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Inspiration, Where Art Thou?

I met Julia Cameron, in Seattle in 1995, at a Center for Creative Education event. Her message of own your creativity resonated like nothing before. She became my pied piper. I did morning pages with verve, set ritual artist’s dates for myself and created personal radar to identify and repel the destructive shadow artists in my life.

At our meeting, I asked, “MS. Cameron do you offer classes on The Artist’s Way or can you recommend a teacher in Seattle?”

            “No, why?”

            “I love this book and I’d like to develop a class around it.”

            “Then do it.”

Her ease and graciousness shocked me. As an aside, she wore a hand painted dress by a Taos artist that I coveted. The dress flowed with the same grace as her answer. Her confidence taught me to share my creativity not hug it to my chest. I took her at her word and offered classes based on her book and its principles.

Teaching became a love. But after multiple cross country moves and many class sessions, I realized I had become a shadow artist as an acolyte of Julia Cameron. I was not honoring my desire to write though I knew I had a book in me. When asked, on occasion, as I changed jobs and locales, “What do you plan to do next?”

            My cavalier response was, “I’m going to write a book.”

In retrospect I realize it was an uninformed declaration. As uninformed as when several decades earlier I said, “I want a baby.”

Just as I knew nothing about babies or the speed that they turn into self-actualized teens, I had no idea what it took to put one word after another to form a sentence or to compile sentences into a paragraph. Sure, I knew the mechanics. I had written hundreds of business letters and managed multiple product documentation teams but I had not allowed myself to write creatively.

Time to put up or shut up. I bought the perfect desk, placed it in the ideal spot and acquired two drawers full of pens, pencils, highlighters, and multi-hued and sized post-it notes. I used my working knowledge of MSWord to create a chapter and version number scheme. I added three jump drives to my supply collection to ensure sufficient space for regular backups of my masterwork.

I didn’t want some words or some sentences, I wanted perfection, the lightening bolt idea crafted in to a gold star publication. I was ready. I had the tools of of my chosen art.

I also had multiple blank legal pads, notebooks bound in leather, composition books and a mound of scattered thoughts on scraps of paper.  My despicable computer display reflected every attempt as imperfection.  I needed inspiration.

Where does one find inspiration? I have no idea. True, there are writers who have lived through extraordinary adventures or who have had an idea that nags until writing, medication or insanity are the plausible cures. Based on the thousand plus writers I have worked with, the inspired are a rare breed.

Sad to say, for most of us books come from work. Not inspiration. We must face the demon of the blank page or screen. We must set goals and we must do the work. Sorry not to deliver the much wanted but phantom silver bullet. I do promise that if you do the work you will be amazed.

A day of bad writing is always better than a day of no writing. — Don Roff

Too many Rules — Too Little Confidence

Too many Rules — Too Little Confidence

Pick an author who has had publishing success and you will find an article or post with his or her 5, 7, 8, or 10 rules of writing. A few showoffs go for 10 or 12. Each post is the holy grail of the current silver bullet to writing success. Margaret Atwood takes a no-nonsense slant: No excuses –leave no words behind.

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick…

The list continues to point 10 as a practical guide to help you, writer, to stay out of your own way.

Hilary Mantel’s rules open with, “Hire an accountant.”Cheeky but good advice because at its core it implies believe in yourself and your success and you will need an accountant.

Writers who are trying to spread their wings seek advice. Why? Comfort. Growth. Validation. There are as many reasons as writers. There is a lot of advice that does not bear consideration. But how do you know? Do the rules begin with the word Don’t? Avoid them in 75% of occurrences. Better yet understand the DON”T; become comfortable with it and confident enough through your practice to question and break the rule.

What do I mean? I have four words for you Elmore Leonard & Good Writing. Leonard famously wrote 10 Rules of Good Writing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why are his nevers and don’ts acceptable? Easy, read the full text, not the bullets. He wisely gives examples of writers who broke each rule and succeeded. How? They understood the dont’s and nevers with enough depth and confidence to break them when necessary, and to advantage.

If you need more convincing I suggest you read the excellent post from Anne R. Allen in 2016.

