency. (I was once a skilled university researcher – cue the band and the ticker tape parade, please.) We give that important twist when we highlight the fact that life is complicated. There are no easy answers, nothing lasts forever, and change is inevitable. The only thing you can count on is that just around the corner life is going to bite you in the butt.

The constancy that the reader needs – almost as much as they need that important twist – is captured in the fact that the characters we have created, the situations we placed them in and the various ways they react, are all things the reader can identify with – we allow the readers that precious aha moment when they say to themselves – right, I see how that could be.

So, fellow writers bring on the twist – your own version of a Mercedes Benz, an apple pie and those good old blue horses – just leave the reader knowing that in the world you created, there is some underlying 1 + 1 equals 2 consistencies to count on.

I present this picture of the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry. It seems to me that the reality of this building gracing the street of downtown LA represents a huge twist of reality and yet it is there – real – consistent with some internal rules of architecture and building that defy all logic

My Latest Flash Fiction for the Ramsgate Women’s Fiction Group

(A pretty pic to catch your eye – we writer’s our shameless in our ability to solicit attention – but don’t say you weren’t warned.)

Got my snippet of conversation for a flash fiction assignment from the Ramsgate Women’s Fiction Group – check out their blog http://ramsgatewomensfiction.blogspot.ca/

Anyway, here’s the result – fiction with a wee twist of autobiographical feeling – then again, what fiction isn’t like that?

“Yes, well she said she wasn’t drunk, but I don’t know.” Shit – why had she tacked on those last three words – I don’t know – in that tentative, weak tone? She sounded like she didn’t have a clue, like her client would have been better off telling her problems to the first passerby she saw on the street. Shit.

Monica clutched at the file in her hand and told herself to breathe. The weekly peer supervision sessions with one of her graduate school colleagues always rattled her composure. They were supposed to share case notes from their practicum counselling sessions and try to help each other identify blind spots, work on their edges – what a load of shit. It was the blind leading the blind – one-upmanship spurred on by mutual insecurity. The first person to show a hint of weakness would be brought down like a crippled zebra before a pack of slavering lions.

And who the hell did this guy think he was to be questioning her judgement in that snide tone and making her feel like some sort of beginner? The thought of him being a counsellor someday made her pity anyone who might end up as his client. What a joke this entire program was turning out to be. Why she had thought going back to school to get her Master’s degree was a good idea was a total mystery to her now. And at her age – it was laughable, really. She knew how to help people – she’d been doing it for years. But instead of being out in the world doing what she was good at, she was stuck in a corner of the graduate student lounge being grilled by an egotistical smart aleck who was young enough to be her son – peer my ass.

When she let herself dwell on what her graduate school experience had been so far she felt like vomiting. Insecure professors who were also younger than her, nitpicking over ridiculous crap – academics who hadn’t had an original thought in the last twenty years, people so busy cannibalizing any real work they had ever done and stealing their own students’ ideas for more publications and research grant money, they had no time or inclination to give a shit about teaching. Her fellow classmates had either come into the program thinking they already knew everything or they were so busy spewing back every word the prof said like it had just come down from God on high they couldn’t possibly open themselves up to really learn anything. The curriculum for the entire program made her question when the last time anyone designing this bullshit had been in the real world. What a colossal mistake it all was.

“Monica, can we drop the peer supervision roles for a minute? I really need to talk to someone.”

The tremble in his voice propelled her out of her spiral of negative thoughts as she sat up straighter and met his pleading eyes. “Sure, Jeff – what’s up?”

“I haven’t slept for a couple of days – I can’t keep up. Work is crazy right now and I need the job – I’ve got to pay for school. I don’t have that old silver spoon in my mouth like some people in this program. My girlfriend is on my back every minute about how much time I’m spending on campus and I’m behind in the readings for every course. Forget about that bloody theories paper for Mr. Dickhead – it’s not going to happen.”

Monica watched him drop his head into his hand and rake his long fingers through his hair. When he looked up his voice shook, “I admire you – you’re the one person in the whole frigging cohort who seems to care about anybody else or even slightly have her shit together. I watch you and I wonder what the hell I’m doing here. I feel like such a bloody imposter every second – like it’s only a matter of time before they find out what a total incompetent I am and kick me out of the program. Sorry to dump all my crap out like this – I just feel like I’m drowning.”

Monica took a deep breath and reached across the space that separated them to put her hand on Jeff’s knee, “Let’s take things one at a time – OK? Maybe together we can figure out where you can get a little room to move in all of this.” She smiled warmly at him and she could feel her world pivot back to where it was supposed to be.

