Monday, November 30, 2015

the hardest thing about writing

It's a miracle, actually, that any of us gets anything written around the holidays. Between preparing for company, planning meals, baking cookies, mailing cards (if you're that old fashioned...), decorating indoors and out, and wrapping gifts, it can be a challenge to put two consecutive thoughts together in proper order.

And, it's not just the holidays that slow us down. Life hands us all kinds of interruptions and distractions. Some are happy events like the birth of a baby, a wedding, or an overdue vacation. You celebrate them with the people you love, and you enjoy doing it even when it puts your work on hold.

Unfortunately, some are unhappy occasions--a death in the family, the loss of a job, or an illness. Because there is so much to think about and so much to do, writing has to take a back seat for a while. People need your attention and your care. You may not be able to shake off your own sadness, or pain, or fear.

When life gets in the way, you can't simply ignore it in the battle to make your word count for the day. You can't just sneak away, when no one is looking, to hang out with your manuscript.

Image result for person sneaking away--clipart

You may not want to.

So what will you do when you can't write, or don't want to write? When you don't have the time, or the energy, or the motivation to line up perfect little sentences for someone else to judge?

Quoting James Baldwin:

"One writes out of only one thing--one's own experience. 
Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience
the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give."

Whether sweet or bitter, savor or submit to every moment. Don't waste a drop. Because this is what will inform your writing when you do take up your work again. Anticipation, joy, and kinship, deeply felt, have the power to uplift the reader. Likewise, tribulation, well written, connects the reader with his own reality and tempers his own sorrow.

Is it hard for you to maintain your writing practice during the holiday season? Is there something else preventing you from writing?

"There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't,
and the secret is this: 
It's not the writing part that's hard. 
What's hard is sitting down to write."
~Steven Pressfield~
Sit. Stay. Write. Whenever you can...

Monday, November 23, 2015

first world problems

If your family is anything like mine, we have a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. Most of our issues will revolve around what we call "first world problems." Whether to use a tablecloth or place mats. Whether to serve pumpkin pie or apple. Which grace to recite before we overindulge.

Many people are not so fortunate given today's climate of fear, hatred, and intolerance, the scourge of domestic violence, the plight of the poor. The random shooting of unarmed citizens. The threat of terrorism. The refugee crisis.

Clearly many can't, or won't be allowed to, enjoy Thanksgiving this year. This, I feel, is a sad thing for a country so full of promise, so full of possibility, and so full of hope for so many.

Because the news has been especially dismal lately, I decided to share this poem:

Let America Be America Again

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Let America be America again.
 Let it be the dream it used to be.
 Let it be the pioneer on the plain
 Seeking a home where he himself is free.

 (America never was America to me.)

 Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
 Let it be that great strong land of love
 Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
 That any man be crushed by one above.

 (It never was America to me.)

 O, let my land be a land where Liberty
 Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
 But opportunity is real, and life is free,
 Equality is in the air we breathe.

 (There’s never been equality for me,
 Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

 ''Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
 And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?''

 I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
 I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
 I am the red man driven from the land,
 I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
 And finding only the same old stupid plan
 Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

 I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
 Tangled in that ancient endless chain
 Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
 Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
 Of work the men! Of take the pay!
 Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

 I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
 I am the worker sold to the machine.
 I am the Negro, servant to you all.
 I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
 Hungry yet today despite the dream.
 Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
 I am the man who never got ahead,
 The poorest worker bartered through the years.

 Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
 In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
 Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
 That even yet its mighty daring sings
 In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
 That’s made America the land it has become.
 O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
 In search of what I meant to be my home—
 For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
 And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
 And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
 To build a “homeland of the free.”

 The free?

 Who said the free?  Not me?
 Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
 The millions shot down when we strike?
 The millions who have nothing for our pay?
 For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
 And all the songs we’ve sung
 And all the hopes we’ve held
 And all the flags we’ve hung,
 The millions who have nothing for our pay—
 Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

 O, let America be America again—
 The land that never has been yet—
 And yet must be—the land where ''every'' man is free.
 The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
 Who made America,
 Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
 Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain
 Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
 The steel of freedom does not stain.
 From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
 We must take back our land again,

 O, yes,
 I say it plain,
 America never was America to me,
 And yet I swear this oath—
 America will be!

 Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
 The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
 We, the people, must redeem
 The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
 The mountains and the endless plain—
 All, all the stretch of these great green states—
 And make America again.


Thanksgiving is such an iconic observance in our country, I can't help but feel a bit nostalgic about it, much the way I feel about the values America was founded on...and much the way I remember the innocent, if naive, pleasure I took in Thanksgivings long since past. This week, I give thanks for the promise, possibility and hope that America symbolizes to the world


ps: don't ask me what happened to the formatting of this post...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

a challenging week

Today I submitted the last of the assignments for Catherine McLean's online course, "The Short Story"--this despite the fact that I was away all week, I've been coughing and wheezing for over a month, and I accidentally sliced open my left index finger, which reduced my customary four-fingered approach to typing to just three fingers. This week was definitely a challenge...but not because of that.

