Category Archives: Books

Writing Every Day

This spring I’ve been working steadily on my novel and also on eradicating the weeds in my garden, but I don’t feel that I’ve made enough progress on either task. The weeds are green, so if I look from a distance, they’re barely noticeable. The lack of words on the page is harder to ignore.  I have a lot of control over my schedule, so why can’t I find more time to write?

One of the biggest reasons I get stalled is the fear that my work isn’t good enough. When I’m feeling that way, I’d rather do almost anything than work on my current project. (Even scrubbing the shower or cleaning the oven seems appealing.) There are plenty of writing tasks that don’t involve actual writing, so it’s easy to accomplish something during my writing sessions without adding to my page count, but at the end of the day, I can’t deny that I’ve wasted precious time.

I’ve heard the same thought echoed by so many writers and it helps to know that I’m not alone. I still need to fix the problem, though, so I went looking for advice from one of my favorite writing teachers.

I bought a copy of Midge Raymond’s new book, Everyday Writing: Tips and prompts to fit your regularly scheduled life, and I signed up for her class at San Diego Writers, Ink. Both were filled with practical advice.

This small but mighty book fits perfectly in the pocket of my netbook sleeve, so no matter where I write, I’ll be able to take it along for inspiration and a variety of helpful writing suggestions.

The first half of the book is a series of short chapters centered on making the most of your writing time, like How to write when you’re not really writing and How to meet your writing goals.

The second half is packed with prompts for every occasion. Most involve writing, but some simply provoke thought so that the time you spend waiting (like standing in the security line at the airport or sitting in the dentist’s chair) can enrich your future writing sessions.

The class was just as beneficial as the book with advice tailored to each student’s situation and exercises that encouraged us to reflect on our own writing time. Two of the exercises we did were particularly enlightening for me.

We wrote out detailed descriptions of our daily schedules and I discovered that I don’t have as much control over my time as I thought. Many of my responsibilities are scheduled during the morning, my most productive time of day, and unfortunately, I can’t move those activities. So although I have the time I need to write, my free hours are often in the afternoon when I’m less alert.

Midge suggested that I make those afternoon writing sessions more stimulating by creating rituals around that time, like brewing a favorite flavor of tea to drink while I write. She also suggested rewarding myself with a treat and I love having an excuse to eat a piece of chocolate at the end of my work time.

Another useful exercise was to write descriptions of a good writing session, a mediocre one and a bad one. By comparing the elements of each, I could see clearly what works for me and what doesn’t. I know that I absolutely must start with a pen in my hand and do a quick warm-up prompt to get my brain in gear. I also realized that my internal editor is still sabotaging me. I’m going to try tuning her out by shutting off the monitor while I draft a scene. I’ll find more typos when I go back in to edit, but those are much easier to fix than a blank page.

I’ve taken great classes from Midge Raymond on topics ranging from setting the scene to editing a manuscript. This latest class was equally invaluable. If you have the opportunity to work with her, don’t hesitate. And if you’re not lucky enough to be able to learn from her in person, Everyday Writing is a great substitute. Treat yourself today.

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Creative Color

I love color. In my garden, my house and my closet, color boosts my mood and stimulates my creativity. I appreciate minimalist design and the freshness of white walls, but while I might like to visit those places, I find it hard to work in them.

My house has several white rooms and I’m slowly transforming them into spaces that suit me. I like the process of deciding on a color and choosing the shade that pleases me best.  Much to Lola’s dismay, I’ve been doing the painting myself. I move slowly (boring), I spend a lot of time on a ladder (I don’t climb down every time she wants me to open the door) and she hates walking on the slippery plastic drop cloths I tape down to protect the floors.

While DIY projects can be rewarding, I’ve made a few mistakes with my color choices and whether you do the work yourself or hire someone to paint for you, starting from scratch can be costly. My first redo was the powder room. It was a bright mustard yellow when we moved in. I loved the color, but not the shade, so I toned it down and it was perfect.

Until we replaced the stained glass window. The new one by artist Susan Bernard is wonderful…

…but the yellow walls were all wrong with change in the light, so I had to paint the room again. This time, I chose a lovely dark blue that works with the glass. It’s absolutely perfect.

I was so happy with that color that I decided to paint my white office in a similar but lighter color. I expected to love it, but it was just “nice” and the difference in light changed the colors so they almost clashed.

That failure stalled me until I had a visit from my cousin, an interior designer, who is trained to see color in ways most people can’t. She helped me choose a better color for my office and for the rest of the white rooms in my house.

My cousin went back home, so I’m without a resident designer again. I’ve been wondering if I could do a better job of choosing colors in the future now that I’ve had some good advice.

As I was wandering around online, I stumbled upon Colour Me Happy by Maria Killam and I read her post, One Bad Decision Pays for the Designer. I believe her assertion that it can be more expensive to make a color mistake than to hire an expert in the first place. She also has a post that explains why that light blue didn’t work in my office (A Light Colour Will Never Come to Life in a Dark Room) and several posts about undertones that reveal why it was so hard for me to choose the right neutral colors to tie the rooms together.

