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Ideas and encouragement for writers.

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Writer’s life

People who Nurture the Writer

No matter what you produce – it could be art, baking, computer programs – there has to be input before there can be output.

You need input in terms of physical nourishment, ideas, craft, but especially you need nurturing from people. Who nurtures you?

Who nurtures you generally, helping you to feel good about yourself? Who makes you feel warm and wanted, a person of value? Who do you hurry towards and hate to leave? These people are nurturing you.

When it comes to your writing who nurtures you? Who has been your mentor or your guide? Who has told you honestly but kindly when you were off track? Who suggested new reading that gave you ‘Aha’ moments? Who listens to your work without interruption and offers suggestions without imposing their own particular bias?

These are your nurturers. They feed that need for improvement within you. They help to build your skills and confidence as a writer.

Hang out with them. Thank them, big time. Return the favour to them and pass the nurturing along to others. We all stand on someone else’s shoulders; have your shoulders be ready for someone else.

At the same time pick out those who do not nurture you, in fact they drag you down. Try to avoid them.

These are the people who criticize without knowledge (“Couldn’t you have given it a happy ending?”) They say your work is lovely or wonderful without offering any precision – they mean well, but they are wasting your time. These are people who ask what you have published and if you don’t have a list like Danielle Steele they look disappointed.

You probably have your own list of downers. Let’s not dwell on it. Let’s just say life is too short and move on.

Move on to more nurturing friends. It sounds easy enough, but where do you find them?

You find them in a carefully chosen writer’s group. You find them in conferences and workshops. You find them on-line – there are so many writer’s blogs and forums. Find one that fits you. Sometimes you just happen into them by serendipity.

But don’t ignore that need to nurture yourself. Just as you need proteins and veggies to keep your body strong, you need ideas and friends to keep your writing strong, vivid, the best it can be.

(To my nurturers – Val M, Nesta, Li, Liz, Cheryl, Elena, Suzanne, Jean, my kids, and lots more – thank you, thank you, thank you.)

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Creativity

Creativity is a form of energy. It has much in common with other forms of energy, and much that is unique.

One aspect that is common is that creative energy needs to be grounded. It has to be based in something that is honest and true – the human condition, in human feelings and interactions.

If you write fiction you understand that there are a small number of basic plots. What we feed into our computer is merely our own take on one of them. No matter how avant-garde we think we are, how we have built our own fully furnished unique twenty-fifth century world, how we have twisted steam punk to our own designs – we still are building on one of the basic plots.

Creativity is what allows us to spin our own web over the age-old plot. Take the old basic, dress it up fancy and take it to the ball. Uncover facets that we think are new, or at least new for this generation, and strut them down the catwalk.

I used to find it rather depressing that all the basic plots had been stated and used a gazillion times. Then I realized that this is the grounding, the launch pad, the firm ground from which we take off. We have an infinite number of directions in which to go and many modes of transportation to carry our imaginings.

But we are grounded in the human reality of those basic plots. We bring to them that creative energy that is so unique to each individual writer. We were born with this, rather like an extra chromosome. Our own creative imagination is a special gift that can take the ordinary and make it sublime.

But we also mold this imagination through our own life experiences, beliefs and outlook on life. Our reality and our integrity are the basis for the new worlds we create, the creatures from unknown planets, the emotions of a historical figure a thousand years ago. They are all grounded in our personal reality.

We have molded them from our own personal clay. Yes, we have researched and edited and done all the practical stuff – that’s just the mechanics. Our creativity comes from a special layer of energy that asks inquisitive questions that no-one else seems to ask and builds a beautiful tower or garden from an ordinary response.

You’re a writer. You have that creative energy. You have grounded it in the classic plot ideas and in your own individual strength and integrity. This sets you free to discover and share fictional truths that are uniquely yours.

Another Pair of Eyes

Some writers love the support and friendship of a writer’s group. Others avoid them for what seem like good reasons.

“I don’t have the confidence.”

“What if they don’t like my work?”

“I’m sure they’re all so much better writers than I am.”

However they say it, it reveals a lack of confidence in themselves and their work. Perhaps they don’t send their work to editors for the same reasons.

I plead guilty to lack of confidence in my work but – big BUT – I know I need at least one other pair of eyes to notice my mistakes and – big AND – to tell me what I did well and could do more of.

Some people can afford to pay – and to trust – a freelance editor. Better than that are the several pairs of eyes in a writers group. Different people notice different things. Added together you get significant input.

