9 Ways to Waltz Write in to a Better 2016

The King and I

The King and I

When I was 13, my mom took me to see Yul Brynner in The King and I at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. She’d been flinging us around the kitchen, belting “Shall We Dance, da da DAH,” for as long as I could remember. Seeing him twirl his co-star around the stage, along with every ballroom scene from every Disney Movie ever made, ignited a lifelong dream of mine to ballroom dance.

So what does this have to do with writing? Turns out, just about everything.

Most creative pursuits happen in the face of fear; all are driven by action. Whether you want to dance, play an instrument, learn to draw, or write, here are a few things you can try to jump start your 2016:

Action 1: Identify Resistance and welcome it as a guide. According to Stephen Pressfield in The War of Art:

The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Resistance manifests as procrastination, doubt, and sometimes physical anxiety. Treat yourself to Pressfield’s book and learn to recognize resistance as a sign you’re on the right track.

Action 2: Make a Vision Board. Sure, might be corny, but research proves we’re more likely to achieve things we’ve envisioned and documented.

Neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action.

There are many ways to practice visualization. Doing something concrete matters. Here’s a picture of my vision board for 2016. For some other great visualization techniques, check out this article in Real Simple Magazine.

Vision Board

Three days after making my board, I received an email announcing a humor essay contest. If you zoom in, you’ll see the following on my board: laugh, contest, we have a winner!

Action 3: Choose a word of the year. I first saw this on Author Jennifer Davis Hesse’s blog and I thought it was genius. She cites Christine Kane as the inspiration behind this movement. Did you know that by January 17, most of us have abandoned any resolutions we’ve made?

Go with Kane’s plan and pick a word or theme instead. Easier to remember. My word for 2016 is “Do.” It appears prominently on my vision board.

Action 4: Leap. In Tara Mohr’s Playing Big, she encourages readers to take an action for which they believe they’re not quite ready. Hang gliding might not be the best example of this.

Instead, send a story to that lit mag you’re not quite ready for, make one call to volunteer to teach a class, or sign up to read a poem in public. My January leap was to lead at least one friend in a visioning exercise. It was a blast!

File Folders

Action 5: Take up space. Claim a spot for your writing. Stock it with colorful files, inspiring quotes, and your favorite books. I love TJ Maxx for great deals on journals, note cards, and unusual office supplies.

Action 6: Schedule Your Year. Hang a calendar and load it with writing events. Block out time for morning pages or your work in progress. Schedule at least one weekly writing-related activity such as a class, a live reading, a retreat, or if you’re on a budget, a podcast or video lesson. Again, better to have too many things to choose from than too few.

Action 7: Develop a Growth Mindset. Read Mindset by Carol Dweck. Seriously, or get the Audio CD. We all have the ability to substantially improve in any area, provided we foster a growth mindset.

Change your mindset, change your life. It helped me to earn my degree, complete my first 5k, and get off the junk food. Writing my first novel was just a bonus. It’s not magic, it’s hard work. But it’s possible.

Action 8: Pick a number, write it down. Send in that many submissions this year. Better to shoot high and fall short than to aim too low. Shoot for the moon and all that but really think about it. If you write down 10, and you do 9, not bad, right? But what if you write down 25, and send in 11? That’s more than 9. See, I’m good at math!

Action 9: Find Your People. Contact one new acquaintance each week this month who shares your passion. Call them, email, or connect via social media. Invite someone for coffee. Exchange links to helpful articles. This is a trial and error undertaking but we all have to start somewhere.

Boldness required. Don’t worry about how others respond. Just do the action. Check libraries, the local paper, bookstores, online groups, or form your own on Meetup.com

Broadcast your desire for a network and you’ll manifest one. Tinker, revise, and keep building. Groups have a shelf-life. There’s one out there for you.

Dream, but don’t stop there.

You don’t have to try all 9 actions. Even doing one or two will propel you into motion. Don’t forget to celebrate each attempt.

Sleeping Beauty

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/292030357059749178/

If you look off to the right on my vision board, you’ll see a picture of dance shoes. Last Friday, I waltzed. Sure, I was wearing jeans instead of 500 yards of satin, but I waltzed.

My husband and I never got around to ballroom dancing lessons before our daughter’s wedding last June. A few months ago, I asked him if he’d be interested in going. He was less than enthusiastic, and it was my dream not his, so I went without him.

Voila, within 40 minutes, a charming instructor named Zach had me twirling around the dance floor, making another of my visions a reality.

I perspired a little, I cried a little (happy, joyful tears). I think I made him nervous, but he hid it well. My audition for Dancing with the Stars is a long way off, but I couldn’t be more pleased with the results. (Turns out, I’m “advanced.”)

imperfect-action-better-perfect-inaction-motivational-daily-quotes-sayings-pictures

We’re all energy in the universe, and I believe that Law of Attraction stuff is for real. DO ONE SMALL THING.

