S is for Shut Up and Write (in Paris)

 

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Glen – one of the writers at the Shut Up and Write Meet-up in Paris. His humourous book about all things academia is coming out later this year. Check out Glen’s blog.

 

I was trolling the internet in search of good cafés in which to write while in Paris (you would think there would be a lot of them around, but it seems that not all cafés appreciate broke writers hanging out for hours, sipping their café au laits veeeeeery slowly) when I stumbled across a MeetUp called ‘Shut Up and Write’ which takes place every Saturday at the Anticafé.

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The cozy seating area downstairs… photo brazenly stolen from the Anticafé website, but I’m thinking they won’t mind because I’m saying nice things about them…

I tossed my laptop in my backpack and, determined to battle my way through the latest round of revisions on the new Footprints title, I plotted my Metro route and set off. Three trains and a short walk later (I think I made the trip a bit harder than it needed to be), there I was, pulling up a chair. A dozen other writers had already gathered and were chatting away.

The Anticafé provides workspace (we were at tables and chairs rather than couch and coffee table shown in the photo), lots of plugs, and good wi-fi (pronounced ‘wiffy’). For the hourly rate of 5 Euros you also get as much coffee or tea as you can drink as well as assorted snacks. Attending as part of the writing group I received a discount – anyone who signs up for a loyalty card also gets a break on the hourly rate. You can also sign up for a monthly plan which might work out to be a great deal if you spent many hours and ate a lot while beavering away at your new novel.

The writing group plan was to write for about 40 minutes and then take a short break for snacking and chatting before doing another 40-minute writing session. Between 10 am and 1 pm, that’s pretty much how it went. Regulars confessed that things don’t always go quite according to plan – some days it’s hard to tear fingers from keys, apparently. Other days, the chatting overwhelms the working and things devolve into an orgy of good conversation.

Co-working spaces like this make a lot of sense for those of us who are part of the digital nomad community. (For more about digital nomads, check out rethink9to5 or the Digital Nomads Facebook page). When you’re traveling (and, face it, even when you are closer to home), writing can be a lonely endeavor. It’s marvelous to be able to walk into a coffee shop half way around the world (or halfway around the block) and find members of your tribe scribbling away in notebooks and tapping away at their keyboards.

I must say I had a great time, which is a bit unusual for someone who really doesn’t like the idea of walking into a room full of people I don’t know. That said, such a venue is the perfect place to try out this conversation starter: What are you working on?  Thanks to the organizers for putting the word out and helping us introverted writer types to connect! I’ll be baaaaaaack! (Though… I will be keeping a close eye on my belongings… particularly my camera… And, before anyone panics and thinks my camera was the victim of a snatching, it was an honest mistake… I mean, if I saw a cute camera lying about on a table, I might just pick it up and start taking photos. Stranger things have happened… right, André?)

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This post is part of the AtoZ Blogging Challenge. Visit the Facebook page and follow the links to participating blogs all over the world.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

 

 

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R is for Reading – in Paris

 

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Mecca for readers and writers alike – Shakespeare and Company in Paris

 

It always surprises me when students say they don’t like to read in a genre similar to their current work in progress. I’m the opposite. Writing a memoir about walking the Camino? Step one is to read every memoir I can get my hands on written by other people who have walked the Camino. Want to write a fantasy novel for kids? Now there’s an excellent excuse to immediately run out and procure an armload of fantasy novels for kids.

I don’t worry about accidentally stealing ideas – I have plenty of my own. I don’t worry about imitating someone else’s style – I try to find the widest possible range of voices and approaches when I’m reading. That pretty much eliminates any worry that I’ll find myself adopting another author’s writing style. Besides, by now I sure hope I have a style or voice I can call my own!

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When I read books and articles by other people I analyze them to death. It’s the only way I can think of to see what works and what doesn’t. Do I find myself completely engaged in one account of a Camino trip and utterly bored by another? Why? What makes some writing so compelling and other writing so meh? I enjoy it when an author’s personality shines through, especially if the writer has a sense of humour. I like lots of anecdotes mixed in with my doses of hard facts. But, I do like those facts to be there as well. Does the author use sidebars to pull out the factual bits or roll everything into some kind of overarching narrative? As I read, I hold my observations up against what I’m trying in my own writing. Then, when I’m writing, I try different techniques, modifying to suit my own story and what I’m trying to accomplish. In recent years, I’ve found I’ve started reading almost exclusively non-fiction, but the range of approaches to non-fiction is almost as broad as the range of subjects covered. On one hand, that’s very liberating – there is no ‘right’ way to come at a project. On the other hand, all those choices mean it can be pretty overwhelming to figure out what the best approach might be.