Editing – The Never Ending Story

Home to our comfy cabin in the woods – well it will be comfy again when we build up some heat in the place. This morning I feel like I’m getting back to reality with a jolt. And that means back to the reason I started this blog – to share my self-publishing journey.

When I left on the marathon trip I thought the editing of Disappearing in Plain Sight was done. I clicked the upload button on my author account page with Friesen Press and like magic my four hundred page Word file went off into cyberspace. My overriding thought at the time was good riddance. Now, like the proverbial bad penny, or hot potato, or whatever tired old analogy one could use – it’s right back in my lap.

To quote the editorial evaluation – The manuscript is at an advanced stage of readiness for publication and needs only minor polishing up in mechanical terms. I recommend a professional proofread before publication to catch a few spelling and punctuation errors that will be distracting to the reader.

OK – I admit – my first thought was that any polishing had to be pretty minor. There couldn’t be that many errors – the manuscript has been gone over so many times. And not just by me, thank goodness. But of course, every time I made one change, I was running the risk of screwing up something else. No doubt there are issues.

Before I write the next bit of this blog, I want to qualify what I am about to say. Friesen Press is a business – I totally get that. Businesses are about making money. There is nothing wrong with wanting to run a successful business that makes money. Heck, I would like to make money someday – though the likelihood of that happening seems fantastical at the moment. There is money to be made in up selling – there’s a good reason you get asked if you want fries with that burger every time you go to a fast food restaurant.

I inquired about the cost of the minor polishing up my editorial evaluation called for – $1925.27. The very next day I received an email telling me that Friesen Press was offering a special 15% off of the type of editing I required. Again – no criticism here – this is about up selling and making money. I get that.

I will stay firm on this issue, though – I’m not putting out any more money than I already have to get the book published. One of my first questions to my author account manager at Friesen Press revolved around a fear I had that once I got into the process I would be pressured to spend more and more money. She assured me there would be no pressure and there hasn’t been!

So – it is back to the world of editing for me and two wonderful people I have enlisted to be my second and third set of eyes.

Here is the plan:

First, I must compare each chapter, line by line, with my editor’s suggestions – yes – again! I realize now that I missed a few things, especially in the earlier chapters. I guess real diligence to change came with practice. Someday I will write an entire blog about my use, or more correctly, my overuse, of the word just. I’m wondering if it relates to a way of thinking and ultimately of being in the world – a means of qualifying speech and thought. Anyway, it’s so natural for me to insert the word just all over the place (especially when writing dialogue) that I barely notice I’ve done it. When I reread, my eyes just skim over the word just like it isn’t even there. (You see what I mean – I had no idea I wrote the word just twice in one sentence – crazy!)

After making sure I’ve really done all the changes needed, I will reread each chapter with an eye for any typos that I have missed previously or recently created. Then I will recheck the formatting to ensure nothing has gone out of whack in that department. The next step will be a printed copy of the chapter that all eyes can poring over word by word. Then back to the computer to clean up any typos or issues we have spotted in the hardcopy. I will check the computer copy one last time and then move onto the next chapter. EEEK – but it must be done. I don’t get out of this editing purgatory until I’ve completed the process.

Bruce took this picture in a small grove of Eucalyptus trees near Pismo Beach in California. There were 5000 monarch butterflies in the grove that day. What was even more enjoyable than watching so many butterflies flit through the trees, was the looks on peoples’ faces as they entered the grove and looked up – sheer wonder followed by huge grins. Butterflies are free and right now I am not – but I’ll be flitting among the upper branches soon, too – only forty chapters to go!

“Flight” – A Good Movie for a Writer to See.

Last night my husband and I went to see the movie, Flight, starring Denzel Washington. I had no idea what the movie was about – I had seen an advertisement on a billboard coming out of LA – Denzel looking pretty handsome in a pilot’s uniform and the title. That’s it. 

 

As we approached the theatre in San Luis Obispo our conversation went something like this:

When’s the last time we went to see a movie in an actual theatre?

I can’t even remember.

I think it was Slumdog Millionaire.

But wasn’t that the Christmas Emma was born? Four years ago – wow!

When on holidays one should do many interesting things. That’s our motto. And seeing a movie is good for a writer. If you watch a movie carefully you can learn a lot about the way to move a plot along from scene to scene, characterization, dialogue, and story arc. As an added bonus, you can do all of these things in less than two hours. Of course, reading novels is a great way to accomplish the same thing, but it takes longer.