And don’t forget to pass it on. Encouraging others and celebrating their successes will bring you closer to your own dreams. You never know who you’ll inspire. Someone is looking up to you.

What will you start today?

7 Thoughts on “9 Ways to Waltz Write in to a Better 2016

  1. Uplifting and thought-provoking as always, dear Suzanne! Or should I call you ‘Twinkle-toes?’ 😉 xx

  2. YES! This all rings true. There’s a lot here to consider and delve into. I need to claim and pretty up my writing space, schedule my year, and network more…among other things.

    Good luck with the humor essay contest (I see you have comedy on your vision board too!), and congrats on following your dream to dance! That’s awesome.

    Thanks for the shout-out too. 🙂

  3. Thanks for remembering, its one of my very favorite memories!!!! Love you….Mom

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Yes, You Can Write Without This

03-52-By-Diego-Diaz-via-Flickr-Creative-Commons-License

03-52-By-Diego-Diaz-via-Flickr-Creative-Commons-License

You’ve read countless author bios that include some variation of this:

I’ve been making up stories in my head since before I could read. My parents said I lived in a dream world. Characters come to life in my head and speak to me, I see whole worlds before I even start to write.

This isn’t me, and it got me doubting. Again. Can I write fiction if my mind doesn’t work like this?

Writers often obsess over the processes of other writers. When do you write? Where do you write? Do you use a laptop, pen and journal, retro typewriter? It’s as if we think adopting the traits of those that came before will improve our own odds of success. How do you do it?

If we don’t do it the way Author X does, we must be doing it wrong. If it doesn’t come easily, we’re not talented. My comfort zone with writing is non-fiction: essays, news features, memoir, commentary, humor, etc.. Writing in these forms is reflexive for me.

I’ve always written stories as well, just not naturally or easily, or sometimes competently, as it turns out. Enrolling in my first fiction workshop stretched my writing muscles, occasionally resulting in a cramp.

When I started this blog almost two years ago, I wanted to share my journey as a newly committed writer. I wasn’t new to writing, I was just new to allowing it to take up space in my life. I reviewed over 100 of my previous posts and found a lot of them were thinly veiled attempts to quiet the voice of self-doubt.

Today I came across a blog post by a lovely writer waxing on about her imaginary worlds peopled with fascinating characters that talked to her and interacted as if alive. She couldn’t remember a time when her imagination was without a menagerie.

My heart sank. This isn’t how things worked for me.

I almost accepted it as another sign from the universe that I shouldn’t be wasting my time on fiction. Despite a novel in revision and numerous short pieces, my dream of telling absorbing, made-up stories felt threatened.

Then I remembered the freewriting exercise I did before bed last night. I didn’t have made up worlds and people living in my imagination for days prior. But, as my black Flair felt-tip flew across the pages of my notebook, a movie unfolded in my head.

Full Moon

Full Moon Silhouette. © bilbord99,

Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw Donald, a naughty little boy, as he tip-toed out of his house, without permission, to gaze at the glowing cheese moon up close. I smelled the cigarette smoke from Donald’s next door neighbor, ancient, senile James, and heard the creaking of the old man’s webbed lawn chair as he rocked back and forth. And I felt my chest tighten when a cold, rough hand closed around Donald’s ankle and pulled him off the wood pile. I swallowed a lump as another hand closed over the little boy’s mouth.

Donald and James arrived in my notebook, without making any previous appearances in my head. They’re not moving around there now, and if they’re talking, it’s not to me. I think they’re just waiting in Donald’s back yard where I left them.

I may return to them. I may not. I’m asking the what-if questions. My objective is to bring them to life in the mind of the reader.

Podcasts, blog posts, and social media links promise a magic tip or trick that will confirm we’re doing this writing thing right. Or, more in line with our anxiety, that we’re doing it all wrong. We’ll switch tactics and that will be the missing link in our quest to get published, score 5-star reviews, or sell our screenplay.

Maybe this is just another form of self-doubt, our inner gremlins trying to keep us safe in the land of the easy: Don’t try fiction, it’s too hard. You can’t make up stories if you don’t do it this way.

All the good stuff exists beyond the boundaries of the familiar, the comfortable. Does it matter that I don’t have entire worlds in my head? For now, I’ve decided it doesn’t. Fiction is challenging, it’s exciting, and I don’t want to stop yet. I’m learning to tell stories my way.

This is how it’s working for me. One writer’s process. My plan is to keep learning, keep seeking, keep writing.

You’ll find no magic tip here, just gentle encouragement. Your way is the right way for you, too.

 

 

 

 

 

4 Thoughts on “Yes, You Can Write Without This

  1. Oh, this SO resonates with me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing a post that validates ANY method we have as writers for getting words on the page. Sometimes my characters are there in my head, and I can watch them in motion. Other times, I need an inspiring snippet to read in my research to get them started. Sometimes, they disappear for days and weeks at a time, while other parts of my life take up so much room I can’t allow them to be part of it. Yes, I’ve made stuff up all my life, but not full stories. Adaptations of other author’s work. Mostly, I’ve imagined writing. Over the past year, though, I’ve let writing become a fuller part of my life, internally and educationally. I’m slowly going through the process of “becoming” a writer. It’s both the hardest and must gratifying process I’ve ever engaged in, besides parenting.

