Going Silent and Coming Back

Jar Room Wonder

Well, WordPress followers … if you’re still out there … I’ve gone silent since September 18th, 2018 with my Lady Ashburn Mustard Pickles post. What a post to go out on. By the way, those pickles are so delicious! Okay, all kidding aside, months can fly by when one is filling non-writing time with food preservation, road trips, holidays and sock knitting.

Happy feet

There are about a hundred good posts in the above activities, but this blog is supposed to be all about writing. If I come to a dry spell again, I might start an all about non-writing blog. Then again, not writing really meant not writing. I have been hard pressed to put something as short and simple as an email together.

Let’s talk writing blocks. Every author has them. Getting my last book (No Compass to Right) out in 2017 was a huge effort – faster than usual writing timeline for all stages, a rush to publication to meet certain promotion opportunities then blissful nothingness. Stepping back from the whirlwind was much needed.

Kayak & kid magic

My well-earned rest flowed right into summer at the lake, visitors and a bountiful garden to enjoy. Along comes fall and there is the imperative of fresh produce begging for preservation. Then immersion as a sideline cheerleader on our jar and freezer room project (check it out in the first pic on this post). More than satisfying to see that space completed! And suddenly it is time for a road trip. We get home, catch our breath and we are in the Christmas rush. Busy, busy, busy.

Brit, Fran and Emma at Crowsnest Pass in Alberta Nov3-2018 - bruce witzel photo

I’m not fooling any of the writers out there with my busyness excuses. When we need to write, nothing gets in the way and everything else still gets done – for the most part. Writers are efficient with their time.

Coming back is hard. I can’t deny it. The longer I stayed away from daily writing, the more of a brick wall went up. Deconstructing the wall takes time. My endurance for sustained writing is low. In the first fifteen minutes I fight down a constant stream of demanding thoughts. I need to get up for a snack, perhaps another cup of coffee, maybe I should check my email and on it goes. Then, without any fanfare, I fall into the zone and the next forty-five minutes whiz by.

In a rush of energy at the end of writing No Compass to Right, I created extensive notes for the next book. Last week, I started back to those notes and simply hanging out with the characters. Asking questions. What is on their minds, where do they want to go, what do they want to be doing in book five? And do those characters ever clamour for attention. They speak, oh man do they speak – some go so far as to yell and scream. The ideas come in front of the keyboard as I write and while I do my daily walk. I snapped this photo through the glass of our greenhouse the other day. Datura in full bloom with evergreen reflection.

January Greenhouse Datura

Once I am back to writing, the desire to send my thoughts out into the blogosphere returns. This has been my longest WordPress silence since I started blogging in 2012. Here’s to going silent and here’s to coming back. If anyone is still listening … here’s a couple of pics of me and Bruce at Emerald Lake in YoHo National Park.

Me and Bruce at Emerald Lake         Emerald Lake - Yo Ho National Park

Where do you get your ideas?

Glass half full - Guenette photo

Recently, I was asked this question – How do you come up with the ideas for your books? The person asking was sincere in a desire to understand the inner workings of a novelist’s process. My first thought was that ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere, free for the taking. As Amy Tan wrote, “It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.”

Neil Gaimon talks of how every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors are asked for medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting their profession must be before the subject is quickly changed. Writers must bear the burden of being asked where we get our ideas from.

I scrambled to pull my thoughts together and make an adequate reply. I considered answering as Hemingway would. “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” From there all will flow. I rejected that idea. By quoting Hemingway I ran the risk of sounding like a literary snob and such an answer would have been unsatisfying to a sincere questioner.

Instead, I talked of how I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. They are the ones who have all the ideas. I’m with Stephen King when he says that the best stories always end up being about the people, not the events. The only problem with this answer is that it begged the next question. Where do the characters come from?

Where indeed? Even after five forays into creating characters and stories that fill whole books, the process is as much a mystery to me as it might be to someone who has never done it. Fair to say, as Chuck Palahniuk notes, “My writing process isn’t a very organized thing.”

