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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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.

B is for the Beauty of Barf (AtoZChallenge)

With apologies to anyone emetophobic who may be reading
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There are some writers who agonize over their first drafts. As I understand it, their process goes something like this:
1. Write an opening clause
2. Reconsider
3. Rework the opening clause, add a comma and consider how to continue. For half an hour. Tentatively write the second part of the first sentence and realize that there was a much better way to write the first half.
4. Rework the first half of the sentence. Fiddle about with word choice for another 20 minutes. The chosen words seem ok, but the order isn’t quite right. Rearrange.
5. The first part of the sentence is sounding pretty good but now it doesn’t flow well into the second half.
6. Rewrite the second half.
7. Read both halves together and realize perhaps the opening would be stronger with two sentences.
8. Remove comma, period and capital letter.
9. Both sentences are now too short. The opening is definitely choppy.
10. Enhance both sentences. This takes up the better part of an hour.
11. At the end of all that (and a bit of final tweaking) the opening sounds pretty damned fine. It’s lunchtime but half a paragraph is better than none.
I imagine this meticulous ‘edit-as-you-go’ strategy is why some writers take a decade to get to the end of their first draft. For those who manage to stay the course and actually get to the end of anything by writing this way, wow. Hats off to you! (And please, if you are a writer who works this way, please leave a comment and share how on earth you motivate yourself to keep going and also, how do you cope when an editor makes a suggestion? Or, does this method work so well for you that no further rewriting is necessary?)

Farting Around As I Go is Not For Me

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out I don’t work this way.  I am firmly camped in the school of barf. Now there’s a sentence that might not get past a writer who insists on perfection at every step of the way. Mixed metaphors, images that make little sense, a spare adverb. A certain ‘huh? I think I get what she’s trying to say’ response quite likely to be elicited in the reader. Nevertheless, for the sake of this example, I will press on with this messy first draft and try to describe what my puking on the page process looks like.
1. Even though I’m not exactly sure what I want to say I start writing anyway. No outline. No list of key points. Today, there’s not much more than a vague idea that I want to a) use a keyword that starts with B and, b) write about something to do with writing.
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2. I write the letter b. Book comes to mind. Yep. That’s how bland things looked when I started out. Boring.
3. Stare out the window.
4. Make tea.
5. Stare at the word book on the screen.
6. Delete all but the b.
7. Realize this is so bad it’s making me want to puke. I don’t have forever to write this. Too bad puke doesn’t start with B. But Barf does! Beautiful!
8. I have a title! And from there, I just begin to spew – everything I can think of to do with heaving stuff onto the page with little regard for how it will all hang together.
9. One thought leads to another. I can’t write fast enough to keep up.
10. Stray words slip into the margin to remind me to come back and explore related thoughts later
11. I write without stopping for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes and the basic content of the post is there.
12. I take a moment to reread. Divide the post into two sections. Expand the bit where I imagine how a more meticulous first drafter might handle this challenge.
13. I take out the terrible vomit joke.
14. And that’s it. A sloppy, kinda stinky not quite right draft.
It’s only then that I sit back and reconsider. Sitting back and reconsidering is immediately part of the revise, rewrite, edit, chew over, regurgitate (to stay with my theme) part of the writing process. At this point, the barfing slows down unless I need to add a fresh chunk to the mix.
What’s the advantage to this method? I always have something to work with. I don’t tend to get stuck. I don’t limit my ideas. I allow my writing to be terrible. I don’t worry that the phrasing isn’t quite right or even if I’ve made my point. That all takes place after I have finished with my initial projectile blathering.
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I know that there will be lots and lots of time between spewing out that first draft and the day anyone (even my editor) will get to have a look. I’ll talk about the revision, rewriting process elsewhere (perhaps for the letter R), but what I do know about puking my ideas all over the page is that at least then I have a starting place.
It may be messy and inadequate and confused and incomplete, but it’s somewhere to begin. It’s like having a glorious damp lump of clay sitting on the table in front of me, all bulgy and misshapen. Somewhere inside that lump may be an elegant sculpture waiting for my tools to reveal its hidden form. That’s how the messy first draft feels. Like a voluminous blob of potential
What about you? Are you a spewer like me? Or someone who likes to coax each word, each phrase, each image into being in its most perfect form as you move from sentence to paragraph to chapter to book? Hey – waddya know? Book found its way into this blog post all on its own!
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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.