    • Your comment resonates with me, Wendy! At a time in my life when many contemporaries are enjoying down time from parenting, just relaxing, I find myself gearing up and taking on this huge writing challenge. It takes hours and hours every week. You put it well “the hardest and most gratifying process besides parenting.” I think that’s how we know it’s ok to keep doing it! Write on, sister, write on! And many thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Thank you for the encouragement, Suzanne! Your words are so reassuring. There is no right or wrong process when it comes to writing. …I know this is true, but those darn doubts can be so persistent. I’m glad you decided to share your journey!

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One Easy Exercise for Your Writing Muscle

Exercise Your Writing Muscle

Exercise Your Writing Muscle

It’s a snowy Midwestern Monday and I’m on a time crunch. My vision board* is winking at me, saying “sure, you said this stuff was important to you this year.” My stomach is rumbling for lunch, and that annoying red light on my phone tells me that I have day-job email that needs tending.

But as they say, perfect is the enemy of the good (or at least useful), so here is my imperfect post I promised last week about asking “What if . . .?”

Do you do morning pages? Do you have a million story beginnings, scenes, or vignettes that might have a nugget of a story but you don’t know what to do with them? Most writers do, regardless of experience level.

Morning Pages example for blog

My handwriting is its own security system – uncrackable.

For any beginners out there that have a mash of wrinkled pages and ink blots, try this and see if you like it. It might help you feel closer to finishing. It made me feel a little uncomfortable but like I’d accomplished something.

Choose one of your unfinished scenes or vignettes and outline it until the end. That’s it. That simple. You don’t have to write the whole story. Doesn’t even matter if you’re not an outliner. I’m a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants (pantser) by nature.

You’re exercising a muscle. Maybe it’s one you use all the time like that eyebrow furrowing thing you do when your kid leaves his smelly socks in the living room. For me, it reflects my perception of my creativity muscle as a flabby tricep that I don’t flex enough.

I picked a random morning pages exercise that I was kind of fond of, and then outlined to an ending with some story beats. You can Google “story beat sheets.” I liked this one from paranormal author Jami Gold.

Beat Sheet example from Jamigold.com

It ended up looking like this. Don’t worry about not being able to read the actual words. Look at the format, the steps.

Finish Story Exercise Jan 2016

Morning pages are not about trying to write a story. They’re about getting the juices flowing.

This exercise is not about editing or revision. Not yet. This is a rough, rough first draft with some ideas of where it could go. The practice was in asking the question, and in trying out some answers. Taking a leap.

Ideally, you would keep going. Keep asking what if. Discard the first few ideas that surface. Meander down the path.

Ask “what if . . .?” and you just might find something. My goal is to do one a week from the prior weeks warm-up exercises. Do you have a regular warm-up? Do you do morning pages? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

 

*More on the vision board in a later post.

 

2 Thoughts on “One Easy Exercise for Your Writing Muscle

  1. Thanks for the shout out to my beat sheets! 🙂

    I love the morning page you did with the story structure from the beat sheets. Have fun with it! 🙂

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What if . . . ?

Question Everything

Question Everything

What if . . . ?

That’s a simple question and a daunting exercise. It’s the launching point for grand ideas from master storytellers including Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.

It also launched my commitment and surrender to my calling to write.

Great storytellers of all ages have worked this way. They’ve thought of a setting, a circumstance or a character and then asked themselves “what if?” And then they’ve asked it over and over and over again, dismissing the overdone, the trite, and the obvious—until something clicks.

We all have a Mt. Everest when trying to tell stories whether based in real life or conjured from our subconscious mind.

Mine is that I’m not creative enough to have an original idea. A fresh concept. A twist that hasn’t been done before.

I just finished Zen in the Art of Writing by Bradbury. Asking this seemingly simple question opened up a world of memories to him and fed decades of amazing stories enjoyed by millions.

Ray Bradbury Zen

Ray Bradbury

On King’s FAQ page on his website, he answers the age-old question: Where do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’ ‘What if’ is always the key question.

Books I love and transformative events in my life have their origins in this simple question.

A few years ago, I wrote the following in my morning pages: What if I woke up earlier each day and tried my hardest? What if I woke up each day and tried as hard as I could to write?

When I asked the question, energy flowed, answers arrived, and I’ve been writing ever since.

I decided to take a break from revising my novel over the holidays and pledged to refill my creative well. I also committed to an online course in storytelling and have been receiving daily writing prompts in my email inbox.

With 10 days off from my day-job, I recommitted to morning pages.