The more I think about how the books came to be, the more the indefinable nature of the work strikes me. It’s almost as if I have fallen victim to a strange reflective amnesia. Where on earth did those first characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight come from? I just don’t know. E.L Doctorow tells us, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” He might have been wise to add that when looking in the rear-view mirror, one can see nothing at all.

The writing process is a hard thing to discuss. Virginia Wolfe had it right when she reflected that, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of … life, every quality of … mind is written large in his [or her] words.”

All I know for sure is that all my life I’ve wondered about people. I’ve always been curious and I’ve always been prone to wild bouts of speculation. Questions of ‘what if’ have often driven my thoughts.

Maybe George Orwell has the answer. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one weren’t driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Orwell could have also noted that having to talk about such a process is worse than going through it!

A new bird in town - Guenette photo

Thoughts from the Writing Trenches – VIII

Robin singing on a tree branch, March 20-2017 - bruce witzel photo

First draft progress – 149,000 words. I’m singing like that robin on a pear tree branch! There is something satisfying about a rising word count – even knowing many will be cut or reworked. In grad school, I had a supervisor who always told me – better to have too much material than not enough. Yo, that!

I’ve abandoned any attempts to follow a linear structure. Key climax scenes are all earmarked to be done last. Today, I took one story thread that involves three characters and followed it scene by scene to the end of the book. I suspect there will be more of that strategy as I push to the finish line.

A past instalment of this series generated an interesting question from Jane Tims over on Niche Poetry and Prose  – do I edit as I go?

Simple answer is yes. More complicated answer – it certainly doesn’t eliminate the need for a thorough edit later. Editing occurs for me at all stages. In this first draft stage, I’ve been using the evenings to read through what I’ve written that day and clean up the obvious mistakes – typos and weird wording. Whenever I need a break from moving the word count up, I’ve been putting the work, section by section, through a new tool I’m trying out – ProWritingAid. I often send my current copy of the manuscript to my Kindle by email so I can read key sections over before going to sleep.

As you can imagine, all these steps keep the work uppermost in my mind. Jane and I are curious – how do others handle editing in the first draft process? Let us know.

I’m leaving you today with this lovely spring photo. It tells me time is moving on. I’ve got to finish this first draft before it cuts into my wandering in the garden time.

Crocuses (backlit5) March 20, 0217 - bruce witzel photo

The Hermeneutic Circle and My Writing Process

Snow day - Guenette photo

(View from my writing desk this morning – stunning!)

Definition: The hermeneutic circle (German: hermeneutischer Zirkel) describes the process of understanding a text hermeneutically. It refers to the idea that one’s understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one’s understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole.

As I write furiously on the first draft of the 4th book in the Crater Lake Series – 43,000 words so far and going strong – I am struck by how appropriate the above definition of the hermeneutic circle is to my writing process.

I can list many of the parts: character and setting sketches, research notes, outlining, storyboarding, scene blocking, quiet time for visioning and listening to character voices, to name just a few.

A description of the whole is a more slippery. At some point in the process, the parts begin to coalesce. Waiting for that moment, a moment I have never been able to plan for or anticipate, is agonizing. Embarking on this journey for the fifth time doesn’t mean it’s any less agonizing. But I have learned this – when the moment comes there is no stopping the story from moving forward.

It’s the moving forward that fits the definition of the hermeneutic circle. All the parts are in my head and I work and work for hours on end; the words pile up; the page count rises and it all seems unstoppable. But it isn’t. I reach a saturation point. I jump from my chair, leave the computer and run out the door for a walk or a ride on the stationary bike.

When I return, I pick up at a different spot on the circle. It is time for the whole to feed back into the parts. I might write snippet setting descriptions, review character sketches, update my chapter-by-chapter outline, revisit my storyboard. Then I reread everything I have of the first draft. Only then am I ready to move forward with the parts all tuned up to inform the whole.

So it goes. I must say, I do love what I’m doing. Let me know if any of this resonates. Maybe you have a completely different take on nailing that all important first draft. Feel free to share. I’m always open to tweaking my process.

Snowy Feb Hellebore

A Quintessential Feel Good Song – And I Do!

