Getting Comfortable

I’ve shared thoughts before about the importance of being true to ourselves in our writing, so perhaps I won’t be saying anything new in this post. The idea, however, is an important one, and I believe it bears repeating. We can’t be someone we’re not, and we can’t write something we don’t enjoy.

Comfort ZoneI think each of us has a “comfort zone” in writing, and personally, I consider that a good thing. If I browse around on the internet a bit, though, I find constant references to the need to get out of our comfort zones.

The magic, it’s said, can’t happen until we step away from the comfortable, until we’re willing to take risks.

Nope. I don’t agree. That may well be true in many fields of endeavor, but writing is an exception, at least, in my ever-so-humble opinion.

On more than one occasion, I’ve started a new story only to find myself uncomfortable with the writing. When that happens, I don’t enjoy the time I spend writing. I don’t look forward to sitting down and getting busy with the story. I soon realize I don’t care all that much for my characters. Quite simply, writing becomes a chore. A job. A task.

That’s not how I want to approach my stories. For me, writing needs to be enjoyable. If it’s not, I don’t want to do it.  There are enough obligations and “things I must do” in my life. Writing shouldn’t be one of them. Writing is what I love.

Whenever I find myself dreading the writing process, it’s because I’ve strayed away from who I truly am as I writer. I’ve left my “comfort zone” — which, for me, is another way of saying “who I am.”  I quickly change course and head back to where I belong, back to my comfort zone.

I’ll be honest. I sometimes look at authors who’ve published dozens of books in a variety of genres, and I question the authenticity of their stories.  As a reader, I’m skeptical. I’m not sure I trust authors who attempt too many different things.  I want to read stories written by authors who love what they write. I want to read mysteries by story-tellers who thrive on who-dun-its, and fantasies by imaginative authors who would never be “at home” in the mundane world. I want to read love stories by writers who would never want to write anything but love stories.

A couple old adages come to mind.

  • Stay with what works.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

You might disagree. Probably a lot of you will tell me I’m wrong, I’m crazy, or I’m stuck in a rut. That’s fine. My rut feels good, and I’m happily writing stories I love.

There’s a lot to be said for comfort. We crave “comfort foods”, and we’re always looking for those “creature comforts” that make life more enjoyable.

Sure, there are times when it’s probably good to shake things up and venture away from our comfort zones in life, but when it comes to writing, I’m going to make myself comfortable and tell stories that make me feel good.  If I do that, and do it well, my readers will probably feel good, too.

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time…

My first novel began with those words. Of course, I was only eight  years old, and as far as I knew, that’s how stories were supposed to begin.

For many of us, those words served as an entry way to the faraway times and places of our favorite fairy tales and children’s stories. Those words were magic, leading us to castles and cottages, enchanted gardens, babbling brooks, and mysterious forests.

Because of those words we could leave behind our mundane world and its everyday people, and venture off into the unknown, meeting knights and dragons, witches and ogres, soaring eagles, talking animals, princes, princesses, kings, queens, and the occasional knave.

 

brownfae

With those words, we sailed upon the seven seas, rode magic carpets through cloud-filled skies, and dug deep down into the center of the earth.

We traveled to lands filled with giants, dwarves, elves, and beautiful winged-faeries.

Mystical creatures lived within those words.  They lifted us up and carried us off to wondrous, magical places.

For me, those words can still transport me to different times and places. Even now, I can close my eyes, recite those powerful words, and feel the same sense of awe and joy I knew as a child.

Was it any wonder then that when I sat down to write my first “grown-up” novel, I turned to “Once upon a time”?

Actually, I didn’t. At least, not at first. After all, I wasn’t a child, and I certainly wasn’t telling a children’s story.  I was no longer eight years old and writing silly drivel about a little girl who loved horses as much as I did.

No, not at all. I was writing the stuff of great fiction, or so I hoped. I was spinning a story of love and betrayal. My pages would soon be filled with incredible bursts of emotion ranging from the most violent anger — yes, I even had a dead body to throw in — to the sweetest, tenderest, most intimate feelings between a man and a woman.

I would write of lies and deception, joy, bliss, despair, fear…and on and on. Oh, yes, I would do so much with my story. If and when I ever figured out how to do it.

I tried.

I started here, I started there. I wrote an opening scene then rewrote it from another point of view. I threw out a chapter or two, started again, and wondered if maybe I needed another dead body. Or three.

Obviously, something wasn’t working.

Finally, in desperation, I reached for a notebook and pen. I curled up, closed my eyes, and tried to think of the best way to tell my story. Not to the reader. I needed to tell my story to myself.

Then I began to write. Neat, cursive script upon clean, narrow-ruled pages.

Once upon a time…

I smiled and kept writing. Soon, I had nearly a dozen hand-written pages filled with characters, dialogue, scenes, settings, and descriptions. My story had been there all along inside my head, but I couldn’t get it out until I used those magic words.