What about you? When you start a new writing project do you shy away from reading related material? Or do you seek it out and immerse yourself in the works of others who have explored similar paths before?

Q is for Query Letters

It’s been a while since I wrote a good old-fashioned query letter. But here I am in Paris and it seems a bit silly not to take advantage of my time here. I’ve been wanting to write a few more travel articles (it’s been a while since I last published any travel pieces) and what better place to find some inspiration than right here?

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I love graffiti and have seen quite a selection since our arrival. Plenty of people have been having fun with the zillions of political posters that are plastered everywhere… I like travel articles with unusual visual elements (so, for example, no Eiffel Tower shots, my last post notwithstanding…) so perhaps an article featuring some of the finest graffiti in Paris might be cool.

I’ve also seen some beautiful crumbling things…

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Maybe I should shoot a photo essay about Paris and her quiet corners, the places where her beauty is fading (aging gracefully, depending on one’s perspective).

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I’ve been doing a lot of people-watching from our apartment window… that’s a long and venerable tradition here. Perhaps a personal essay about why watching people is so utterly fascinating? I’ve started a list of ideas for articles. Query letters are on my to-do list for later this week. Stay tuned. I can only hope that the acceptance-to-rejection-ratio is a bit better than when I first began as a freelancer all those decades ago.

I’ve started a list of ideas for articles. Query letters are on my to-do list for later this week. Stay tuned. I can only hope that the acceptance-to-rejection-ratio is a bit better than when I first began as a freelancer all those decades ago. Earlier this year when I was going through all my papers as I prepared for my move to the mountains, I came across stacks of carefully saved query letters for publications all over the world. I was enthusiastic and optimistic as a youngster, that’s for sure! Right alongside my lists of potential markets for a gazillion stories, articles, and poems were stacks of rejection letters. Some were generic photocopied ‘thanks, but no thanks’ replies. Others had personal notes scribbled alongside the generic message (those were very encouraging, even when the editors were also saying, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’) In the mix were the occasional acceptance letters or requests for subjects slightly different to those I had suggested. Occasionally, there were even cheque stubs! Oh, how well I remember the sheer delight I felt when I first started receiving payment for my efforts! There are also clippings of early articles, but those are outnumbered perhaps 20:1 by the rejections. The odds were even worse for poetry but a bit better when it came to articles. Travel writing was somewhere in the middle.

 

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The staircase up to our flat in Paris. No elevator in this old building.

 

Things have changed, of course. One doesn’t need SASEs any more (many submissions are done online) and, of course, the creation of images has changed dramatically since the days when film (and film processing) was expensive and one thought long and hard about every shot one took. And then, of course, you had no idea whether the exposure was decent or the image sharp or, heaven forbid, something happened in the film processing and your entire set of precious photos were ruined. Not that things can’t go wrong in the digital age, but there are ways to mitigate loss through compulsively backing stuff up. And, of course, you can have a peek and immediately see whether or not you have captured something useable, which is all the more likely because for better or for worse, there really isn’t an upper limit on how many photos you can take.

 

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The railing outside my bedroom window.

 

The sun is coming out after a rainy morning here in Paris, so off I go to see what stories I might unearth!

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

P is for Pleading Paris

Well, sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. Hence my jump from E to P in the AtoZ Blogging Challenge. When I started this challenge back at the beginning of April I didn’t expect to be hopping on a plane to Paris, but that’s what happened. And, sometimes, unexpected travel completely throws a wrench in one’s blogging plans.

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It’s hard not to enjoy the Eiffel Tower, especially on a glorious sunny day. 

Sometimes, an opportunity presents itself and you book a ticket and go. It looks like we will be here for a little longer, so I’m going to shift gears and think about what it means to be a writer on the go and, in particular, a writer in Paris. I may or may go back and fill in F to O at some point, I may not. That sort of depends on what experiences still await me here in the City of Love, City of Light. (hmm… maybe those monikers could be part of an ‘L’ entry… )

For the moment, that’s it. We are here. In Paris. In the springtime. How cool is that?

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

 

 

Enemy of Creativity (AtoZChallenge)

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia PlathO

Oh, Sylvia – thanks for saying it. Yes, self-confidence is a key ingredient in the creativity pie.