Skunk Cabbage - Bruce Witzel photo

Yesterday was just one of those days that turned out great but I can’t explain why. Poised on that uncomfortable fence between obsessively planning to write the fourth book in the Crater Lake Series and actually starting to write said book, suddenly, inexplicably, I broke through. With the upbeat lyrics of American Authors in the background, as the smell of freshly mowed grass drifting in the window, I managed a few thousand words that are definitely going somewhere.

Once again, I was back at Crater Lake and the characters so filled my thoughts that I had to drop everything and stroll the paths around our place in an attempt to untangle the various knotted threads that represent their lives. It was then I knew, I had vaulted that uncomfortable fence. I was on my way.

Just in case you have any lingering Monday morning blues, I’ll share the lyrics from American Authors – Best Day of My Life. Follow along to the You Tube link and I’m sure that in no time you’ll be up and dancing around the room. Enjoy!

Best Day Of My Life

I had a dream so big and loud

I jumped so high I touched the clouds

Wo-o-o-o-o-oh

I stretched my hands out to the sky

We danced with monsters through the night

Wo-o-o-o-o-oh

I’m never gonna look back

Whoa, I’m never gonna give it up

No, please don’t wake me now

Oo-o-o-o-oo

This is gonna be the best day of my life

My life

Oo-o-o-o-oo

This is gonna be the best day of my life

My life

I howled at the moon with friends

And then the sun came crashing in

Wo-o-o-o-o-oh

But all the possibilities

No limits just epiphanies

Wo-o-o-o-o-oh

I’m never gonna look back

Whoa, I’m never gonna give it up

No, just don’t wake me now

Oo-o-o-o-oo

This is gonna be the best day of my life

My life

Oo-o-o-o-oo

This is gonna be the best day of my life

My life

I hear it calling outside my window

I feel it in my soul

The stars were burning so bright

The sun was out ’til midnight

I say we lose control

Oo-o-o-o-o

This is gonna be the best day of my life

My life

Oo-o-o-o-o

This is gonna be the best day of my life

My life

This is gonna be, this is gonna be, this is gotta be

The best day of my life

Everything is looking up, everybody up now

This is gonna be the best day of my life

My life

American Authors Album Cover

Anatomy of a Character Sketch

  Clock Tower

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to guest post over on Jill Weatherholt’s – Pursuing a Passion for Writing – blog. I wrote on the topic of character sketches and I choose to illustrate that concept today with building photos. The idea of creating a character shares some commonalities with building – working from the ground up, planning, careful scaffolding and attention to finishing details. 

Lighthouse - Witzel photo

When it comes to writing a novel, if I have any pearls of wisdom to drop, that string of luminescent beauty would be looped over the neck of how writers get to know their characters. A writer’s relationship with the characters has to go as deep as any connection to family members or BFF’s.

Character sketches are the obvious entry point to this knowing and a physical description is a good place to begin. Not necessarily the most important aspect of the undertaking, but one must start somewhere.

Ruins - Witzel photo

A physical description will naturally branch out and run all over the map – age, work, friends, family, hobbies, affectations, disabilities, talents. Dig a bit deeper and a character’s internal and external motivations begin to emerge. What makes the person tick? What drives this particular character’s actions? What makes him laugh? What makes her cry? Where is anger rooted?

Creating character sketches comes early in my writing process and it’s an exercise in wild writing – a regular free-for-all. I let myself go as I imagine everything I can about a particular character. As creator, I need to know far more about my creations than any reader will ever be subjected to.

Arts & Crafts home - Witzel photo

My daily walks become prime time for carrying out lengthy chats with all my characters. The first person the character interacts with is me. Later, when I’m sure I’m on solid ground with the relationships I have developed, I can begin to hear how they talk to one another. If I have brought the character sketch process to its logical conclusion, dialogue becomes an act of transcription.

Character sketches do not get laid to rest once I start writing the novel. Whenever I find that dialogue is not flowing or something a character is doing is not ringing true, I’m back to the drawing board of that sketch. There is obviously the need to strengthen the relationships if I’m going to hear unique voices, capture that slight waver, hesitation or tone that indicates so much.

