On changing direction…


Recently I presented writing workshops and attended the first Cuenca International Writers Conference here in Cuenca, Ecuador, where I live.

It totally changed my viewpoint about blogging.

In the past I’ve strived to write helpful blog posts about all the stuff I’ve learned about writing books in the past two decades.

Then I listened to keynote speaker Andra Watkins talk about how she came to write her NY Times best-selling memoir, Not Without My Father, and blogging.

Here’s the gist of what Andra said about blogging:

– Blogging is about building relationships. People want to know who you are as a person as well as a writer.

– Blog about “raining and writing.” (She says she found more readers where in parts of the country where it rains a lot.)

– People who read blogs want to be entertained. (So I’m thinking maybe you don’t want to just read tips on writing. Maybe you’d like to read some stuff about my quirky writing life. J Hint: It’s a work-in-progress.)

So from now on I’m going to try to be more “personal” and less “practical.”

I’m going to share more eclectic subjects than just writing.

It feels scary to go off in a “new” direction, so that must be exactly what I need to do!

CLICK HERE to check out Andra’s memoir, Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace .

Writing as therapy

woman, writing, notebook, cup of coffee

When I was in the sixth grade I was given a diary for Christmas.

You know the kind: red simulated alligator skin with a gold lock and tiny gold key. It was a five-year diary — only room for a line or two about a day’s events. So I could cram in more info, I began to write smaller.

By the time I reached high school I was journaling in blank books, one for each year. I wrote down entire scenes from my real life, complete with who said what — dialogue.

Today I can recall how satisfied — and in control? — I felt once everything was completely logged in. It felt powerful to be able to look back to a certain day and have a detailed record of a painful or happy event.

I have come to believe that this journaling was a form of creative therapy.

It grew beyond the recreation of scenes and dialogue into organized lines describing how I felt about what was happening around me and to me.

I believe that taking the time to think about how you feel about something and committing the words to paper creates a kind of clarity, ability to accept, or a letting go of feelings that might otherwise churn around inside you, waiting to explode.

An insight and understanding not possible any other way.

That little red five-year diary provided some interesting insights during some personal therapy I did in the 1980s.

Unfortunately my journals from high school and the five years of my first marriage suffered a darker fate.

When the marriage ended in an angry divorce, the husband, who had never read my journals, stole them from me to use as “blackmail.”

Now it’s not like my writings revealed that I robbed a bank or killed somebody. It was more a robbery of my personal creative side that made me feel exposed and vulnerable and violated.

When I got them back from his lawyer, I vowed no one else would ever use my feelings against me again. I burned eight books of writing, and did not journal again for decades.

What I write in little books today is more satisfying. I add little drawings and I record ideas. Some are based on scenes I’ve witnessed, people I’ve met with interesting characteristics, or what if’s.

The what if’s are the most fun—they can lead to ideas for entire manuscripts.

I find something therapeutic in getting these observations and ideas down on paper.

The artist in me is attracted to colorful, hand-made books, some of which I make myself. Always having one with me, so that I’m ready when that great idea strikes, makes me feel creative and productive.

For me, there’s a satisfaction in having put paintbrush or pen to paper that can’t be achieved any other way.

I try to do this every day, even if it’s only for five minutes, so that I can feel good about myself when tackling all the other things in a day that are demanded of me.

It’s taken me years to discover that this is my therapy, the thing that has the most meaning in my creative life.

PS. I wrote a book on this, Art Improv 101: How to Create a Personal Art Journal. You can learn more about it and buy it HERE.

The value of imagination

Copy of Books & Flower

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” – Albert Einstein

As a little girl, I used my imagination to put myself to sleep at night by making up stories in my head that involved my favorite TV heroes: Maverick, Zorro, Hopalong Cassidy, and Flash Gordon (okay, so I’m giving away my “advanced” age here).

Usually in these stories I was the heroine in peril, ultimately rescued by one of them. In my head I could continue a story in a kind of serial form for several nights in a row. I even made up a science-fiction story with myself as the sole heroine, a woman who was in charge and could rescue herself from any danger.

I never wrote any of these ideas down.

It wasn’t until many years later, in high school, that I discovered a creative writing class and began to put stories down on paper. But a career in graphic design and advertising took precedence over creative writing.

Now that I’m retired from that career, I have a drawer full of ideas for novels to write.

My favorite “imagination” question is, “What if?”

– What if a restaurant owner discovered her star chef was a poisoner for hire?

– What if scientists discovered that a new strain of coffee could be used to mindlessly subdue an entire population?

– What if a hotel front desk receptionist with a secret past met a private detective and learned he has been hired to discover it.

If you carried a notebook around all day and just asked yourself, “what if?” I bet you could fill it with a gazillion ideas!

I love the planning and plotting part of writing. I want to use my imagination to paint pictures with words, take flights of fancy, create characters and ideas that won’t leave your head.

My challenge for you today is to imagine for yourself 3 “What if?” questions.

I’ll bet you’ll find it habit-forming.

What Does Success Mean to You?

“Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world.” Tom Clancy

Many writers define success as having a book actually published, with copies flying off the shelves of bookstores all over the country. Our faithful friend, Webster’s Dictionary, says success is “a favorable or satisfactory outcome or result.”

I think Tom Clancy is onto something when he refers to having “won a victory over yourself.” How often do we get in the way of our own success? How many ways do we sabotage ourselves?

When I worked with a personal coach, I discovered that one of my issues was, where does my day go?