Flight, is an amazingly ironic and subtle movie – like an onion, one can peel back layer after layer of meaning – it all depends on how deep a person wants to go. And that depends on what the person came into the theatre with in the first place – much as it will be when (hopefully) a reader picks up my novel.

The scenes of the plane crash had me on the edge of my seat with my hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t gasp out loud too often. Denzel Washington was utterly believable in the role of an alcoholic and drug using airline pilot whose life is falling completely apart. The movie is dark and gripping from beginning to end and for anyone who has even a smattering of experience with what addiction can be like – eerily familiar. The type of movie that makes you feel a bit queasy as just what you expect to happen does in fact happen.

But for the writer, there are so many other levels. Here is a story where the hero and the villain are all wrapped up in the same character. There is no doubt that Captain Whittaker is a hero – he managed to pull off a miracle – crash land the plane and only lose six out of one-hundred and twenty people. In simulator tests after the crash, ten pilots tried to pull off what he accomplished and all ten crashed the plane and killed everyone on board. At the same time, Captain Whittaker is a man who blatantly stepped into the cockpit of a plane under the influence of alcohol. He was responsible for the lives of every person on board that plane and he was drunk and high on cocaine taken in order to counteract his use of alcohol. He saved the lives of one-hundred and fourteen people and yet he betrayed the public trust. Interesting juxtaposition – isn’t it?

For the movie viewer who likes to see a form of justice done – Captain Whittaker does end up in jail. In yet another ironic plot twist, hitting rock bottom and going to jail frees him from his addiction and reunites him with his son. A touching moment occurs at the end of the movie when his son comes to the prison for a visit. He asks to interview his dad for his college entrance exam on the topic of the most fascinating person I never met.

The movie raised an interesting question for me. Could Captain Whittaker have done what he did in the cockpit that day if he hadn’t been in the condition he was? Maybe if he had been sober as he was supposed to be, he would have crashed the plane and killed everyone on board as all the other pilots in the simulator did. Now that is irony, for sure. He saved the lives of so many people and yet he went to jail for breaking the public trust – another irony – justice or a miscarriage of justice? Who can say? No easy answers. A movie that makes a person think – good work Hollywood! That’s exactly what I want my writing to do.

 

 

 

 

The Sierra Madre Playhouse

We are always looking for interesting things to see and do in the communities we visit. Yesterday, we were lucky enough to take a short Sunday afternoon drive out of Pasadena and into the city of Sierra Madre. I can hardly describe it as a city – it seemed more like a quiet little community nestled in the shadow of the beautiful foothills. We stopped for a leisurely lunch at The Only Place restaurant. It might not be the only place to eat in Sierra Madre but it’s certainly a great place to eat. I discovered the Santa Fe burger – served on sourdough bread with grilled bell peppers and Swiss cheese accompanied by a delicious potato salad – totally yummy.

    Across the street from the restaurant was the Sierra Madre Playhouse. This funky little 99 seat theatre was built in 1923. It’s now a community theatre run by a non-profit board of directors. They are dedicated to presenting culturally sound and family oriented theatre. We had Googled what’s happening in Pasadena and noticed that something was playing that very evening.

The box office opened for an afternoon performance and we ran across the street to check it out. A welcoming older man took our names and told us he could make a special deal for us, his Canadian friends, if we came back at 7:00 to see the evening show. True to his words we got two tickets to see The Liquid Radio Players for $10.00 each. This improvisational, 1940’s style radio show had been listed as LA Weekly’s comedy pick of the week.  

The theatre was lovely – small, comfortable seating and able to evoke a sense of nostalgia for when such venues were the norm. We were greeted at the door by a beautiful young woman giving out small candy treats. As audience members we got to choose the genre for the evening show – science fiction. Fitting, as this was a special Halloween performance. We chose the title – The Alien from Kentucky; character names – a villainous alien named Gorkan (an audience member’s last name); two young sweethearts named Scarlett Rose and Willy; and three 1940’s type radio sponsors – Shooties Oatmeal, Acme Plumbing, and Condom’s Hair Cream. That one got a good laugh.

The next hour and a half was filled with wildly funny antics as the narrator and five actors, plus sound man and keyboardist, improvised their way through a story of aliens from Mars landing in a farmer’s cornfield. In the end the earth was saved and romance bloomed.

We were pleased to explore Sierra Madre – a place with such a small town feel during a time we had thought would be our big city hustle and bustle part of the trip. If you are ever in the Pasadena area, please check out the Sierra Madre Playhouse. I’m sure you won’t regret it.