12 Stupid Writing Rules Currently Making the Rounds

Sadly, they are as current as ever. Another consideration for another time is how rules can become a form of resistance.

 

Happy Writing

In Memory of Carrie Fisher

In Memory of Carrie Fisher

We remember Carrie Fisher, not Princess Leia. Be aware, if you are interested in ear buns, diaphanous white column dresses or assault weapons, this is not the remembrance for you. Carrie Fisher was soul connected to writers, artists, and those of us whose moods are managed by psychotropic drugs to function in the realm of normal.

She held her truth close to her heart and fed her pen with its blood. The truth: ugly and funny, humiliating and enlightening, unvarnished and finished was on the page, in the interview, and on the screen. Her truth was contradictory and yet, still true. Her mother drove her crazy and was her favorite person. Her father broke her heart and yet she cared for him. She hated that she was forever diminished to Leia and yet returned again and again to the role and the screen set family.

Most importantly, she refused to be minimized by her mental health issues. In her self-championship for better health, she became a champion for others paralyzed by depression or accelerated to high mania due to unforgiving brain chemistry. In spite of self-medication, bad love choices and the opinions of countless trolls she triumphed in art, love, and family.

 

Book Lists

Pick a genre, era, or topic there is a book list. As a writer I’m addicted to book lists, they are opioids for my reading addiction. I seek them out in libraries, online, and in news feeds. I share the lists I find with fellow readers and writers. If by chance a shared list choice becomes a book club title, a mutual read discovered in conversation or a pass along to a fellow traveler all the better. The hours of reading are enhanced by pooled thoughts Reading of new and loved authors also serve as a tutorial for readers who are also writers. Prose enchantment can lead to a hangover composed of how did she or he do that? The hangover can only be cured by writer analysis.

The holidays offer up a plethora of possibilities. Tis the season of Book Lists. 2018 lists are long — The New York Times Notable 100; nominees for prizes — The Man Booker Shortlist;  short — The Ten Best Books of 2018; funny – The Best Comedy Books That Can Save Us From 2018, classical – The Guardian’s List of the Top 100 Books of All Time.

Some titles are put through an annual final four style tournament. Books are pitted against each other in an online popularity vote until one remains as the Tournament of Books winner for the New Year.

Book lists are great. Right? Yes, to a point. There are also lists that stratify types of writers. Books by Women, Books by African Americans, Books by Natives, Books by LGBTQ authors, you get the gist. The lists like all lists are interesting and somewhat addictive when searching for new voices. Such lists shine a light on authors that might not be included in more established lists. There is a downside. Lists stratified by race, gender or geographical identity also imply that these authors are indeed writers of a sort but they have not earned the unqualified identification of AUTHOR (white male).

Stratification hints that books written by women of any color are for females, LGBTQ authors write for the rainbow community, African American writers serve a population of color and thus all are somewhat less than books written by the ages-old cadre of male writers.

Books are a collaboration between writer and reader. Pages written are learned and shared experiences when the meld is successful. All that matters is the writing that creates touchstones by an author of any color, origin, or historical background. When that connection is made societal pigeon holes become irrelevant. Read a book because it appeals to not because it has been blessed by a list. Happy reading.

Ode to Marshall Fields’ Christmases Past – Chicago

 

Writing is about memory, personal truth and the never-ending river of change. A recent scan of Flipboard had the following headline: Christmas at Macy’s Walnut Room. To most, this is an innocent lede about an annual holiday celebration in Chicago. To me, it is a stain on Christmases past.

Childhood Christmases are redolent of my grandmother’s cherry, almond body cream, fresh pine, and the sweets served in Marshall Field’s Walnut Room. We had a special, annual date, just us, tea at the base of the storybook Christmas tree seemingly trimmed by elves. Our trays of dainty sandwiches, shimmering sweets, and warm scones were a personal fairy tale beyond my multicultural and blue-collar neighborhood. Each sip equaled the special love we shared, each cucumber sandwich harkened the possibility of future travel and the sweets spoke of creative aspirations. One Yellow cab ride took me to a magical kingdom that Disney could never replicate. 