Before I get out of bed, I reach for my rumpled pink journal (2.99 on clearance at TJ Maxx – they have ultra-cool journals sometimes) and blue flair pen, check for the prompt in my email via my smartphone and get the ink inching across the page.

Because I’m almost fully reclined and it’s often dark, my writing resembles seismograph etchings, but somehow, I can read it just fine.

None of these vignettes or scenes are complete, though many of them hint at a good idea lurking in the scriggles. My inner critic shouts at me that these beginnings lack originality, that they’re dull.

What if I tell my inner critic to pipe down? What if I mention my doubts to a writing friend who suggests I apply the “what if” technique from two storytelling legends? What if I commit to asking this of the story starts in my morning pages during the upcoming week before my next blog post?

Hmmmm . . . what if?

 

 

4 Thoughts on “What if . . . ?

  1. Love it. What a great reminder to open your mind and let your imagination wander. Keep asking, Suzanne!

  2. What if… you become a successful Author, and gain worldwide recognition, and win awards and s*%*?? I think that’s shaping up nicely for you, dear Suzanne! 😀

    Lovely post!

    Hedgey xx

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The Forrest Gump Effect: Is Your Stubbornness Making You Miss Good Stuff?

Ignoring Advice

The Forrest Gump Effect

“OMG, OMG, you have to see this movie.” Friends, family, the media . . . everyone wanted me to go see Tom Hanks in THE BEST MOVIE EVER!

Of course, when I finally bought my ticket and popcorn, I was disappointed. With all the hype there was no way the film could have lived up to the push. It had been oversold.

This happens with motivational sayings and life hacks, too. When someone oversells the latest self-help book or when a piece of advice is repeated ad nauseam, it becomes background noise. We resist.

I made this mistake recently trying to get my son to read a book that I’d found beneficial. I tried giving him a synopsis. I quoted from it every other day. I shared examples of how it had helped me overcome a bad habit.

As he resisted, I started leaving it “accidentally” where he might stumble on it, as if finding it in his car would make him more likely to give it a try.

Stubborn Kid Won't Read Book

Creative Commons – Click on Photo for Link

He is now convinced it is THE WORST BOOK OF ALL TIME. I blew it, and he’s missing out on some good stuff because of his stubborn refusal to give in to his mom.

Anytime we dismiss the too-often quoted or ignore advice with a “yeah, yeah, yeah,” we could be missing a life-altering nugget of truth.

There’s no shortage of advice out there for writers, either. We’re faced with never ending truisms about craft or the creative process and we often become conditioned to ignore the most common.

After this post about learning in layers, I had an epiphany on the idea behind “truth is stranger than fiction.”

In the popular book Immediate Fiction, Jerry Cleaver reminds his students that fiction is heightened, concentrated reality.

. . . you think there’s nothing to it, that writing a story is just like life. Like life, yes. But not life itself. Creating stories is a special craft—a special way of capturing reality on the page. It feels real, but it isn’t. You can’t just break off a piece of reality and stick it on the page. It won’t work. It won’t work because fiction is concentrated, heightened, intensified reality. It’s the essence of reality. All reality doesn’t contain such essence or truth, but all fiction must. You, the author, must create it.”

That’s a gold standard of writing advice but no less true for being familiar.

I’d read this excerpt at least five times and highlighted almost every other section of the book except this one.

It wasn’t until several drafts into my current project that a light bulb went off. Readers don’t care how long it took your main character to get to the bank, or the route he followed. They care that he was robbed at the ATM. Eventually, I was able to use this in my manuscript, cutting extraneous conversations and flabby descriptions.

Look around your shelves, you probably have how-to writing books galore. Try looking at an old one a new way. As your skills improve and experience grows, an old has-been could become the new go-to.

As for the book my son steadfastly refuses to read, I’m ordering the audio version for him. I’m hoping that in a weakened state he’ll accidentally hit play and absorb the information via osmosis.

Ignoring Advice

Creative Commons – Click to Follow Link

Don’t dismiss an overused motivational quote or the latest popular self-help trend just because they’ve been done to death. Practice looking at things in the revised context of your most up-to-date self.

Give resources another read. Reconsider tips or advice based on your new level of experience or different life circumstances. You may absorb useful information and find yourself able to apply it in meaningful ways.

As for “Gumping” something myself, I learned my lesson with my son. There’s this book I think would be great for my daughter who is just starting out in her career. But this time, I controlled myself and only mentioned it once about a month ago.

To paraphrase Forrest, Christmas is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. The CD version arrived yesterday and is already wrapped and under the tree with my daughter’s name on it. She can listen to it passively on her way to work. Something’s bound to rub off.

 

 

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Have You Finished Your Book Yet?

uncle-franks-chevy-2
uncle-franks-chevy-2

Creative Commons http://rutheh.com/tag/vintage-car/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing up, I was a curious kid. I wondered about things to a sometimes annoying degree. If we’d had the internet back then—the age of brontosaurus burgers and dodo birds, according to my kids—I would have fallen down the Google wormhole and never emerged.