Will that input dent your fragile confidence? If that’s a concern test the waters in a new group. Let them go over a piece of work you like, but don’t expose your finest and best-loved piece right away. Chances that they’ll rip it to shreds are very remote, but hey, if they do, you didn’t care much for the piece anyway. Move on to another group.

Most groups will offer the support you are looking for and point out aspects of your work that are better than you thought. Yes, they will mention parts that could be improved, probably with ideas of how to do it. They might even have fresh  ideas for places to market it.

If you are planning to market your work you need to accept that other eyes are going to look it over. These editorial eyes will be experienced, focused and looking for the piece that best fits their specific market. An easy first step before you give it to the professionals is to let less stressed, less critical eyes take a look.

Take time to find a writers group you feel comfortable with. Then you will know that their eyes are gentler more caring of you as a writer than a newspaper, magazine or book editor can ever be. They will not ‘reject’ your work, they will help you improve it.

The writer’s group is a stepping stone into the real world with your writing. You’ve read it yourself in your isolation. You may have read it to a friend who told you it was lovely/awesome/great. The writers group is graduation into a more objective world.

Yes, it takes a leap of faith. Do you have that much faith in your writing?

Artist-with-Words

I had a letter last week from an old friend back home in England. She lives in a farmhouse tucked into a hollow with higher land behind it. In her letter she enclosed a greeting card printed from an artist’s impression of her home.

Her house, to me, had always been warm and welcoming inside but perhaps not very impressive outside – a plain working farmhouse, and nothing wrong with that.

But the artist had seen it differently. She had seen the coziness of a house tucked into a hollow of land. If my friend ever wanted to sell her house this picture would be a major asset.

Now, true, perhaps the trees looked a little bushier than they actually are, and  one tree looked taller. Maybe the curve of the lane is a little wider than reality, and the soft summer colors will not be seen year-round.

But it is recognizably her farmhouse. She was amazed when she saw it. Imagine her, she wrote, living in a house an artist wanted to paint!

The artist was just that – an artist in paint, able to see with a creative eye what the rest of us had missed.

Your writing is like that. (You knew where this was going, didn’t you?) You see an incident or a person and your artist-with-words eye sees it deeper, richer and more vivid than anyone else.

Your artist’s eye gives it a context and meaning that reveals the incident or the person in a new light. I had never noticed that the farmhouse nestled under the slope like that. I just saw a farmhouse with fields and some barns, plain and unremarkable.

But the artist showed me that whoever built that house a couple of hundred years ago knew what they were doing. They built to give the house the benefit of maximum shelter from the winter winds and rain of Yorkshire.

They may not have realized what a bonny picture it would make once that front field became a garden, but they took care to give the house – and everyone who would live there – all the warmth and security the site allowed.

I never noticed that careful positioning of the farmhouse before. It took an artist of last year to show me the mind of the builder back in history.

Can we do that with our writing? Can we even aim for that kind of revelation? I think one of the finest compliments a writer can get is, “Oh! I never thought of it that way before.”

You changed, ever so slightly, someone’s thinking. You might even have changed their perspective. That’s not easy to do, but that’s the value of being an artist with words.

You’re a Writer: The World You Create

One of the pleasures of writing is creating a world that is, for now, all yours. It’s a place you escape to where no one can follow unless you invite them.

Your husband wants to know where supper is? Kids need attention? You cope with it using the small part of your brain that’s left over. The part you left behind on your expedition to your inward world, to what feels like your real self and the place and people you have invented.

In this world the people fill their prescribed roles, with needs appropriate to their situation and outbursts conveniently located at plot points. Not when you’re busy with something else (like writing).

And you can produce the kind of weather you’d like. Snow and frost? Cool!   You can make one day become surprisingly warm and sunny just to keep the variation going. Not like real life where the weather persists on doing its own thing – one hot day or wet day after another without a break. The writer can mitigate such inconveniences.

It feels strangely uncomfortable when you have to yank yourself back from some future or past world. There’s a sense  of unreality as you peel yourself away from the frosty day with Isabella in 16th-century Venice. Oh! Oops! Frost is unlikely in Venice… from a sultry day in Venice  because you have  to deal with the dog throwing up on a West coast foggy day.

It’s annoying to drag yourself back from Isabella’s devastatingly broken heart to deal with road rash on Jason’s knee.

