Monthly Archives: December 2013

2014 New Year’s Resolutions

I look at New Year’s resolutions the way I view goals. The fewer in number and more realistic in nature, the better are the odds that I will fulfill my resolutions. Last year’s list of resolutions was long: publish a novel, blog at least weekly, read 25 books, attend a writer’s conference, and read three craft of fiction books. I achieved all but the biggest one: I did not publish a novel in 2013.

I had good reasons for not meeting this resolution. I went through a divorce in 2013, we sold our house and I had to move. Some people can write through such adversity; I found it difficult. Another factor was a promotion at work, which increased my responsibilities. All of this took time from my writing.

I should resolve in 2014 to master time management. Instead I set forth the following goals:

• Revise one of my works-in-progress so it is publication-ready.
• Blog at least weekly.
• Read 25 books.
• Attend a writer’s conference.

There, that wasn’t so bad. Now comes the hard part. It’s easy to make resolutions. Keeping them involves hard work and the “c” word: commitment. Stephen Pressfield makes this point in his classic, The War of Art, when he addresses Resistance (capital R to emphasize its importance). “Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable,” he writes. “Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.”

In both The War of Art and his later book, Turning Pro, Pressfield outlines the attributes of a professional. What stuck with me from both books was Pressfield’s defining quality in a professional—his habits. A professional shows up for work every day. A professional is prepared. A professional masters the job. A professional makes a commitment—not just for the first month of the year—but to work for success over the long haul.

As I pondered my New Year’s resolutions, I thought about Pressfield. It’s not the resolution, but the habit, which turns into commitment, which is essential for success. All the best to my fellow writers for a successful 2014.

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Books Read in 2013

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. Reading widely across all genres, including non-fiction work, is essential for fiction writers. This year, I fell short of 25 books. I also wanted to read more contemporary best-sellers, but I didn’t accomplish that, either. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the books I did read. Some were written by friends and colleagues, while others were penned by best-selling authors. The diversity of voices and stories have enriched my writing and I thank all of the authors on this list.

Fiction

The Lightning Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie
Waiting, by Ha Jin
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
Third Willow, by Lenore Skomal
The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
News From Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh
Dented Cans, by Heather Walsh
Almost Armaggedon, by Jamie Beckett
Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
The Night Eternal, by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo DelToro
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe


Non-fiction

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by KM Weiland
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, by Donald Maas
Wired for Story: the Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Sciences to Hook the Reader from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

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Book Review: The Lightning Charmer, By Kathryn Magendie

The mysterious power of love is a major theme of Kathryn Magendie’s latest novel, The Lightning Charmer. Disappointed in love and disenchanted with her career, Laura leaves her job with an ad agency in Manhattan and returns to her childhood home in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Laura is not your normal 30-something single woman. She suffers from synesthesia, a neurological condition in which she sees colors and hears voices and, like Harry Potter, she has a scar on her lower back that flares up when a crisis is impending. Filled with self-doubt, she struggles to find herself. She is pursued by Matthew, a plastic surgeon from Atlanta, whose interest in Laura almost borders on stalking. Laura could take the safe route with Matthew, but she is drawn to Ayron, a mysterious man of the woods she meets while hiking in the mountains. It turns out they have a history, though Laura doesn’t realize it.

The mystery deepens when Flem, a mangy drifter who lives in a shack in the woods, kidnaps Laura. She escapes just as Ayron shows up at the scene, but the threat of Flem looms over the story. The pace quickens in the latter part of the story and gallops along toward the climax.

This story has a lot to say about the power of love and the choices people make in relationships. Laura eschews the safe choice of Matthew, who would have given her a comfortable, if passionless, life. Instead, she is drawn to the mystical Ayron, a man who refuses to be a part of her world.

The author has populated the story with a cast of quirky characters, none better than Laura’s neighbor, Betty. A feisty, middle-aged woman with an affinity for growing a variety of herbs and plants that she claims can cure whatever ails Laura, Betty takes Laura under her wing. Bryan, Laura’s brother, has a typical sibling relationship, chiding his sister but showing his love and support throughout.

Betty summed up this book best for me when she advised Laura, “My girl, sometimes life chooses for us and other times we got to make hard choices. You got to figure out all the in betweens. Turn your life inside out, shake out the pockets, see what falls out. Find out the answers even if it hurts.”

 

 

 

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Ricky Gervais on Creativity

Ricky Gervais, the comic genius who created The Office, shared some interesting thoughts on his blog about creativity. What he said was simple and powerful: creativity is the ability to play. That’s it.