Alas, having to travel to the library to look things up in an encyclopedia limited my research. One thing I didn’t understand until my late teen years was the process of invention.

If man could build an airplane or rocket, if the human brain could figure that out, why did we bother with the Model-T Ford or the Wright Brothers? Why not skip right to the harder stuff?

The concept of building on a body of knowledge was a hard one to grasp.

When I spun my first complete rough draft of a novel, I wondered the same thing. Why didn’t it feel the same to read as books I picked up at the bookstore or library?

I wanted to be able to write the perfect novel on my first try. I wanted to go straight from horse and buggy to Apollo 13.

When friends or family ask me about “my book,” I try to find the right words to convey a complicated, mysterious process that I’m only beginning to comprehend myself. Today, I spent an hour geeking-out with a fellow writer on the magic of figuring out this writing a novel thing.

Because the cool thing is . . . I am figuring it out. Draft five (yes, you read that correctly, I’m in my fifth rewrite of a 260-page novel) is a billion times better than that first rough draft. And yet, it’s still so far from ready. According to an interview I heard, Station Eleven, a popular novel by Emily St. John Mandel released earlier this year, took over 20 drafts to complete!

Writers are taught to avoid clichés like the plague (see what I did there?) yet the study of the craft of writing follows many. One of the standards is “writing is rewriting.” It wasn’t until this fifth draft that I was able to use some of the tools I learned about in my first class on writing fiction.

Like the internal combustion engine, there are specific working parts to a story that runs. Reading a zillion books over the last 42 years did not make me capable of writing one. Just as driving a car for the last 34 years has not given me the ability to build one from scratch.

Studying fiction, learning to read like a writer, finding out what the parts of a novel are and how to put them together is a work in progress. I needed to learn to build on the body of knowledge I was accumulating.

There’s a survey floating around on the internet that shows over 81 percent of Americans want to write a book. Many do and they’re horrible. Most never even try, some try and never finish a draft.

Many more write wonderful stories that never make it to publication. A few are both publicly and critically acclaimed. With modern technology, many publish their own books without ever learning what makes a novel work.

I didn’t want to do that. My goal is to learn to write stories like those I like to read, books that you get lost in and never want to leave.

So the latest update on my book is I’m working on it! And, it’s starting to take shape. I described it this way to my fellow writing geek friend just today:

It’s like I’ve been hiding in my garage using odds and ends to build a car from the ground up. And it runs! There are creaky parts, parts that fail to spark, parts that clunk where they should click, occasionally a foul cloud of smoke puffs out of nowhere, but it’s drivable.

Writers often refer to first novels as “under the bed” books, books that will never see the light of day because they’re not good enough. The rare whiz-kid turns out a masterpiece on her first try. That has not been my experience. I couldn’t have gotten to this draft, to this level of improvement without writing that first awful draft.

For any beginners out there working on their first draft, or for any of the 200 million out there that think they have a book in them, you learn how to write a book by writing a book. Study craft, technique, read, practice, write, screw up, delete, add, write some more, then do it all again.

The jury is out on whether or not this particular book will be hidden under my bed, or left to rust in the garage. Either way, I can tell you this, the process of getting it running has been one of the most challenging and exhilarating of my life.

 

8 Thoughts on “Have You Finished Your Book Yet?

  1. Great article.
    I do believe many feel/know they have a book in them. Some of us persist. That “eternal itch”.

    20% talent, 80% dog with a bone. Always in my head, even if it’s background.
    Accumulating ‘material’. Working the puzzle of plot.

    Knew it at 9, still persists into my 50. The scenes, dialogue, settings in mind’s eye.

    Inspite of parenting, FT work and caregiving, lurking there more than often.
    Yourself and two writing friends have trod thru this mind jungle.
    It’s true then, I guess.
    As Cheri Adair says, ‘just write the damn thing’.

  2. Nice article Suzanne. You are right on all counts. I published my first novel, The Mystery At Sag Bridge, in April, and I lost track of the number of drafts. Somewhere mid-process I kept patching the same one for a while. The final count probably came to eight, not counting the proofing process, which involved another three or four read-throughs.

    A writer starts with so much enthusiasm, but it’s not easy to critique your own work. Critique groups, beta readers, and editors are so important to the process. I was fortunate enough to have an editor who “suggested” instead of “demanded”, but after thinking things over I usually realized he was right. At that point the fear comes out of the process and enthusiasm returns – along with the final draft.

    • Thank you for reading! It’s good to know that you found the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had great and helpful and difficult to hear but ultimately useful feedback. You’re right, it makes all the difference. Congrats also on your beautiful book! Loved your website.