And yet, dealing with the fog and the road rash – minor irritations, definitely not on a literary scale – are what builds us. They build our focus – that focus muscle that lets us mop up the blood, say soothing things, hug gently and get right back to Isabella. She is waiting, poised in her grief, gazing heartsick across the canal.

And while you were looking for the ointment you thought of a terrific twist to pull her out of her despair. No time to waste.

The happenings of our everyday life build our bank of experiences. How will we express fog? After a few days we can clearly articulate the feelings it gives us – the mystery or the dreariness. We remember fine details of sensations and feelings for use later in our writing.

We hold Jason’s tumble in our mind as part of our experience as parents; as part of the integral structure of our life and its emotional fullness. Without it, irritation and all, we are less rich. And less rich emotionally means poorer as a writer.

It’s all inter-connected. No part is wasted. You create a world. The world creates you.

Writer on a roll

Sometimes the writing goes well, sometimes not. When it isn’t going well we call it ‘writer’s block’ and a lot has been written about that.

But what about when it is going well? Do we just give silent thanks as our fingers fly over the keyboard, and keep going as fast as we can before the spirit leaves us? Some of us are lucky enough to do just that. Others have kids who need to be fed NOW or a job that they need to leave for in half an hour.

Do you leave it at a logical stopping point, or in mid-scene so the momentum is there to be picked up next time? Or do you just leave it at whatever moment you are dragged away from it?

Where does writing stand in your list of priorities? What will you sacrifice to keep this wonderful creative burst going? Do you have the luxury of saying, “Go away, world. I’m writing up a storm here. Get out of my way.”

Is there a little voice nagging at the back of your mind – “If you’re writing this much it can’t be good quality. It’s probably all drivel. You ought to stop right now.” It’s a nasty little voice. If you listen to it, it will kill the pleasure you have in this unexpected outpouring of your creative mind.

I try to scare it away with a resounding positive – if my subconscious mind is sending me this wealth of words there must be value in it. Then I back it up with practical reassurance – there may be a few errors, I might have gone off track a couple of times but it’s all fixable. Don’t worry, nagging voice, I will edit it carefully. Later.

Meanwhile enjoy it. Go with the flow. Let the ideas or the characters or the scene find the print and the paper. You are just the channel. You are unblocked and functioning as a channel really well just now.

Being on a roll as a writer is a pleasure that mixes dynamic energy with a sense of achievement. However, it can be a tough one to share.

If you tell someone who is not a writer “I wrote 2500 words today!” they may reply “Is that a lot?”. You want to grab them by the throat and yell, “Do you have any idea…”

If you say it to a writer they may reply, “Yes, but is it salable?” or “Yes, but who’s going to publish it?”

To me these people are first cousins of the nagging voice that already told you that it was probably no good. You need to avoid their negativity or shut it down.

Then there’s the writer friend who isn’t doing so well just now. How can you proudly announce “I wrote 2500 words today!” to someone you know is in the writing doldrums? Or to someone who tries but who has never really got going as a writer?

How can you use it to encourage and not to belittle? How can you share this creative joy and affirmation of all that is unique about being a writer? How can you expand it so it helps and supports others?

A Writer’s Friends

Because you have an active mind you likely have lots of friends. Some of them are connected to your writing self, some not. You have friends you have coffee with at work, meet on the football field or like hanging out with. Maybe they have nothing to do with your writing self.

But who would you call your writing friends? Your writers group? Blog friends who write? People you meet once a year at the writers conference?

Do you remember being introduced to someone by a mutual friend:

“This is Samantha. You’ll like her, she’s a writer too.”

You say, “Hi. I write fantasy.”

Samantha says “I write a regular column for “The Weekly Grain Farmer”.

Not a friendship made in heaven. So who counts  as writer friends?

Your writers group as a whole or just a few members? If it’s just a few members is that because they write in your genre or because something about them connects with you?

How do you feel about people who read your work and say, “It was lovely.” Period.  End of subject

If pressed, they say, “Well I read it through to the end, but why did she have to die? A happy ending would have been nicer.”

It was probably your mom speaking. You love her, but she just doesn’t get it.

How important is ‘getting it’? Because if they don’t get it you’re not going to be comfortable sharing your work with them.

Are you finding that with your blog you’re becoming friends with, sharing ideas with, some people with a totally different background from the continent far away?

With social media this is becoming commonplace, but the additional element of “writing friend” puts it into a special category.

I’ve had one writing friend for a few years.. A writing friend knows a whole dimension of you that other the friends don’t know.