Fields was the place to spend tips earned from my Kresge’s lunch counter job. I saved and saved to buy a special dress for a high school dance. Fields sold me my first pair of expensive shoes as a young career woman and it became the place for my special annual Christmas date with my children who found it old fashioned. Sadly, I failed at translating the magic it held and still holds for me today.

Marshall Fields is an echo of Chicago history, a Phoenix fertilized by the ashes of a historic fire, stately on its full city block, accessorized by giant verdigris clocks, stocked with wonders including the celestial Tiffany mosaic above the grand gallery, all impressive to my young self. It continued to be magical as I returned through all phases of my womanhood. 

For me, Macy’s is New York, malls and overstocked floors more jumble than art. I can hear New Yorkers protest and rightly so because Macy’s is their memory. Macy’s acquired Fields in 2005. For months they teased the city about whether they would keep the historic name or change it to Macy’s. Chicagoans held out a helium balloon of hope that suffered a massive coronary with the name change. Is it a coincidence that I left Chicago in 2006?

What does a name change have to do with writing? Everything. It is the human condition to hunger for reconstructed memory while society strives for change. It is the meat of an idea that a writer serves as the main course of personal truth. I write about the many memories I carry of the grand emporium in my creative arsenal. It is tied to my education, my accomplishments, my hopes, my dreams, and my losses. Perhaps the writing of my memory-truth will spark a memory in you or another reader. This is why I write.

 

 

Job Title – Writer

In Midcoast Maine we have an abundance of artists and creatives. My small town has 2 world-class museums and fifteen galleries. The first Friday of every month town turns into a party as residents and tourists wander in and out of art spaces. The energy is palpable. Catch up conversations, opinions of a month’s offerings and gossip abound. The spring and fall bring open studios. Arrows point toward destinations out one peninsula after another. It’s a lovely way to spend a day. Seeing the art of others spurs creativity for other mediums. There is only one creative school invisible in this sea of plenty – writers.

This was brought home earlier this week when I went with a writing group to surprise one of its members. The surprise? A Sudden Fiction group, spent months compiling the stories of CJ Quigg (Carol to her friends). An artist Nina Holland designed the cover, Chris McLarty did the design and Pamela Evans served as editor to ensure a professionally finished book. In addition, they paid for the printing out of pocket. Why would writers invest so much time and money on a fellow traveler’s work? It’s simple. These writers have met for years. Each week they write from a prompt and read the result aloud for immediate feedback. Over the years the group has liked and respected Carol’s work. She has been encouraged many times to submit her stories for publication. Carol’s fear subsumed her talent. And like many writers, her stories collected on a hard drive or in a desk drawer. Faced with ill health Carol thought her work if ever published would be done posthumously.

Publication does not a writer make, but there is nothing more thrilling to a writer than to hold a book with your name under the title.  We have no galleries. We invite no one to view our workspace. Our community congregates in small, quiet groups in libraries and living rooms. Our work is heard by other writers who we support and who support us. If you meet a writer, don’t ask, “What have you published?” Say, “Tell me about your writing.”

Prepare to be enchanted.  How do I know? I’ve worked with writers for decades and have hundreds of unpublished story threads in my head as a legacy of those classes. The above mentioned Sudden Fiction group has continued to meet since learning of the practice in one of my classes. Beautiful writers all, they have for their own reasons not published. That does not negate their ownership of the job title, Writer.

 

The Right Editor for the Right Job

Think of an editor as a medical professional. If you have an infected foot, a brain surgeon may not be helpful. Your manuscript must have vitality, to be submittable or published independently; it must be fit, throbbing with life, well-formed, well-groomed, and dressed in its Sunday best. The editor needed for the job depends on where you are on your path to print.

Post Second Draft Check up – Manuscript Critique

You’ve survived your first round of revisions, cleaned up obvious errors, filled story holes, polished tone and pace, and digested feedback from beta readers. Now what?  Time to put on your big writer pants and seek a professional. Genre is key to finding the right (write) editor. If the editor is neither experienced nor aware of your market, save your money. Find an editor well versed in your genre. If you write memoir, you want a seasoned creative non-fiction editor, not a  fantasy/sci-fi editor.