My coach had me write an hourly diary of how I spend each day, so I could look at the relationship between what I have to do and what I want to do (write!).

I don’t work at “an outside job”, so I should have lots of time to write, right?

I think so, too, but it doesn’t always seem to work out that way.

I need to achieve victory over myself. I’m working on setting personal boundaries and learning to say, “No.”

Every day I try to remember the feeling of finishing the first draft of my first novel. That feeling of accomplishment, of having completed something. (One of my old issues was having a lot of unfinished projects.) I was so excited I couldn’t wait to read it for the second edit, and the third, and the fourth.

Do you have more than one unfinished novel in your drawer or on your computer?

Ask yourself, what will it take to finish it?

Do I need to get up an hour earlier every morning? Am I willing to do that?

Do I need to give up an hour of television in the evening? Another hobby? After all, there are only 24 hours in the day, and we get to choose how we use them.

So, I challenge you to discover how you sabotage yourself, make the necessary change you know is needed, and achieve victory over yourself by finishing your book.

J.D. Salinger and Writer’s Block

The Author’s Prayer:

“Our Father, which art in Heaven, And has also written a book. . .”

— anonymous

From the late sixties until his death in 2007 J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, shunned publicity.

He didn’t even want his photograph to appear with the book! He didn’t give interviews, and other than a few early short stories published early on, he never published another book.

Yet it’s said that every day until his death he wrote eight hours a day and put it all in a vault; he refused to deal with publishers.

In the 1970s, he reportedly told a New York Times correspondent that he loved to write, but writes just for his own pleasure.

Now, that’s truly creativity for its own sake. Did J.D. Salinger ever have “writer’s block?” We can’t know for sure, but I suspect that on occasion he must have.

Sometimes we get temporarily blocked, looking at the page and waiting for the magic words to appear. When nothing happens, it’s easy to wonder what made us think we can write. . . let alone get published.

We even wonder if we’re really creative at all.

We think of all the people we’ve known who’ve said, “I wish I could write (draw, paint, act, etc), but I’m not creative at all.” We wonder if we are one of them?

No, we’re not. And they’re not “one of them”, either.

Next time you’re stuck at the keyboard and not feeling too creative, think of J.D. Salinger — who had no pressure to be creative — and ask yourself, just for fun, how many ways could I tweak what I just wrote?

Be absurd. Be illogical. Be crazy.

Each tweak could well send your character or plot off in a new direction.

Soon you’ll have new choices galore, and wonder why you didn’t think of them all in the first place, wonderfully creative person that you are.

You and J.D. Salinger.

Using sexy words

No, I’m not going to write here about 50 Shades of Gray.

And I am not going to write about the overuse of the “f” word in writing today.

Writing “sexy” is not about writing about sex per se.

It’s about using words that evoke images, feelings, or one of the five senses. Words that we can clearly identify with, that let us know immediately what is happening, and make us feel something.

Here are some sexy body part words: groin, inner thigh, neck, skin, toe, shoulder, belly, wrist, finger, mouth, eyelashes, knee

Here are some sexy verb uses: cupped, stroked, touched, whispered, breathed, held, swayed, lusted, smelled

In the English language, many words have double meanings. Our language is full of phrases that mean something completely different from the meanings of the individual words.

The double entendre is the basis for wit. A new mother I know recently read from Dick and Jane at a dinner party in such a way that sent us into hysterical laughter. Her favorite simple sentences from the book: “See Jane go down. See Dick go down. See Dick and Jane go down.”


Write What You Know—Emotionally

Years ago when I was active in advertising, television commercials that continually won awards were all about emotions. The Hallmark card company is a master at this. They understand the power of emotions. After all, they’ve built a multi-million dollar business on them.

From their success we can learn what I call the Hallmark way of writing.

It’s all about emotions.

How does your hero feel right after the inciting incident? What makes him angry? What does that anger feel like? How does he express it?

Sad, glad, mad—do your characters experience these emotions as a result of what happens to them in your story?

How do the actions and words of dialogue you set up in your story make your character feel?

How do they react? Do they suppress their emotions or let it all hang out, no matter the consequences?

Once you’ve identified a feeling, how do you describe it?

In a Donald Maas workshop I learned an exercise that helped me do this. He asked us to think of a time in our life when we were most angry at another person, or situation.

Then he asked us to take five minutes and write down on paper how that anger made us feel or react, what words we could use to describe our angriest moment.

The words come easily when you’re thinking about your own situation.

He had us do the same exercise with love. Then he asked us to find a place in our story where we can attribute to a character those words we’d written.

Here’s another exercise: the next time you go to a movie, take a few minutes right afterwards to think about how it made you feel.

Did it make you cry? Scare the beejesus out of you? Confuse you?

Write down how your body feels as a result of the emotional experience.

Was the movie just plain stupid? Write down how you feel about that as well.

Chances are you’ve experienced sad, glad, mad at least once in your life.

In an interview author Tess Gerritsen said, “When I write my novels, I don’t think my way through them; I feel my way. I’m always stopping to test my gut reaction. Does a scene move me in some way? Am I upset or scared or excited or angry? No? Then I need to dig deeper to find the emotion. We have to ask ourselves again and again: What am I feeling in this scene?”

If it works for Tess Gerritsen, it can work for the rest of us.

Feelings connect us. As humans we are blessed (cursed?)  with the ability to empathize with others.

And that can make a good read great!