Friday, March 30, 2012

Making Lemonade

Life has been a bit on the bitter side of late. Last week a dear friend said farewell to her father. Almost two weeks ago my stepmother's sister had a stroke and Wednesday she passed away. Last week I went to the emergency room with severe knee pain and a fever and was diagnosed with gout. On Monday my mother went to the emergency room by ambulance with severe asthma. While there her heart went a little crazy and they worked very hard to pull her through. She was in intensive care for a couple of days. Last night I went to bed and realized that my foot was hurting. In the middle of the night I was up trying to figure out why I was in so much pain and wondering if the gout had spread to my foot despite being on meds. I was massaging my foot to ease the pain when I discovered a strange, hard lump on the top of my big toe. I had never seen such a thing. I continued to check out my toe and found a bit of metal sticking out the under side of it. I grabbed a pair of scissors and used them as pliers to pull the offending bit out. It turned out to be a broken bit of an old embroidery needle that had somehow managed to get rammed in there so hard that it had almost gone entirely through my toe. Another eighth of an inch or less and it would have made it. I cleaned the wound carefully, dealt with the allergy attack I was by then having. With little sleep I was up again and off to the hospital to see Mum. She is doing better, but her asthma was not just asthma, but severe bronchitis. At the age of 83 this is a major crisis. She is settled into a room in the telemetry unit so that they can keep an eye on her breathing and her heart, which is great. However, they are remodeling a room two doors down and our conversation was interrupted every couple of minutes by the sound of drilling. In other news my cousin's cancer has recurred after 22 years. It is a tough time all the way around.

My next door neighbor is an astrologer by trade and she told me this evening that this is happening because Mars is in retrograde. So those of you out there who are also experiencing accidents and mishaps, and I know from reading your Facebook posts that you have been having them too, this is apparently the reason. She checked my chart and said that I need to be especially careful from April 7th through the 20th for my own safety.

They say that clouds like these have silver linings, that there is no great loss without some small gain. So what silver lining do I see here? What is my gain? Ah, as a writer I see a wealth within what is currently exhausting me. These experiences will be tucked away into the treasure trove of my brain. I hoard them as greedily as a miser. I will take these life lemons and make lemonade.

Without going through these emotional trials I would be unable to write with much pathos. These experiences will help me create realistic and sympathetic characters with whom readers will be able to identify. I now know what it is like to be removed from my mother's bedside so that an emergency team can have the room they need to be able to save her life, then sitting and chatting nervously with a nurse about every inane subject I can come up with while they do so. I know how the heart-stopping feel of being asked if you needed the chaplain to come. I know what it is like to sit alone in the darkened intensive care unit watching my mother being helped to breathe by a machine at one o'clock in the morning, tired beyond belief, but so thankful that all these wonderful people here are giving her the help she needs. I know what it is like to selfishly beg God to spare her because I can't face losing her just yet.

There is a flip side to this as well. Much of what I write is humor and even in all of this there is funny to be found. I was helping Mum by looking though her bag of personal effects to help find the necklace she had been wearing. A moment later laughing with my mother when we discovered that the hospital staff had stored her bra in a bag marked "bio-hazard." That is a story that will undoubtedly make its way into one of my books.

In the midst of all of this there was also good news in the family. It is something that I am not yet at liberty to divulge. Whatever else is happening, life goes on. It goes with the best wishes and support of family and friends far and near. And someday I will make use of it all.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Back Burner

A writer friend recently finished a story with a really cool concept. She decided that it wasn't quite what she wanted it to be, so she is going to let it sit for awhile and then come back to it. Maybe.

I would change that maybe to a definitely. No matter how long she lets it sit. I am currently rewriting a short story that I wrote almost twenty years ago. It was good back then, one of my writing group buddies read it aloud to the group and started crying in the middle of it, but I couldn't find a buyer. It was good enough that I received a handwritten note from one of the editors at Redbook attached to their form rejection - something almost unheard of in those days. So I eventually shelved the story.

The intervening years have broadened my experiences with life and enhanced my writing skills. I've spent significant time as a journalist, columnist, and poet. Recently I pulled out the story again with plans to publish it myself on Now, as I go over the story again I see that there is a lot of good to it and some things that need work. I've added a new part one, kept parts two and three with minor alterations and completely scrapped part four. I am now totally rewriting the last part.

What I discovered from those intervening years is that there was a progression that was happening early on in the story that I did not continue through the story. I had put too much of myself and my own ego into the final part of the story. So now, I am taking a step back and removing it from the personal. By adding a new part onto the front of the story I am making this progression more evident. The couple in the story now have a longer history to get them to the final stage of triumph.

There have been a few days where I wrote nothing at all on the story. I didn't exactly have writer's block because I have been able to write other things. After a couple of those days I realized that I was still working on the story, that it was simmering on the back burner in my mind. Then, yesterday, it was time for the story to begin to be written out fully again. I quickly finished the new part one. Planned the idea for an entirely new finale. I changed names, ages and events. Hell, I even changed races. The story has now started to come together on a more real level - as real as it can get for a story about reincarnation. Today and tomorrow should see the story finished and I will pass it on to someone else to go over it for me.