“Scientific studies of creativity have basically concluded that it can’t be taught, as it is a “facility” rather than a learned skill,” Gervais wrote. “Putting it very crudely, creativity is the ability to play. And, to be able to turn that facility on and off when necessary. That makes perfect sense to me. Everything I’ve ever written, created, or discovered artistically has come out of playing.”

If you follow Ricky Gervais on Twitter, you will appreciate his boundless capacity for play. I don’t know when the guy ever sleeps. Between acting, producing, and tweeting non-stop, he is an artist constantly at play. A barrage of witty, bizarre, irreverent and at times randy tweets streams forth from him, seemingly 24/7. It is all in good fun.

In his blog piece he uses a quote Scott Adams that sums it up: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

When I read fiction writers’ blogs, there is often an undertone of frustration and angst. We all got hooked on writing fiction because it was fun. As Ricky Gervais would put it, writing is play. However, it seems these days too many writers find it is not play at all, but work.

Let’s examine the underlying reasons for the “writing as work” lament. To do this, we must break down the stages of writing a novel. The first draft most resembles play, or at least it should. I’ve heard the analogy that the first draft is when the writer lets the child come out. The writer lets her imagination run wild in the first draft. No idea is too far-fetched to include in a first draft. A writer must keep her inhibitions locked away. The second draft is when the adult takes over. The ruthless editor in each of us tells the child: no, you can’t include this; it weakens the story. This is too much telling and not enough showing. That long, rambling scene you love so much? It has to go.

The tedium gets worse as the writer goes through more rounds of revision. Those who have traditional publishers must then submit to rounds of professional editing. And then contracts and marketing schedules. No wonder it feels like all work and no play.

Ricky Gervais has the right idea, “The answer is simple,” he writes. “Never grow up. I don’t mean don’t become an adult with responsibility and the weight of the world on your shoulders. I simply mean if you’re writing or directing, give yourself enough time to play. Play the fool. Goad. Shock. Laugh. Trip over something that isn’t there. Try something. And never be afraid to fail. That failure is useful too. It’s just another building block.”

Read the full blog post here

What about you? Do you find writing is all work and no play? How do you put the play back in writing?

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NaNo Update: We Have a Winner

The muse is over-rated. Experienced writers know that. The best motivator is a hard deadline.

Last weekend I was ready to give up my quest to “win” the National Novel Writing competition for the third straight year. Winning means writing a 50,000-word first draft of a novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. By November 22, I had fallen behind—not by a lot but by enough. I was under 40,000 words with a week to go. After an unproductive weekend in which I did not meet the daily word count of 1,667 words on either day, I decided to pull the plug.

Then, on Monday, I changed my mind. I had come this far. I had written more than 35,000 words. I couldn’t give up. I had plans that night and when I returned home, I decided to write. It was nine o’clock and I was tired, but I would give it one more shot. To my surprise, I became immersed in the story and I wrote 1,800 words. Then, I wrote 1,800 words on Tuesday and 1,000 words on Wednesday. I even cranked out 1,000 words on Thanksgiving night. I was at 42,000 words with two days to go.

I knew a productive Friday could put me over the top. I went to Starbucks early in the morning and wrote 4,000 words. I took a break, did some errands and sat down and wrote another 3,600 words. I finished early Saturday morning and uploaded the novel to the NaNo site, where it was validated as a winner at 50,600 words. I was exhausted, but thrilled.

So what did I learn from this year’s experience? Let me share these lessons:

• Write every day. Our Municipal Liaison advised a first-timer that the key was to write every day, even if it’s not 1,667 words. The worst thing to do is to fall behind. Even when I was about to give up, I still sat down and wrote and that is one of the most valuable benefits of NaNo: the daily writing habit.
• Pressure produces creative ideas. I wrote myself into a corner. My basic story was over at 35,000 words. I had to invent a new story on the fly that put the main character in mortal danger and I did. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, though, without the intense pressure of a hard deadline. Otherwise, I would have procrastinated and ruminated for weeks.
• Fatigue is an excuse. Many of my writing sessions took place after nine o’clock at night when I was tired and just wanted to go to sleep. Often I wrote until 11 or later and produced some of my best writing.
• Challenging yourself produces results. I found I could do more than I ever thought I was capable of doing. I had been working on this piece for months as a novella and had gotten nowhere. Starting afresh under extreme deadline pressure produced a workable first draft.

To every writer out there who thinks NaNo is an impossible challenge, my advice is: Go for it!

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