A is for Authorly Angst (#AtoZChallenge)

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

As writers, we choose our subjects in many ways. As a working author (I don’t have another job other than putting words to paper) sometimes my topic selections are very practical. I’ve written several books in the Orca Footprints series, for example (Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet, Down to Earth: How Kids Help Feed the World and Take Shelter: At Home Around the World). I love the concept of the series (non-fiction titles looking at complex environmental issues and asking the question, what are the things we need to live and thrive on our planet?) so it isn’t a stretch to want to dive into the research and then write books that are meaningful but also attractive and engaging. But truth be told, choosing to write another Footprints title is also very practical. The books have an audience and that means I will receive a royalty cheque and that means I will live to eat another day. Ok, I don’t eat days, but you get my meaning.

Though the process of writing any book is challenging for many reasons (this series of blog posts over the next month will touch on some of them), books like the Footprints titles, or novels for which I have a reasonable idea and a solid plot or a character I like, don’t keep me up at night agonizing over whether I should proceed with the project.

But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out.

But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out. Those are the stories that reveal things about you and your life, your beliefs, your fears. They are the stories that weigh heavy, that you agonize over how best to share or whether sharing is even appropriate.

Many years ago I heard an author speaking about stories like that (I sure wish I could remember who it was!) who said that keeping those most powerful of stories inside because we are afraid of revealing too much or because we are afraid that readers ‘won’t get it’ is a kind of narcissism. We imagine that our stories are so out there, so unique that nobody else will be able to relate. The opposite is true. We don’t need to have shared an exact experience with someone else to be moved, to learn, to understand, to appreciate the emotional truth that lies at the heart of the story.

Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.

If the story is written with integrity, with emotional honesty, we tap into the deeper emotional truths that make us human. And if we are brave enough to go there, those deeper emotional truths are what make the most profound impression on our readers. It doesn’t matter if one person has survived a bombing and another an attack by a dog and someone else a car accident – the raw underpinnings are the same – fear, coming face to face with our mortality, loss of control, and the randomness of unexpected events are experiences we all share at some point. We connect to these stories at that very basic level. We ask ourselves, what would I have done? We empathize. We imagine ourselves in similar circumstances. We weep. We laugh. We are inspired. Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.

For many years I have been careful about revealing too much of my own story or the stories of those closest to me. When I have tackled difficult subjects (suicide, poverty, racism) it has been done in the context of fiction. Now, though, things are changing. I’m getting older (nothing like being on the far side of fifty to make you realize there are a finite number of books left to be written) and I have stories untold inside me. As Maya Angelou says, it’s an agony not to let them out.

The big writing projects on my desk are all non-fiction and they are all causing me a whole new level of grief. I’m working hard in ways I’ve never worked hard before. I’m struggling to find the balance between digging deep and spinning a readable yarn. I’m writing about loss and failure, challenge and adversity, hope and bearing down. These are my family stories, my own struggles, and subjects that have remained tucked away and waiting for later for too long.

These manuscripts wake me up in the middle of the night. But they are also manuscripts that feel really good to finally, finally be getting my full attention.

Do you have a story inside you need to tell? What’s stopping you? Be brave. Let it out. Start today.

A atozchallenge

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.

 

 

A to Z Blogging Challenge – Write On!

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Ok, I’m a little late to the party with my theme reveal post, but despite the fact I am looking at a pretty busy April, I am going to take part once again in the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. This year, I’ll be writing about writing, which will be a real challenge as writing is my life and, like so many things we do a lot of, I confess I find talking or writing about writing a wee bit boring. Hm… I should have saved that for C is for Confession day…

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Some of the things I thought I might investigate during April are favourite quotes by and about writers, writing tips, and updates on various writing projects (I have several of the latter on my plate so surely I can come up with something you won’t sleep through…). If there’s something you might be interested in hearing about, please leave a comment. Unlike some of the very organized participants, I don’t have a master plan going in so your suggestions for topics would be well received!

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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.