This week we looked at story setting and how to transition from the protagonist's ordinary world to anchor the reader in the story world. We learned that the setting is not about the scenery, but about enhancing the mood and tone of the story, adding drama, and maximizing the danger the protagonist faces. One way to create great settings with clarity and accuracy is to use photos, pictures, or sketches. Consider the time of day and the importance of lighting, the weather, and surrounding natural elements if and when they are important to the protagonist. Make sure you include enough description to allow the reader to visualize the setting just as you do, but don't waste words on unnecessary detail.
We learned how the inciting incident opens the door to the story world. If you make the mistake of describing the scenery and setting up the inciting incident before you introduce the protagonist, go back. Take all that description out. Start the story with the protagonist in action, and then feed detail back in as needed to anchor the reader in the story world.

We learned about different kinds of villains and antagonists, and how to name them.

Cruella de Vil

We created a word list of proper nouns to eliminate repetitious names and sounds, and to avoid overdoing it with monosyllabic words.

We studied the elements of conflict that all stories require. We looked at master plots, themes, and the forces that drive the story (character, plot, and premise). Finally, we arrived at memorable endings.

Many thanks to Catherine McLean for her attention and constant feedback during this two-week workshop. You can find information about other workshops and activities, and about a Pennwriters membership at
* addition, this week I finally finished reading all 693 pages of "Altruism--The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World" by Matthieu Ricard.

I can only say this: if you care about anything in the universe--just one thing--you must read this book. Whether you care about compassion, cruelty, violence, war, poverty, global warming, environmental sustainability, corporate greed and fraud, global economics, or the fate of future generations, you must read this book. I insist...

Sunday, November 8, 2015

breaking news

This month, while many of my friends are hard at work hammering out the first draft of a novel for NaNoWriMo (been there...tried that), I'm taking an online course with Catherine McLean titled "The Short Story--The Quick Course to Success." (
Catherine McLean
This week we considered how to name and when to introduce our story's protagonist. We learned the difference between stereotypes and archetypes, like the difference between Timothy and Igor, and what image the name brings to the reader's imagination. We learned that the first character named should always be the story's protagonist, and the sooner in the story, the better. We looked at names we intuitively like or dislike, and why.

I've taken workshops with Catherine in the past at various Pennwriters conferences. I'd never given any thought to archetypes until she introduced me to the concept a couple of years ago. It made sense to me so I took her advice and began exploring the meaning and origin of names for my characters. Soon I found it time-consuming and cumbersome so little by little I abandoned the idea. But now, I get it. When a character's name intuitively resonates with the reader, it can be a strong reinforcing element given the character's role in the story. Likewise, it can be an obstacle to the reader if the name resonates negatively...if it doesn't suit the character or if it's hard to pronounce.

We also learned about myth structure and character arcs, the inciting incident that launches the protagonist's journey or quest, what it takes to make a character interesting, as well as what constitutes an interesting setting. What makes a good antagonist. How to raise the stakes for the protagonist. How to develop the middle of the story. I could go on...

Check out Catherine's wonderful web site for much, much more.

This week we move on to plotting--The Story Problem. Then I have just two weeks to revise and submit the story I've been hoping to get published for several years. Hopefully, this will be a quick course to success for me!
"The reality is this--
the muse doesn't exist.
What exists is your IMAGINATION."
~Catherine McLean~~
I'm going to finish with a pitch for a really great book. If you need one more kick in the pants before you start your novel, or pick up your paints, or give voice to your song, run out right this very minute and pick up "Big Magic--Creative Living Beyond Fear" by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love." Be prepared to take notes.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

how to stay focused on writing

Are you joining in the NaNoWriMo madness this month? For anyone who hasn't heard of this, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It is celebrated...or thousands of aspiring novelists from around the world every year. The goal is to produce a 50,000 word draft of a novel during the month of November. This requires getting over 1500 words on the page every day for thirty days.

I participated last year and, for me, the experience had its pros and cons. On the positive side, it forced me to write off the top of my head without the kind of obsessive revising I tend to do with every line of every paragraph no matter what I'm working on. And it focused my attention solely on writing all day, every day. Forget cleaning, cooking, or thinking ahead to the holidays (although I did manage to pull off Thanksgiving in a few spare moments).

On the negative side, it forced me to write off the top of my head without the kind of obsessive revising I tend to do with every line of every paragraph no matter what I'm working on. So, it made me a little anxious. And I wasn't especially proud of the outcome--a loosely told story of a kidnapping that led investigators into the world of international sex trafficking.

Nevertheless, I finished with over 50,000 words in thirty days so at least I earned bragging rights.

Around this time of year distractions seem to mount: the approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the onslaught of winter. I could stay busy all day long and never write a word, so I have to make an effort to stay focused on writing in November. But, instead of joining NaNoWriMo, this year I'm taking an online course in short story writing with Catherine McLean ( ).

I've enjoyed workshops with her at conferences in the past. You can check out some of her writing advice and tricks of the trade at . I'll keep you posted about what we learn over the next couple of weeks.

Just to let you know, I have about 50% of my Christmas shopping done, my cards are ready to be mailed, menus are planned, and bird feeders are ready.

What will you be focusing on in November?
"Women with clean houses
do not have finished books."
~Joy Held~
Happy November everyone! Write on!