So my point is that not finishing your story right now is not an issue. You may not have lived long enough to get it quite right. Leave it on the back burner as long as you need to so that it will be fully cooked when the time is right. Some of the best recipes out there are better once they have had time to sit and let all the flavors come together. The same may be true of that story you aren't quite happy with for now. So let it sit. It may work out better later,

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Waiting for Harvest: The Issue of Goals and Deadlines

It seems to me that some writers get very caught up in how many words a day they can crank out. For the first draft of a book this is great, but how are you setting your goals beyond the number of words?

One of the greatest experiences I have had as a writer was the chance to work as a journalist. There was no time for writer's block. There was no time to hem and haw over every little detail. If your work had to be in by four o'clock so that the paper made it "to bed" on time then you did it, no excuses. This is because it still had to go through the copy editor, the editor, typesetting, and paste-up before it could go to print. In my case I also had to come up with the story, pitch it to the editor, and then take it on. Because of the space limitations of a print newspaper, the length of articles and columns were measured in characters, not words. So you work hand in hand with brevity, not just for the material, but for the words you use to convey the material.

Finding ideas was often easy for me because I was the calendar editor for the paper first and foremost. My writing was done on a freelance basis on my own time. So I received most of the press releases that came into the bullpen first. So I covered a lot of art, some theater, and a wide variety of one-off topics. When all else failed, I resorted to the yellow pages. This is one place where the internet phone book fails utterly. You can't page through them by hand and find strange little entries that catch the eye. That was how I came to do a story on a school for training Santa Clauses. I also wrote a biweekly column and had to find a way to be funny on a deadline. When it comes to deadlines, you can't wait for your muse to show up and start whispering in your ear.

Because of this experience I rarely have a problem with writer's block. I tend to write to the point and am brief about it. When I am having issues, it is more likely that I am trying to "over write" the subject, putting in too many details rather than getting to my point.

So now to my point - plan beyond word count. Have an overall goal mapped out. Plan for how you will rewrite and edit. Maybe a chapter a day. Maybe 2500 words a day. Give yourself deadlines and do your damnedest to meet them. Make them realistic though, or you will be one unhappy camper. Have a plan for what you will do with your work once it is done. If all you wanted was to write and complete, then bravo, but most of us bitten by the writing bug have a need to share. So, are you going to self-publish or go the traditional route. If you are going the traditional route, set deadlines for selecting agents and publishers that you will be approaching. Set a deadline for your query letter. Self-publishers should set goals for when and where the book will be available. Set goals and deadlines for marketing your work. Books don't sell themselves.

Finding a writer's support group can be a godsend in helping set and maintain goals. If you can't find one that suits you in your area, they abound online. I belong to at least half a dozen on Facebook alone. Connecting with other writers is especially helpful when the self-doubt sets in. Family and friends around writers can become great nay-sayers because you don't write just like their favorite author.

I face all of this everyday that I sit down at my computer. I am a world-class procrastinator, so it isn't easy. There is still a lot I am feeling around in the dark to figure out. Especially on the marketing end. I also give myself the occasional day off. There should always be room for yourself.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

There's Always Room for Jello

Today I had a visit from award-winning screenwriter Jane Shepard, Well, that is one way to look at it - another is that ol' Jane Shepard from junior high and high school stopped by. She came to borrow an easel for the independent film she is working on. She has been kind enough to share wonderful updates on Facebook and it looks like it is going to be great. I'm can't wait to see it.

She is trying to do this film with a very tiny budget. One of her updates was a wonderful video clip of her making homemade breakaway glass from sugar and breaking a plate of it over her own head. It was wonderfully funny and 100% Jane.

For those of you who have no idea who Jane is, she wrote the Showtime movie Freak City. She has also written the book Five Kickass Plays for Women (available on Jane and I got to know each other in the 9th grade when played Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello and I played Franklin's secretary Missy LeHand. We have both pursued the passions that we had found early in life, her in theater and film, and I in writing (my books are also available on Amazon).

After she left I returned to my gardening and the early spring cleanup where it started to occur to me how many people in our high school graduating class are successful in artistic/literary endeavors. There is artist Briggs Geister, who creates incredible collage art. Rick Reilly is well-known among sports fans for his column in Sports Illustrated and now in his roll on ESPN, and has authored and co-authored ten books. Adam Eisenberg, a good pal in my senior year, now a Seattle DA, has written a book about police women. Eliza Cross, from both high school and church camp, has written four books on cooking and lifestyle. Gretchen Peters, whom I really knew only in passing, is Country Music Award winning songwriter and singer.

And I cannot forget the one I knew starting in grade school, punk rocker Jello Biafra of the erstwhile Dead Kennedys. Or as I knew him - Eric Boucher. In fifth and sixth grades he took great delight in teasing me.

I know that I have probably left out someone who is also accomplished in artistic endeavor. These are just those who ran across my mind in my musings this afternoon. What was it that brought about this level creativity? Was it that we were living in a unique city filled with diversity and open thinking? Was it the amazing teachers we shared? Was it in the water here?

Most of the people I speak with can't say that there was anyone well-known with whom they went to school. Somehow we seemed to have beaten the odds. Wouldn't it be wild if one day we could bring all this talent together in one big amazing project?

Thanks to Facebook I have been able to reconnect with some of these people after more than thirty years. Who are the fellow creators in your life and from your past?