What does it mean to be creative, anyway? I’ve always thought of it as the ability to make something from nothing – to allow an idea or a thought to bubble up from that mysterious well from whence such bubbles rise and then… to do something with that thought or impulse.

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We all have ideas. Dreams. Thoughts. So what is the difference between someone who then goes on to make something with that raw material and someone who doesn’t? I agree with Sylvia Plath that self-confidence, or lack thereof, plays a big part in the expression of creative projects.

Self-doubt is crippling. The minute you begin to question whether the idea is good enough, whether you are going to be able to find a way to express that idea, whether it is worth playing with, exploring, developing – it’s pretty much game over that that point. The willingness to explore, to set off along hopeless paths, to experiment, to play, to fail – all that is part of the messy creative process. It takes a certain boldness to be willing to be wrong and being creative is a lot about being wrong. Perhaps wrong isn’t quite the write word. But it’s rare when exactly the right expression of an idea emerges fully formed and perfect. In my case, never. As a child, when I was making something or drawing or writing a story it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t come up with something if I just kept going. I created with little regard for how it would all turn out. Like most kids tend to do, I picked up a pencil or a pair scissors and started experimenting.

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Somewhere along the line, we learn that there are right ways and wrong ways to create – that one person’s drawing is better than another’s, that a story doesn’t mean the same thing to a reader that one thought it would. And when that door to failure opens, that’s when the doubts creep in. It’s easy to get so intimidated that we just stop trying.

I think that’s what happened to me with visual expression. As a kid I loved to draw, paint, make collages. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point I concluded I could not draw. So, I stopped. For some equally mysterious reason, I decided I could write stories. Looking back, I don’t think I had a particular talent in one direction rather than the other. But what I did have is a complete lack of self-confidence on the visual arts front and a sense of confidence on the writing front. So, I wrote a lot of stories when I was a kid and never really stopped. When I read those stories now they are not particularly good. I’ve read far better stuff rich with real raw talent in some of the student submissions I am lucky enough to get to read now when I teach writing workshops. What I did have in spades was enthusiasm and the belief that my ideas were worth writing down.

I have no idea how many words I must have written before, finally, things started to improve and the creative impulse and dogged persistence merged to produce something worthy of publication. Lots (during my recent move I found hundreds of pages of dreadful drivel, some of which goes back to my earliest childhood scratchings).

These days, I still struggle to shape my sometimes wild ideas into a form that is readable. That process has not become  easier despite the number years I’ve been at it and the number of things I’ve wound up publishing. What has become easier is the belief that if I work at it long enough, rewrite often enough, keep at the shaping and molding and massaging of the article/story/book, eventually it will come together. That confidence in the process, the willingness to be patient is as important as any initial juicy idea or creative urge.

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Not that long ago I decided to see if this theory about having confidence and forging forward could also be applied to drawing. It’s been an interesting process, hushing the inner child who thought she couldn’t draw (since this is a series of posts about writing I won’t go into a lot of details here…). First, it is possible for someone as ancient as I am to have a change of heart about something I thought was a fact (my inability to draw). Turns out, patience and practice result in some surprisingly not dreadful outcomes. I’ve tried my hand at a few different exercises – from drawing cartoon faces to a few simple sketches to go along with my sailing course notes. No, I haven’t discovered my inner Michelangelo, but I am no longer scoffing at the idea of picking up a pencil or paintbrush and working to find ways to express creative ideas visually. It’s actually been kind of fun at least as much as it has been messy and frustrating.

What about you? How important is confidence in your creative process?

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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

 

D is for Deadlines (AtoZChallenge)

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“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Ah, deadlines. Love ’em. Hate ’em. I’m great at tackling projects I know I can deal with fast. I get them over and done with waaaaaay ahead of time. Why wait?

It’s those ugly, complicated, bit-off-more-than-I-can-chew projects that bring out my inner procrastinator. And, yes, I do all those classic procrastinator things: brush the cat (I’m not joking, the cat never looked glossier than when I was struggling through draft 12 of Battle for Carnillo), clean the sink, go for a walk, check Facebook, lift some weights (I don’t like lifting weights), plan some cool vacation that there’s no way I could afford but is oh-so-much-fun to think about, and then maybe take apart and clean the lint trap in the dryer. You know, things that just can’t wait, unlike the BIG IMPORTANT project with that looming DEADLINE.