Once upon a time…

Of course, those words faded from the story in time. Once I had the story out of my head and onto the page, it was a fairly simple process to see where and how to begin, what to include, where to put those dead bodies.

It worked. So the next time I sat down to write a love story, I simply closed my eyes and repeated the magic words again.

Once upon a time…

Happy storytelling to all!

Lions and Tigers and Bears…Oh, My!

Everybody has seen The Wizard of Oz. At least once. Probably a dozen times or more. And everybody probably recognizes at once those words:

Lions and tigers and bears…oh, my!

Writers have new fears to worry about!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I sat down to write this post, those words and that familiar rhythmic melody began pounding through my head. But the words soon changed. I wasn’t worrying about lions, tigers, or bears, but thinking instead of brands, concepts, and bios!  Oh, my!

Writers today have an overwhelming array of things to worry about. We can’t write one book then move on to the next. We need to promote our work, make the rounds on social media sites, and actively participate in author and reader loops.

It’s frightening.

Almost every day it seems that some new site is popping up forcing writers to learn new technologies, develop different marketing strategies, and spend more time on-line and less time doing what we do best: writing stories for readers to enjoy.

We need websites, Facebook pages, blogs, and Twitter. There’s Rafflecopter for giveaways, and Random.org for choosing winners. I haven’t figured out Triberr, I’m still a bit confused about Tumblr, and why would anybody really care where I am with Four Square? And what about blog radio? Yikes!

We need swag — stuff we all get, or stuff we all give.  I’m not really sure what it means, but it translates into business cards, bookmarks, tote bags, and other promotional items, which, of course, means more money out of our pockets, but it’s worth it, isn’t it, if it helps us gain visibility and get our names “out there” — wherever “out there” is.

There are dozens of helpful “coaches” who — for a fee — will tell us exactly how to handle book promotions, how to develop our online image, how to create a ‘brand”. We’re not writers, really. We’re products to be packaged, marketed, and hopefully, sold to consumers eager to figuratively eat us up.

Amidst all this clamor and confusion, there is a little common sense to be found. While much of the advice touted on the internet is redundant, ridiculous, impractical, or worthless, some does have value.

  • Read what you can; accept what makes sense to you.
  • Don’t try being everywhere, doing everything.
  • Make writing your first priority. If you have nothing to offer, there’s no need to promote yourself.
  • Ask for help when you need it.

The most important aspect, I think — and this applies whether we’re talking about writing, socializing, promoting, or anything else in life — is having a solid understanding of who we are and what we’re doing.

Every year, as November approaches, I prepare for the annual writing event known as “National Novel Writing Month” — NaNo for short. Chris Baty, the founder of the event, wrote a handy little guidebook for participants. In No Plot? No Problem, he suggests making a Magna Carta for writing. I do this religiously each year.

  • List 10 things you like in books you read.
  • List 10 things you hate in books you read.

By doing this, you can get a good look at who you are as a reader, which is, ultimately, who you need to be as a writer. Makes sense, don’t you think?

It’s only when we figure out who we are and what stories we have to tell that we can successfully maneuver our way through the online forests and overcome the fears of our own “lions and tigers and bears”.   Oh, my!

 

 

Write Who You Are!

Do you share yourself in your writing?

The internet is filled with advice for writers, some good, some helpful, some practical , some thought-provoking, some ridiculous, some amusing, and most of it very familiar.

One of the most popular is the old adage to write what you know, or maybe you should write what you don’t know, as other sages suggest. Or maybe the best approach is to write what you like.

I’ve heard all of these variations on the theme, but my favorite is this:

  WRITE WHO YOU ARE

Earlier today while browsing through email, I came across one of those questions writers hear often: Do you write about your own life experiences?

Whenever I’m asked that question, I tend to shake my head. No, I don’t write about myself or my life.  I am not my characters. In fact, as often as not, my characters are very different from me.  One of the things I most enjoy in writing and in reading, too, is the opportunity to get out of myself into somebody else’s head.

For me, it’s always important, too, that my friends and family feel comfortable around me, knowing that their personal experiences aren’t going to show up in my next steamy romance. Of course, some of them might enjoy that sort of thing!

All joking aside, for me, it’s important to set boundaries between my life and my writing. At the same time, I must admit that I do draw upon personal experience each time I sit down to write. All writers do. We must.

Writing comes from within ourselves, from the same place inside of us where all of our thoughts and feelings reside. It’s made up of memories, ideas, wishes, dreams, fears, and failures. What goes into our characters’ heads has to come from our hearts, otherwise, our characters are going to be dull and lifeless.