  3. Loved it. Great article. You are only in your “fifth” rewrite. That’s okay. My first “under the bed” novel took me twenty-seven rewrites until I published it. From first draft to last, completely different stories. I guess I can say I’ve written twenty-six books that will remain “under the bed” and am now a published author with one book 🙂 My second novel is on its eighth rewrite going into ninth after my editor returns it to me. So, it really doesn’t matter the rewrites, the main thing here is perseverance of finishing the book, and giving yourself the forgiveness to write it. Keep doing what you are doing.

  4. Definitely dog with a bone…and just write the damn thing. Great post and the only answer I have for patient supporters who live vicariously through someone in the writing process is, “Do you have a book in you?…How about a blog?” Memories, history, different brains, create magical stories for our tribal collection, Getting it from brain to book to readable takes time 🙂

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10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

Christmas Letter Photo
Christmas Letter Photo

The most requested photo.

It’s that time of year again, time for the beloved tradition of the annual family Christmas* letter. These letters are often a chore to write and for many, to read. Last Christmas, my mother-in-law asked me if I was tired because the letter wasn’t as entertaining as usual. You can’t please everyone.

I skipped one year thinking no one would care, but we actually got phone calls and notes requesting one. I know, shocking, right?

This year, I will send our 23rd letter inside a traditional Christmas card along with a family photo.

Family 1993

For more than two decades, I’ve forced my family to pose in front of the tree or under a picturesque pine frosted in snow. It almost always ends in tears, mine or the kids. My husband cries on the inside.

Choosing a card is usually the first step and I’ve developed some unbreakable anal retentive habits. For example, I can’t buy a card with three snowmen on the cover (or three stockings, or two penguins) because there are four people in my family. It’s like I’m killing one of them off.

circa 1997

I’ve tried to order photo cards or pre-printed cards to save time, but when the holidays roll around, I can’t go through with it. My mother’s voice echoes in my head that at least once a year, everyone deserves a personal note or hand-written signature.

Below you will find 10 things I’ve tried to avoid doing in my letters. It’s personal preference of course, and along the way, I may have been guilty of one or two of the things on the list . . . but never more than two in one year!

10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

  1. Start out with a complaint, you know, something original about the cold weather or how fast the year went by.
  2. Brag about your kids’ trophies or grades without acknowledging they’re on parole, slated for rehab, or at least halo-free.
  3. Share the cost, make and model of your new car, or other luxury purchase. Nothing says Peace on Earth like taking inventory of our stuff.
  4. Detail the exotic vacations you’ve enjoyed while we’ve been stuck at work. You didn’t take us with you. We do not care.
  5. Write it from the viewpoint of a family pet. Seriously. We dare you.
  6. Whine about how everyone starts celebrating too early. Because your timeline is universal and everyone should fall in line.
  7. Rub your busy holiday itinerary in the noses of the lonely and depressed. They need to know someone is more fortunate. You’re providing a service, really.
  8. Describe all the medical procedures undergone by you and your relatives. Include lots of squishy details about incisions and bodily fluids or anything in the hemorroidal area.
  9. Include lots of photos, at least 12, and make them tiny, so we need a microscope.
  10. Make it more than two pages long and single space it. Why wouldn’t we want to know more about your family than we do about our own?

10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

One of the reasons I still do a letter is my husband loves it. He’s not what you’d describe as a touchy-feely guy, but the fact that he let me dress him up in long-johns for a Christmas photo tells you something.

I wanted to include some of the awful photos, the ones where you can tell someone has been crying but they reflect poorly on me. Do you still send cards? What about a letter? What’s the worst card or photo you received?

 

*Christmas is what my family and I celebrate so that’s what I write about. Feel free to substitute the word “holiday” or whatever holidays you and your loved ones celebrate.

 

6 Thoughts on “10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

  1. Ha Ha Ha! This is cute. Love the red long johns! Now I’m all inspired to write a Christmas letter… keeping in mind your advice, of course. Thanks for sharing your tradition!

  2. LOVED this…hilarious. I remember our card drama. It was a drama or a farce. I had them dress up for “Christmas Around the World”. Each year a new country. The dog quit when she had to wear a sombrero. We also did pirates and American Gothic Christmas. The best pics were the outtakes. Sharing on FB

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Why It’s Always This One Thing, And It Sucks

fear

fear

I was sitting in my car on my lunch hour last Wednesday and I couldn’t figure it out. Not only did I not think I could figure it out, I was convinced I would NEVER figure it out.

No, I wasn’t searching for a cure for cancer or even wondering where my next mortgage payment was coming from. My crisis was trying to put my main character’s want into a single sentence. That’s it. Earth shattering, right?

My eyes watered, I started breathing heavy, and finally climbed out of my car to walk it off. This writing thing was supposed to be fun. I’d been devoting hours and hours to it because I was finally admitting to myself it’s what I felt called to do.

And here I was, not working on the third in a series, not posting my NaNoWriMo word accumulation, not shouting on Facebook about my two book deal with Random House (no, Mom, there’s no deal . . . yet). I was struggling to come up with ONE . . . FREAKING . . . SENTENCE.