The problem is, those big, fat, messy projects tend to have decently long timelines. So, what harm could another lap around the dog park possibly do when I have practically forever to get this draft/rewrite/sequel done? Yes, sure, I pick at projects like this – open a web page or sixty, do some preliminary research. I jot a few notes, sort out the single sock drawer, and then go to bed early because it’s exhausting not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. A nap should perk me right up, right? Except, a long nap in the middle of the afternoon never works too well. By the time I wake up I feel like I’ve been rolled over by a drunk elephant and the day is almost gone and dinner needs to be made and after all that, the dishes and some emails, and Facebook – what has been going on in my virtual world all day?

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You get the picture. Of course, that deadline doesn’t just go away. It gets bigger. And uglier. And more intimidating. It starts waking me up at night. Nightmares revolve around missing trains. I wake up in a cold sweat after receiving an email saying Karen Rivers was awarded my contract because I could no longer speak English. Not that Karen Rivers would not be an eminently worthy inheritor of a contract, but man… the obsessions start to take over everything. I brush my teeth and think, I should be working. I gulp down a cup of tea. Should be working. I have a doctor’s appointment. No time. Must work.

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And as that deadline nears, some panic-induced blast of whatever brain chemical goes into overtime when it’s about to be slammed into a wall kicks in and I start writing. And nothing will stop me. My child falls over and cries. Too bad. Go see the neighbour.  Hungry? There’s a stale cracker stashed in the filing drawer somewhere. Add a bit of mustard and, voila – a meal. Not that I would get up and eat a meal anywhere other than at my desk. Such is my state of wild work ethic at this point I would be more likely to make the sick kid find something easy on AllRecipes.com and have her cook us both something vaguely nutritious.

The nightmares stop because at this point, of course, I am not sleeping. My family hates me. The cat looks like it has spent the past year living in a mud hole. The dog looks at me balefully, perhaps imagining those good old early days when we wandered aimlessly around the dog park.

That deadline, in the end, becomes the most amazing source of inspiration ever. Deadline not met? No incoming money. Ergo, no food. Simple equation. And that spurt of creative energy driven by sheer terror generally results in, yes, a Barfy First Draft. Or, a rewrite. Or, a new presentation. Or whatever.

I like to eat, which is why I rarely miss deadlines. How about you? Are you one of those super well-organized writers who is able to work steadily and calmly from start to finish on a project? Do writers like that actually exist? Do you zoom through and get done as fast as possible? Or, do you tend to put things off until you just can’t put them off any longer? Leave a comment and let us know how you REALLY feel about deadlines.

D atoz challenge

This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

C is for Children’s Books

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
Madeleine L’Engle

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

C.S. Lewis

child reads 02 andrew-branch-180244Those are two of my favourite quotes about writing books for younger readers. There’s nothing easy about writing for kids and it’s been my experience that the fewer words one has to work with, the more challenging things become. My two picture books (Grandparents Day – now out of print – and a forthcoming title with Holiday House) were the two manuscripts with the most iterations. Both stories went through draft after draft after draft, first on my own and then, after acceptance by the publisher, working with editors to further revise the manuscripts.

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In the space of a few hundred words, characters need to be established and a story developed. Editors want to hear a unique voice (that’s a tough one to explain – it’s one of those things you recognize immediately when it’s working, but is almost impossible to pin down how it happens or what’s lacking when it doesn’t). Plot, pacing, and precise use of language are needed as with any other type of writing. Though we need to be aware that children don’t always have the same background knowledge an adult reader brings to a book, one of the cardinal sins of writing for children is to talk down to the audience – there’s no need to be pedantic and overexplain. Kids are smart, intuitive, and curious readers. They love cool words and big ideas. Their agile young minds can follow whatever plot twists and turns you’d care to throw at them. Even young children can have well-developed senses of humour that are surprisingly subtle.

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In recent years there has been a trend toward adults reading books for young adults and there are plenty of adults I know who read children’s books and thoroughly enjoy them. C. S. Lewis was right on when he said that a good book for kids is worth revisiting as an adult. Do you like reading books for kids? Do you have a favourite? There are so many I love I don’t think I could pick one favourite, though The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is right up there on the list. Which brings me to one last thought. It has always surprised me that when I ask students in my workshops what children’s books they enjoy, there are always some who give me a blank look and confess they can’t remember the last time they read any books for kids. If you don’t enjoy reading books for children you probably shouldn’t be writing them.

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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.