What can you expect from a manuscript critique? The editor is an attentive reader who provides feedback regarding content. Think of it as a physical. Expect a 5-10 page report that highlights the health of your work — both the good and possible trouble points. Anticipate criticism and comment about the opening, structure, POV, style, pace, dialogue, and ending. Specific pages, passages, and plot points will be highlighted. Is the work compelling, does it work as a whole, and if not, what steps need to be taken? Prepare to be relieved, with moments of associated delight and terror.

Terrified about what a manuscript critique might cost? Editing, like a good diet, is an iterative process. The more you improve your practice, the better you can manage the ultimate cost.

Identify your writer’s habits. with the help of an editor/writer’s coach. Your habits: qualifying phrases, word overuse,  complicated dialogue attributions, a preference for stutter verbs, voice shifts, adequate pace, and characterization can be identified in as little as three chapters. The editor will mark up the work with highlights and suggestions. It is up to you scan your full document for other examples and make corrections to achieve the third draft. The cleaner the draft, the more focus on content by a developmental editor.

Developmental Editing – Penultimate Draft

If a manuscript critique is equivalent to a physical at a GP, a developmental edit is on par with a full work up at the Mayo Clinic. You look for a developmental editor when you have taken the manuscript as far as you can toward a goal of submission or independent publishing. Expect in-depth feedback on all issues: word use, historical accuracy, questions regarding writer’s choices, under or overdeveloped characters, pace, a tone in keeping with the genre, marketability, and praise for strengths. Don’t waste your money on developmental editing if your work is not ready. Patients do not go to the Mayo Clinic for hangnails or two or three bouts of indigestion.

Copyediting – Final, Final

You can be a brilliant writer but be a horrible technician. I’ve coached many writers who insist on creating their own document structure rather than follow standard submission guidelines. A unique document structure may feel creative at the beginning of a draft, but it is hell to clean up at the end. Ignoring structure and punctuation rules is like living on Tostitos and soda until 5:00 and happy hour appetizers and alcohol until bedtime for ten years. A seven-day detox will not correct the underlying and long-term issues. Writing is a practice. Copyeditors are perfectionists. They want every comma, paragraph indent, en dash, and period in its proper place. Many a prospective agent has dismissed a manuscript for sloppiness, not content.

Many a Mayo Clinic visit is built on a foundation of bad choices. Ensure that your work is the best you can make it for a clean bill of health. A strong, healthy, and clean manuscript increases publication chances and happy readers.

 

I Can’t Afford an Editor

I Can’t Afford an Editor.”   

I hear this claim in every class I teach or writer’s group I attend. The complaint hides two fears: bloody red ink on your manuscript and the idea that a supposed, expert stranger will tell you what to write. The cost is a factor but it is not the factor. 

 

To allay your fears and minimize the cost know that editing is an iterative, not a one and done process. What do I mean?

  • Only you can write your 1st draft. Introducing an editor at this phase is a form of creative suicide;
  • Create a full draft, celebrate, and self-edit after you take the following steps:
    • Celebrate your accomplishment
    • Allow the text to marinate in a safe inaccessible place for 2-6 weeks
    • Read the full manuscript as a reader, not a writer
      • Understand that you can never be a fully objective reader
    • Return to the text to read as a self-editor
      • Is the point of view consistent?
      • Are there adequate transitions?
      • Have you used enough dialogue to move the action forward?
      • Is the pace and tone in keeping with the genre?
      • Did you use the five senses as tools to show not tell your story?
  • Use your self-edits to write a second draft.
    • Be amazed by how you have improved the text
  • Do a copyedit of the second draft, use online tools to help you
    • Spell & grammar checks
    • Grammarly.com
    • Search and replace tools
  • Ask other writers to act as beta readers:
    • Specify what you want from readers
    • Specify the desired turn around time
      • Be sure the anticipated return is reasonable for the length of the manuscript
      • Don’t resent a no response, timing is everything
      • Be willing to reciprocate
  • Read through the provided edits with care
    • Consider every comment and use those that resonate to complete your third draft

Presuming that you’ve made edits to the manuscript based on reader feedback, re-read the text with the above-bulleted self-edit questions in mind, performed a second tools scan, and made all changes you can identify you will have a completed third draft and you haven’t spent a cent. Congratulations!