Here’s what I learned about the novel writing process last week:

  • The middle is hard.
  • Quitting is not an option.
  • You have to welcome ALL feedback and get tougher.

I found some inspiration in Heather Seller’s Chapter After Chapter:

What is really happening is a giant fear attack. you wish you were done—that it was good just like it is. You are scared to look at it again deeply, because you are afraid you’ll find hideous flaws . . . You are afraid you won’t know how to fix these things.

Some people call it writers block. Sometimes we think its our inner critic. Self-doubt. There’s only one thing wrong with any of us and there’s only one antidote.

Fear is the root of all the world’s problems and action is the only cure.

Maybe you’re 3 drafts in (or 4, like me) but have you really torn it apart? Or, are you just smoothing the edges? You just want to be done. But you’re not. You need more versions. It’s what writers do.

Suck it up, buttercup. (That’s me talking to myself . . . and you . . . if you needed that.)

 

 

 

2 Thoughts on “Why It’s Always This One Thing, And It Sucks

  1. I’ve had a short picked up by elephant journal that is about The End Result. Controlling it, wanting to control it and needing it to look like the picture in our heads. I’m on the 6th or 8th rendition (depending on who’s counting), of a memoir. I feel your pain/aggravation/desire, This thing we intend “I am a published author, my words are heard!”, is a fey witch who gathers us in with a sweet smile and then reveals the rocky road we must walk barefoot.

    • That’s exciting news, Deb! Congrats!! I received an acceptance last week on a piece I submitted in May. Then my fear was having it out in the public and it being judged. Even when we think we’ve captured the fey witch (love that by the way), she jabs us with her pointy wand. Onward. Onward. Nothing to do but go onward.

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How to Finish Your Stuff: Avoid The Drift

The Drift - Writing Advice Suzanne Brazil

The Drift - Writing Advice Suzanne Brazil

You know the feeling. You’re in the middle of a project (a book, an essay, a short story) and then you’re not. You’re on the edges of it or miles away. It shimmers in the distance like a mirage and you’re losing it.

I call it “the drift.”

You suddenly realize it’s been three days, then a week, then a month since you’ve made any progress.

It feels stale. You find yourself bored by the characters. You think it’s a sign you need a new project. A fresh start. So you let more time go by.

The foundation of your sand castle has blown away. One day at a time. One missed writing session at a time.

How does this happen? It happens grain by grain.

How do you stop it? The same way.

Famous authors all have recommendations to write every day or develop a routine. I like Jerry Seinfeld‘s advice: Don’t Break The Chain. Just grab a calendar and for every day you work on your number one project, mark a big red “X” – then just make it your goal not to break the chain.

Girl-Writing-ruifernandes-flickr-creative-commons-375x395

Drop in on your project whenever you can. You’ve got a day job, your dog has diarrhea or  your kid has a science project due. You don’t have time to brew a perfect pot of tea, don your favorite sweater and light your literary pipe.

So do what you can. Drop in on your characters. Reread a page or a paragraph, or jot down some ideas for a scene. I think of it as being less precious about the whole thing. Conditions don’t have to be perfect, you just want to keep in touch with your story.

“Drop in on your project whenever you can.” 

Steal time. Think of it as something you GET to do instead of another task to check off your list. Print out a couple of pages, stuff them in your purse or briefcase. Pull them out on your lunch hour, or on an extra long bathroom break during that interminable staff meeting.

Don’t fall for the allure of the new project because you’ve lost sight of the old. It’s not about rigid routines and perfect practice, it’s about action. Whatever you can do, do that. But do something.

sand-castle

“It’s not about rigid routines and perfect practice. It’s about action.” 

Stay tethered to the world you’ve built, the characters you’re developing and the story you’re telling. You’ll save time by not having to reorient yourself each writing session. Best of all? You’ll finish stuff.

 

4 Thoughts on “How to Finish Your Stuff: Avoid The Drift

  1. I love this, Suzanne! Especially this line: “You don’t have time to brew a perfect pot of tea, don your favorite sweater and light your literary pipe.” I need to remember it’s okay to just plop down at my computer any chance I get, and not wait for the so-called perfect conditions.

    …Similar to Seinfeld’s calendar chain, I always glance at the “date modified” for whatever Word document I’m working on. If I at least check in on my project every day, then that date stays current. If not, then it becomes obvious I’m starting to “drift.”

  2. CathyShouse on November 1, 2015 at 6:41 am said:

    I read these tips a few days ago and have since gotten some momentum going on a project I had drifted from. 1. Once I get started, I find myself stealing more time to keep going. 2. It’s surprising how much I get done when I keep in regular touch with the world I’ve created. Thanks!

    • That’s great news, Cathy! I think it’s physics and most writers are not in love with physics. Still, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, which is why it can be so hard to get going once we stop. Planned days off are ok as long as we’ve planned a re-entry strategy. Thanks for reading!!