It’s not just that with her I can discuss markets or problems with a scene. It’s that she gets that big part me that other people just tiptoe around. A writing friend understands the complications of creativity. They see how the ‘real world’ isn’t enough. She gets it – my reality doesn’t end with here and now, it has additional dimensions. So does hers.

Other people seem comfortable thinking they know reality. They have a firm grasp on it. Writers – and other artists – wonder about the reality of place and time. They see it not as part of the real and only world but as a finite starting point for all that might be.

I think those who share your ideas, those who “get you” are your true writing friends. Kolkata or Christchurch, Fresno or Dalien  are just dots on a map, barely visible in our infinity.

Your writing friend is the one “gets” your inner world.

A Writer Reads

What have you been reading lately? If you discount what you need to read for information or communication with friends, what else have you read?

As a writer you need to keep reading. Words are your tools. Reading is learning how to use the tools well. What does ‘well’ mean? ‘Well’, through this specific lens, means using words to communicate your meaning with great clarity and using them to express yourself, your ideas and your feelings.

It used to be that when I started reading a fiction book I would feel compelled to read it through to the end. It was the old Protestant work ethic, I suppose. I have since broken that habit. If the writing, the characters, the plot don’t engage me I’m gone. Done. Finished.

I’m sorry if it’s sinful, but there are just too many books in this world to waste time plowing through page after page of dull muddy prose. Look in the library or a good bookshop – you’ll see too many books in your favorite genre alone to ever read all of them. And there will be a new crop out before Christmas.

As writers we need to be selective about the fiction we read. It isn’t sinful to quit after a dozen page; it’s your analytical brain kicking in, saying “Don’t read this stuff. It might be contagious. You might end up catching it like a cold and writing this way yourself.”

You need to read fiction that has been so beautifully written that you’re tempted to read it aloud. At the very least your reading slows right down as you savor the words and the way they have been woven together into sentences. And yes, I’ve been caught with my lips moving as I read. Not often – seldom is writing that clear, vivid and beautifully evocative.

Reading for writers is like apprenticeship. You observe the way a strong writer uses his tools. You begin to understand how words can be used with precision, how tiny details convey can convey more than paragraphs of description. How characters can be brought to life.

If you read books of value you will pick up, almost by osmosis, the secrets of how words work and how they can be made to work better for you.

I’ve found a lot of good writing in the blogs I follow – great humor, vivid description, strong feelings. Good writing is not limited to books. Read blogs, read newspaper columnists who convey ideas well.

Find the good stuff, wherever it is, and learn from it.

Are You a Writer? Funny You Should Ask

I know a man who makes a very good living from being funny. He isn’t just funny, though, he gives people advice in a way that makes them laugh. And listen.

As a young man he wanted to be a comedian. When he told his family they compared him to Seinfeld, then at the top of his career, and the comparison did not make this man look good.

His brother even told him bluntly “You are not funny!”

But he tried. He went to comedy clubs and decided he could be at least as funny as the other would-be comedians who were struggling to start their career. So he prepared a routine and went on stage. He did not do well.

So he asked a comedian who was having a some success for help.

The comedian asked him “Are you funny?”

And he had to admit “No, I’m not.”

“Good.” said the comedian. “In that case I can teach you. If you’d said you were funny I wouldn’t even try.”

OK. your aim may not be humor. But you are a writer. When you venture to tell people this they immediately place you in their own frame of reference – J K Rowling, Danielle Steele, John Grisham or whoever is their favorite author. This comparison may not flatter you. But you are you. Your writing is your writing. Your writing is unique.

Look to grow in those places where writers grow. In a writers group, at a conference or a workshop or a course. Go to places and talk to people who offer you insights. Ask those who are ahead of you on the path for help. Find ways to build on your innate creativity. When you hear someone suggesting a new way of approaching a story, try it.

It might not work for you, but in trying it you grow. You open yourself up to the new and different. Perhaps it might work if you gave it a little tweak.

Much of my writing, I find, consists of building blocks. Each building block has to be as close to perfect as I can make it. Then it has to fit perfectly with all the other building blocks of the story. It can’t just sit there as a block, either, it has to be linked – have tentacles into all the other building blocks so the story is tightly woven together. So tightly woven that it flows together as a unity and the blocks can’t be picked apart.

I seem to have mixed my metaphors there. Building blocks that turn into an octopus and then into a piece of fabric and back into building blocks. How else would I illustrate the complexity of writing?

 

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