Time to hire an editor.

How do you find the right editor?

See you next post. Happy writing.

 

 

 

                         

 

 

What is True for Your Story?

 

Truth is a tricky word. It is especially tricky for writers. Some of you may think truth is only relevant to non-fiction. Some of you may argue truth is fact. Truth in writing is a kaleidoscope or crazy quilt. There as many truths in a book as there are characters. Our job is to write characters or memories (another tricky word) true for each personality, in keeping with the story told. Is it factual? Did a hurricane happen on June 12, 1956, at noon or at 6:00 p.m.? You can look up facts online but the said search will never relate how you felt during that storm or how your character reacted to immediate danger in an intense situation. The fact cannot convey the terror, the cruelty, and wonder of the act. It does not define a family’s reactions as their home is destroyed by a fickle wind while their neighbor’s house escapes damage. It cannot convey the grateful sense of survival when life is measured as greater than tangible goods.

 

Truth plays another role in writing. As we write we may decide to include topics that make us uncomfortable. We may worry about what others will think when they read the material or we fret that we are going too or not far enough. The concerns can be evidenced by our physical reactions: a headache, tightness in the chest or a queasy stomach as we write. Often we avoid topics that cause us to feel vulnerable.

Vulnerability is where truth in writing resides. When you have a physical reaction to your work, meditate on the reaction. What is at the root of the fear, the tension, the sense of dis-ease? When you write a section that challenges your intellectual ideas of truth, it doesn’t mean that the words are emotionally invalid. Truth in writing is more complex than facts. Truth in writing may not be equivalent to truth in your daily life, but it can be true for your character, the plot and the outcome of your writing.

Remember your draft is about creation. A draft is a free fall. The time to let go. The time to trust you, the writer. Ignore the voice that urges you to cut and refine as you go. Simultaneous edits have a vampiric effect. The corpse appears alive but it has no lifeblood.

Surprise yourself by reviewing a full draft. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and create your strongest work. This is your free pass to get all of the truths, feelings, and reactions of your story on the page without internal or external critics.

 

Cara Caras, Baking, and Readers

Cara Caras, Baking, and Readers

 

I am a writer and a baker. When I feel stuck in my writing, I bake. I recently made a new recipe: Cara Cara Cake. A Cara Cara is a seasonal orange available in the northeast from late January until almost March. The bright rind is a color once limited to circus clowns. The semi-sweet, juicy flesh imitates the dark pink of Blood Oranges. I stumbled upon a recipe for a Bundt-type cake that included two whole unspecified oranges. I chose the Cara Caras to adapt the cake  chttps://food52.com/recipes/75095-sunset-s-whole-orange-cake as I choose the identity markers of a character, accessible and yet unexpected.

I don’t believe a recipe has to be followed to the letter for a good outcome. I am a pantser as a writer and as a baker. Recipes are concepts rather than scripture. First drafts, like a new recipe, are a test of imagination and skill. Submission-ready manuscripts are concepts tempered and coereced into final formats, like batter that becomes a fully iced and decorated cake.

 

Despite experience in both arenas I have yet to learn which of my creations will be a hit with my audience. I expected my new cake to be good, but I did not expect it to elicit rhapsody from the various audiences served. The response was so great I was asked for the recipe by a dozen people. Every event after the first serving brought a request for a re-bake. While flattering, I try not to repeat recipes just I try not to create stale characters. Yet, I have come to learn that an audience is a collaborator regardless of what I create. I have to trust that that the taster of my deserts or the reader of my work has accepted what I present and that in some way it touches on what is good food for him or her. I also have to accept when collaborators withhold feedback or give flat responses. Thank god for tasters, editors, and readers.

© 2019 Lee Heffner – Author