Biltmore Hotel - Witzel photo

My books, so far, have revolved around the same group of core characters. As it is in real life, characters must grow. A series is dead in the water if this doesn’t happen. With each new book, character sketches have to be fleshed out to adequately represent the ways in which the characters have changed. Izzy can’t sound the same in book four – happily married to Liam and surrounded by family – as she sounded in book one when she was reeling from Caleb’s death and struggling with loneliness and feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Of course, there are aspects of Izzy’s voice that never change – core personality traits, her wry sense of humour and quick wit. I cherish that continuity as I tune my ear to understanding who this woman is becoming.

Downtown Portland, Oregon - Bruce Witzel photo

A writer sets lives in motion to jostle and collide against one another like so many bumper cars at an amusement park. A character sketch is the living, breathing document that keeps track of the results.

Homemade Bread and the Writing Process

Bread - finished product - Guenette photo

Homemade bread. Ah . . . the feelings those words evoke – everything from nostalgic images of Little House on the Prairie to mouth-watering memories of Grandma’s kitchen.

Bread Book - Guenette photoI’ve had various flirtations and more than a couple of long-term relationships with homemade bread over the years – all of them satisfying. More years ago than I want to admit, I received a gift copy of a book by Ellen Foscue Johnson entitled: The Garden Way Bread Book: A Baker’s Almanac. What a jewel of a cookbook. The book is sprinkled with black and white line drawings and filled with recipes time tested over the years to a level of perfection. Ellen Foscue Johnson and I have been through a lot!

My latest foray into the bread making world has me thinking about the parallels between making bread from scratch and the writing process.

Line drawing of wheat - Guenette photo

I’ll say from the outset – there is nothing particularly difficult about making bread. No special talent is required beyond patience and a bit of elbow-grease when it comes to kneading. The similarities with the writing process begin when I think of the flow experience I have with each.

Bread sponge - Guenette photo

Between morning tasks of checking out social media, making coffee, starting the wood-burning stove and whatever else needs to be done, I’ll toss two cups of water, two tablespoons of sugar (or other types of sweetness – honey for example) and one tablespoon of yeast into a large bowl.

Sometime later, I’ll add oil, salt and some flour and whip that up for a couple of minutes with my hand-held mix-master. Most of the time, I toss a tea-towel over that sponge and go about other tasks. When I get back to it, I add more flour and knead for ten minutes.

Kneading process - Guenette photo

We tried to get a decent photo of kneading but apparently I was moving too fast. Kneading can be a good work out and gives lots of time for thoughts to wander. I let the dough rise, punch it down, form it into whatever shape takes my fancy and let it rise again. Then it’s into the oven to bake. Easy-peasy as my granddaughters say.

Bread in the pans - Guenette photo

Like bread making, the writing process requires patience and elbow grease. Imagination and fledgling ideas are the writer’s yeast. We sprinkle those ideas out on a warm and receptive surface and let them bubble. Later, we outline and storyboard, do research and take notes – we’re about adding our writing flour. We whip everything together. We wait and we think. Then comes more structure and planning as we work the whole mess into a smooth story – so similar to that neat ball of dough we get after kneading and kneading until we’re sure we can’t push that dough around the floured board for even one more turn. At some point we need to leave the story alone. Let it rise. We punch it down and rework it a few times, forming it as we go. We bake it up with editing and formatting and then we send it out into the world. Hopefully our efforts are met with the joy that accompanies that first bite into a fresh-baked loaf.

Bread - first slice - Guenette photo

If you’re a writer, I suggest you bake some bread. Even if the process doesn’t match what you go through when writing, the results will be mouth-watering enough to make you forget any thorny, little writing problems you might be experiencing. And when the other people in your life take that first bite of hot-out-of-the-oven bread slathered with jam, they will forgive all the times you neglect them to be off in your own writing world.

Here’s the basic, white bread recipe from Johnson’s book – enjoy Smile

Bread Recipe - Guenette photo

(I used a half a cup of mixed, ground sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds in the loaves I baked today. Use any combination of flours you like – add an extra tsp. of yeast if you go heavy on the whole wheat.)