If my cousin isn’t in town next time I choose paint colors, I’ll have to hire a designer. I could try to learn more about color theory and undertones, but unless the choice is obvious, I think I’ll be better off relying on a color expert for decorating decisions so I can focus my energy on fiction instead.

The more I novels and short stories I read, the more I learn about what works and what doesn’t, but I’ve discovered that simple reading isn’t enough. It takes active study to understand plot structures and character nuances, sentence patterns and voice. When I find a story I love, I have to focus on these details to learn why it resonates for me. I have to look for those undertones in the words like a designer does with color.

But now I can do that work in a room that’s the perfect color for me. Thank you, Tracy!

I’m taking a break from painting, so when I need to recharge my creative batteries, I’ll focus on my garden. Lola approves of this plan and she was delighted to help me plant herbs outside the back door last weekend. If the sun comes out this afternoon, I’ll take my notebook outside so I can enjoy the bright colors of late spring blossoms before they fade away.

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Practice Makes Perfect

Or does it?

I’m re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Her advice both inspires and frightens me. She makes me feel like writing is as simple as breathing and as impossible as climbing Everest. One chapter in particular struck me this time. In The Goody-Two-Shoes Nature, she advises against being satisfied with a dutiful writing routine.

“Don’t just put in your time. That is not enough. Be willing to put your whole life on the line when you sit down for writing practice. Otherwise you are just mechanically pushing the pen across the page and intermittently looking at the clock to see if your time is up.”

Those sentences struck me as painfully true. I know I’m guilty of punching my writing time clock. I write mindlessly and sometimes I’ll hit on a great new idea, the perfect word, a brilliant sentence, but more often I stay stuck in my groove. If I want to get out of it, I have to push my limits and do something new, something terrifying.

This reminded me of a book I swiped from my husband’s business collection. I was fascinated by Geoff Colvin’s ideas in Talent is Overrated. He maintains that it takes ten years of practice to excel (similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in Outliers), but that the way most of us practice isn’t enough. He writes in great detail about the studies of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and his work on expert performance, particularly in the area of deliberate practice.

According to Colvin, deliberate practice requires that we:

  • Work with a teacher. We need objective evaluation of our abilities and our progress. A teacher can devise practice sessions focusing not on skills that we have already mastered or on tasks that are too far beyond our capabilities, but on work that is difficult, yet not impossible.
  • Repeat. We have to keep practicing things that are hard until they come naturally.
  • Challenge ourselves mentally. Practicing without thinking won’t help us improve. Adding intense mental focus makes our practice more difficult, but more effective. We won’t be able to spend as much time working since the effort required is more exhausting, but we’ll accomplish more in that shorter amount of time.
  • Accept that it will hurt. It’s fun to do things we’re good at doing and so very frustrating to stretch for skills just beyond our reach. Failure is a constant risk, but the rewards are worth the pain.

If I want to stretch my writing skills, I need to listen to Natalie Goldberg and Geoff Colvin. I need to follow the example of my friend who loved horses so much that she learned to ride. She found a teacher, started taking lessons every week and practicing in between. Now she has a horse of her own and she competes. Sometimes she’s frustrated by what she perceives as a lack of skill, but watching her ride is inspiring. I think she found the perfect teacher, one who pushes her beyond her comfort zone to keep reaching for the next level.

It’s time for me to find that teacher. I need someone who will give me objective feedback and will push me to reach beyond safe. I’m a cautious person, so taking deliberate risks with my writing won’t be easy, but I have to overcome my fear of failure. It’s time to stop aiming for perfect and go for truth.

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A Dog’s Life

It’s no secret how much I love my Lola. She’s my walking buddy, protector, furry child, dancing sister, writing companion, my inspiration and my guide to being present in the moment. We don’t speak the same language, but we manage to communicate with words, sounds, movement and expressions. I imagine her thoughts and I know she senses mine.

Bella at One Sister’s Rant often blogs about her adventures with her dog, Roxy. I loved this special post where she shares Roxy’s unique qualities and character traits and reveals their special bond. I also love hearing from Henry on Monica’s Tangled Web, and from Bassa and Bongo. I get a kick out of  Laurie Bartolo‘s fabulous dog photographs and the dog-centric posts on Iowa Dog Blog.

We lucky humans who have dogs in our lives can’t help but ponder the canine experience of the world. Dogs are experts at devoting their attention to their people. They watch us and read us. They give and love and forgive us for not being as honest and loyal as they are.

Books about writing take up the most space on my shelf, but a very close second is books on dogs: stories about dogs, traveling with dogs, hiking with dogs, training dogs, understanding dog behavior. My latest favorite is You Are a Dog: Life Through the Eyes of Man’s Best Friend by Terry Bain. It’s an engaging view of the world from a canine perspective.

The second person narrative gives the reader an intimate connection to a dog’s experience of home and family, of life and love. Having read it, I feel more connected to Lola and to other people who love dogs the way I do. Many thanks to the author of this special book. Dog lovers, give it a sniff. You won’t be disappointed.

Terry Bain won an O. Henry award for his short story, Games, and also wrote We Are the Cat: Life Through the Eyes of the Royal Feline.

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