Although I rarely recount an actual personal experience in a story, I do turn to my life for inspiration and especially for emotions.  I consider people I’ve known and what they’ve given me to use: witty sayings, good advice, quirky personalities, off-the-wall ideas. I think, too, of places I’ve visited, and I try to connect with my memories — not simply what I’ve seen or heard, but what I’ve felt inside.

Even if our stories are fantasies set in times and places — even worlds — that don’t exist, and even if our characters are strange creatures who shift from one form to another, at some level, there has to be a real, honest, human connection between our words and our readers.  That connection comes from who we are. Who we are is the bridge between the stories we tell and the readers who turn the pages.

What are your thoughts?

Priming the Pump

Sometimes you have to prime the pump

Sometimes you have to prime the pump

I think every writer has sometimes felt a little overwhelmed by a blank page, whether it’s a page in a notebook, a sheet rolled into an old-fashioned typewriter’s carriage, or the glaring blankness of a newly-opened computer file.

Blank pages represent possibilities.  A new page is clean, fresh, and perfect. Once we sit down and begin to put our thoughts upon the page, however, its perfection is marred. The brilliant possibilities the page once possessed are diminished, becoming nothing more than dull words strung together in boring sentences.

The page taunts us. We grow more tense. We wrack our brains — and yes, I’m using wrack rather than rack.  I learned the expression from my grandfather who explained that “to wrack” means “to punish”. That’s what we do. At least, that’s what I do when my prose falls short of my expectations. I berate myself and my feeble brain. I punish my gray matter by insisting it work harder, think faster.

Of course, that doesn’t work.

A better approach, I’ve learned, is to stop punishing and allow my brain to have a little fun each morning before I begin writing.  It’s a process often referred to as “priming the pump.”  The expression comes from the act of pouring a bit of water into a well — thereby pushing out any air — so that it can begin pumping water.

Priming the creative well works in a similar fashion. If we pour a few thoughts in, we can force out the stilted, awkward, nervous writing that so often results when we face a blank page. Then, we can relax and allow our best writing to gush out of the well.

In other words, take a few minutes each morning to play around with your writing. Don’t sit down and immediately launch into the next chapter of your masterpiece-in-progress.  Grab a silly word prompt — you’ll find dozens of websites that offer them — and write two or three fun paragraphs. Or sit down and do a journal entry. Or — one of my favorite methods — put on a piece of classical music, listen, and write what the music makes you feel.

These little exercises aren’t intended to be great prose. You don’t need to worry about whether or your writing makes sense, whether or not your grammar and punctuation is perfect, or whether or not your ideas are good ones. In priming the pump, all ideas are good. The purpose is to loosen up your brain, allow your muse to come out to play, and limber up all of your writing muscles.

You don’t need to spend much time at it, and you don’t need to write a lot.  Two or three paragraphs can often be all you need to get the creative juices flowing.

Please Excuse Johnny

The internet is good for many things. Of course, it’s maybe not so good for other things, and some things it probably shouldn’t be used for at all. Seriously, I don’t think sites like “How to Be a Brain Surgeon in 10 Easy Lessons” should be trusted, but that’s just personal opinion.

A note for the humor-challenged. Yes, I’m joking. No, “How to Be A Brain Surgeon in 10 Easy Lessons” doesn’t really exist. Yes, I “googled” it. I did find “Cutting Edge Brain Surgery” but, no, I didn’t go there.

At its worst, the internet can be a dangerous place with instructions on how to make things no law-abiding individual should even be curious about, and of course, there’s all that schmuck out there, as a friend calls it. OK, yeah, I have a friend who loves his schmuck, but that’s his problem, not mine, and I’ve never been one to advocate censorship.

Still, the internet is a valuable tool for a writer. It can provide a lot of good information in a matter of seconds, and no way would I ever want to go back to those days when research meant driving miles into town, thumbing through the library’s card catalog, and then discovering that every book I needed was either (a) already checked out, (b) missing and presumed lost, or (c) no longer in the library system.

Don’t get me wrong. I love libraries. I’ve donated books to libraries. I encourage everyone to get — and use — a library card. Still, for finding facts fast, I’ll take the internet any day.

For all its faults and follies — or maybe because of those faults and follies — the internet is ideal for one other thing: entertainment. This makes it an excellent resource for procrastinating writers. Under the guise of doing research, a writer can spend hours browsing websites and finding all sorts of useless, but amusing, information.

