Archives: creative writing

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

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.

 

Write to Finish – A Road Map to Publication

Write to Finish is crafted for novelists and memoirists who struggle to overcome hurdles and blocks on the road to completion. We will work to enhance detail, character, and place for a solid draft and create a project plan to get to the finish line. The class includes but is not limited to the review process, editing, readers, and submission. Get the tools to bring your book to fruition.  The class is limited to 8

Write to Finish – A Road Map to Publication

Write to Finish is crafted for novelists and memoirists who struggle to overcome hurdles and blocks on the road to completion. We will work to enhance detail, character, and place for a solid draft and create a project plan to get to the finish line. The class includes but is not limited to the review process, editing, readers, and submission. Get the tools to bring your book to fruition.  The class is limited to 10.

© 2019 Lee Heffner – Author