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14 Takeaways from the Chicago Writers Conference

Chicago Writers Conference

Chicago Writers Conference

On a rainy Saturday many years ago, I crept into the ballroom at a hotel in the Chicago suburbs where romance writers from all over had gathered to network and learn.

I wasn’t a romance writer. I was a closeted writer. I perched one cheek on the upholstered chair, ready to bolt if someone asked for my identification card.

My terror level was so high that my takeaways were few: 1. I was told repeatedly that my name would be great for a romance writer. 2. There was electricity and camaraderie oozing out of the tote bags and participants.

Last weekend, I attended the Chicago Writers Conference. Here are my top takeaways whether you’re just beginning and not sure what to expect; or whether you’re a pro who’s curious about this particular event:

 #1    Register early and sign up for any newsletters/updates

Got the early bird discount but didn’t understand how signing up for small sessions and other events worked.

Read everything. Follow on social media. Do pre-work.

 #2    Go to as many small sessions/intensives as possible

Most of the large general sessions were geared to the basics with explanations for standard terms, craft tips, etc.

The intensives and small sessions covered topics more in depth and allowed for information sharing, and connection between all the participants.

 #3    Beware absolutes

Experts shower you with do’s and don’ts for eight hours a day. Remember that in writing as in many other creative pursuits (or any pursuit), don’t get paralyzed by rules.

Trust yourself.

 #4    Go to panel discussions when offered

These are often shaped by audience questions and it’s useful to get as many viewpoints as possible from multiple panelists.

 #5    Follow the agents/publishers

Not literally. Like, not to the bathroom and stuff. Leave them alone there. Go listen to them speak.

They’re looking for good work. They’re direct. They’re specific. They’re not unkind. You will learn a lot.

Author Karen Abbott reading at the Chicago Writers Conference

Karen Abbott reading from her NY Times Bestseller “Sin in the Second City”

 #6    Go to at least one social event

By far, meeting other writers is the most energizing and positive outcome of a great conference.

The cocktail parties or dinners are the most relaxed environment for this. You will be tired. Your feet will hurt. Go anyway.

 #7    Bring business cards.

 #8    Don’t panic if you don’t have business cards. (You do have a  smart-phone, right?)

 #9    Dress professionally but comfortably.

#10    Volunteers run the show

Treat them well. Thank them. Ask them questions. Things will not go perfectly. Microphones will short out. Rooms will be too hot/too cold. Handouts will go missing.

Be patient. Be nice.

#11    Respect the authors and speakers

Remember they’re people. NY Times Bestselling authors get thirsty. They like to sell books. They’ve achieved and may or may not be getting paid for speaking.

Let them pee in peace. But do strike up a conversation elsewhere. Be curious. Be courteous.

#12    Writers are the nicest people

Numerous opportunities to help or receive help will pop up. Be alert. Recognize them. Do not squander them. Do not hoard them.

#13    Get out of your comfort zone

CWC encouraged writers to pitch to agents even if they weren’t 100% ready. DO IT!! If a different conference encourages you to be 100% ready, listen to them.

Make space at your lunch table for others you do not know. Offer someone a beverage, or an apple, or some cashews.

#14    Follow up with EVERYONE about EVERYTHING 

Pass on information to new writers you meet. Help someone. Use what you learned.

 

CWC was well-organized and featured professionals at the top of their craft including renowned authors Rebecca Makkai and Karen Abbott.

It was a total-immersion weekend for me. I deepened connections with writers from my small circle. I added writers to my circle. I pitched (successfully!), I learned, I cramped (there’s a lot of sitting).

Each conference will have its own vibe, protocol, successes and challenges. The best advice I’ve received and practiced is to go open to receive and willing to share.

Favorite quote from speaker: “Follow your ‘nah’ “

What feels like “nah, that’s probably not for me” is where you should be. Try something new.

Update: Speaker was Mare Swallow – Founder of the conference!

Favorite quote from a fellow writer: “No, you have. Yes, you get.”

By not doing anything, you’ve got a “no.”  Take a risk, you might get a “yes.”

Update: fellow writer was Maija Rothenberg (we met at a Ragdale retreat – fabulous!) Check out her writing here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 Thoughts on “14 Takeaways from the Chicago Writers Conference

  1. Great take-aways Suzanne…posting to my FB page 🙂

  2. Suzanne – Thanks for this great post. We’ll do a better job of explaining how to sign up for sessions in the future. And the “speaker” you’re thinking of is Mare Swallow. 😉
    Cheers, and Happy Writing.

  3. Amanda Claire Buckley on October 13, 2015 at 1:08 pm said:

    Love this post! Look for it to be featured in our upcoming newsletter!

  4. Mary Balice Nelligan on October 14, 2015 at 12:36 pm said:

    “No you have. Yes you get.” What a great quote! Wish I had said it. Thank you for this excellent recap! Meeting you in person was one of many highlights of this year’s CWC. A great event all around. I look forward to being in your “writers’ circle” for many years to come.

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