Like these excuses from parents to teachers:

  • My son is under a doctor’s care and shouldn’t take PE today. Please execute him.
  • Amy did not do her homework last night because we went out to a party and did not get home until late. If she is tired, please let her sleep during recess time.
  • Please excuse Lisa for being absent. She was sick, so I had her shot.
  • Please excuse Johnny from being absent January 28, 29, 30, 31, 32 and also 33.
  • It was my fault Mike did not do his math homework last night. His pencil broke, and we do not have a pencil sharpener at home.
  • Please excuse Roland from PE for a few days. Yesterday he fell out of a tree and misplaced his hip.
  • Please excuse Wayne for being out yesterday. He had the fuel.
  • John has been absent from school because he had two teeth taken out of his face.
  • Tommy wasn’t in school yesterday because he thought it was Saturday.
  • Ralph was absent yesterday because he had a sore trout.
  • Jerry was at his grandmother’s yesterday, and she did not bring him to school because Jerry couldn’t remember where the school was.
  • Please excuse my daughter’s absence. She had her periodicals.
  • Please excuse Jennifer for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the Sunday paper off the porch and when we found it Monday, we thought it was Sunday.

And my favorite of all:

  • Please excuse my son. He will be out next week slaughtering goats for his manhood ritual. Thank you!

But, wait! There’s more! Call now, and we’ll double your order.

Funny2 – School Excuses.

It seems appropriate to talk about kids and schools right now because it is that time of year. You’re busy packing lunches, gathering up books, supervising homework, or maybe you’re even homeschooling.  If you are, I applaud you. Just do a good job of it, will you? Few things in life are more important than a good education. Please, make sure Johnny does know how to read, all right?

But, I digress. The truth is, I’m not really here to talk about kids and school, so let’s cut to the chase, as they say, and take a look at the excuses we make. The excuses for not writing, you know. All those good reasons why we just can’t take time to do it today.

Most of our all-grown-up, adult reasons for not writing involve time and other responsibilities. We never have enough of the former and always have too many of the latter.

Dear Muse, please forgive me for not writing yesterday. I had five loads of laundry to do, three meals — including home-made lasagna — to cook, the grass had to be cut before the neighbors started complaining, and on the way to the store I ran out of gas. 

Hey, it happens. Sometimes life gets busy, and we get worn out, plumb tuckered, exhausted, beat, and frazzled. We run out of steam or out of gas. Take your pick.

All joking aside, sometimes things do happen. There are legitimate reasons why we must occasionally miss a day or two of writing. Most of the time, though, our good excuses are, well, only excuses. The trick is knowing the difference.

The next time you’re absent from your writing desk, try this. Sit down and scribble an excuse to take with you when you go back. Is it the real deal? Or was it just that the dog ate your homework?

The dog ate my homework! Really, he did!

The Hardest Part of Being a Writer

“What’s the hardest part of being a writer?” someone asked me recently.

I didn’t need to even stop to think about it. My answer was immediate.

“The chair.”

Writing isn’t easy in a hard-backed chair, but I learned a lot from mine.

When I first began writing for publication, I had a dreadful, heavy, wooden chair. Solid. Unmovable. It didn’t roll around the room. It didn’t lean, tilt, or offer even the slightest comfort. Sitting in that chair required a great deal of endurance.

I no longer have that chair, but I learned a lot about writing from it.

  • I learned that it’s easy to make excuses and avoid sitting down, but I learned, too, that nothing gets accomplished that way.
  • I learned patience. I learned persistence.
  • I learned that writer’s block exists only in our heads. We can always write something if we’ll just sit down and do it.
  • I learned that a solid foundation will always support us. In life. In writing. In whatever we do.
  • I learned that pillows can always bring a bit of comfort.

Actually, I’m joking about the last one. I never used a pillow while sitting in that chair. I didn’t need to, because after a while, I got accustomed to the feel of the hard wooden back and seat. As I sat writing, getting lost in my stories, I reached a point where I no longer gave a thought to comfort.  So caught up was I in the lives of my characters, I no longer felt my own body.

At one time, I sat in that chair for twelve hours straight, with only the occasional “necessary” break. How did I do it? I just did. Why did I do it? Because I love writing, and doing what we love is always worth a little discomfort.

I soon began to notice one interesting phenomenon. Each morning when I said “All right, it’s time to write,” I would sit down, and then immediately get up again.  It was sort of like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of the bell. Sit down. Get up. Immediately.

I worried a bit. Was I really not wanting to write? Was I looking for a way to avoid it? Nope. When I took a closer look and realized why I got up from the chair, it made sense.

  • I got up to attend to any “necessary” business.
  • I got up to grab a bite to eat.
  • I got up to fix a cup of tea.
  • I got up to take care of any pressing chores on my to-do list.
  • I got up to see that everything was settled around me.

I got up, knowing that once I returned to that miserable, hard-backed chair, I wouldn’t be getting up again for a long, long time. Once assured that I could write without interruption, I sat down, and I stayed there.

Everyone who’s ever said “I want to be a writer” has heard those words of wisdom: Sit down in the chair…and then, stay there.

Maybe in some ways it is the hardest part of being a writer, but there are lots of lovely pillows to grab. So pick a pretty one, make yourself comfortable, and get busy.