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Three Ways to Keep At It

Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.pencil-918449_1920

  1. Find Your Passion, or Embrace the Pain. I know, sounds like a massively tall order, but you need fuel for the journey. If it’s not something you think about constantly, then I wouldn’t pursue it. Whether it’s a cool idea that keeps flooding your brain, a meltdown you’re having about politics, or a personal situation that keeps you up at night, it is the perfect source to keep you writing. Motivation. My test is this: if I can talk with friends or family about it, I can probably write about it, too. I am good at turning obsessions, anger, revenge, distress into a scene in a novel.
  2. Keep Paper Everywhere. I could also say, Keep the Phone Nearby and Use Your Notes app, but the moment I tap my phone, notifications from Facebook/Tumblr/Messages flood my view and I am off down a rabbit hole before I realize it. Blank sheets of paper have inspired me since childhood. Seeing blank space gets me jazzed to fill it. So when an idea strikes at an inconvenient time, like when I’m driving or tumbling into bed, I have the blank sheet nearby giving my brain a little jolt to Jot it down, jot it down! before I forget. Because I will. I always do!
  3. Gather Up These Notes and Head to the Computer. If I do one thing, it’s get rid of one of those notes in the pile every day. I tap in something, somewhere. It could be in one of three documents I start: the Character Profiles (a stream-of-consciousness study of each major player in my story–thank you, Elizabeth George, for that tip), the Synopsis (my outline following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles and beats of a story), or the Manuscript (first draft). The idea gets dumped somewhere so it’s not lost. So even if I don’t write a full scene or even a paragraph today, I have done Something. And believing you have accomplished Something lets me move forward with some confidence in unmapped territory.

This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.

Remembering Fred Fairchild

Now that’s a ring-tailed doozy.

 –Fred Fairchild

This past October 11, my Grampa would have been 100 years old.

A jokester, singer, and actor, my grandfather had a way with words. My father remembers holiday dinners with my grandfather making speeches that would begin like this: “Now that we are all stuffed with sage, I would like to introduce the sage stuffed with turkey.” I would make Grampa repeat his famous expressions, “ring-tailed doozy” being my favorite. “Grampa, what’s a ring-tailed doozy?” I’d say. He’d give a deep, hearty laugh because he found my constant questions amusing. I don’t recall his exact answer, as it’s one of those idioms beyond exact definition, but I can imagine him saying,  “A doozy, now that’s something. But one with a ring tail? Then you really have yourself a problem. Hoo boy!”

Grampa composing a Christmas poem

Grampa composing a Christmas poem

Grampa was a smart, generous, ethical man. He couldn’t stand bullies, so he had no trouble telling off those of his youth or the fearsome father-in-law. He ran a dairy seven days a week (open on Christmas Day, too); was a Kiwanis member for 29 years; and also was a Mason and a Shriner. A Dale Carnegie student and instructor, he preached the power of mind over matter. You make your life and no one else. He said that if you wanted to be a good conversationalist, all you have to do is let people talk about themselves.

He sang in a men’s choir through his late seventies. His deep baritone would have made a great radio voice. The story goes that he met my grandmother, Madelyn, in D.C. when they were both auditioning for a play.

“She’s for me,” said my grandfather’s friend, pointing at the very attractive maiden who happened to be a model.

“No, she’s for me!” Fred said, and made sure he got that gal. Handsome and witty, my grandfather no doubt nabbed her attention in an instant.

Soon after they were married, he left his D.C. job with the Department of Agriculture to return home and help my grandmother’s family at their dairy in the small town of Wheatridge, Colorado. It’s a choice that made sense in the 1930s, even though D.C. might have been a place where both he and my grandmother, also a government employee, might have found great careers and artistic success. His generation faced an economic meltdown, world wars, and social mores that could easily thwart those with artistic yearnings. It was a time to buckle down at a guaranteed job, do your duty by your family, and shove that safe money under a mattress. I wonder if Grampa would have taken to the stage or studio if he had come of age in the 1980s with all my options.

My sister got the singing voice and performance gene, and I got the way-with-words gene. We were encouraged from a young age to pursue our artistic dreams. Now we find the only things blocking us are time, laziness, and fear—though I suppose the right dose of luck wouldn’t hurt either. No matter what, I’ve always felt that my life has had options rather than directives. As Grampa once said, “Only the individual can change his life.”

Fathers' Day, June 16, 1990

Fathers’ Day, June 16, 1990

After he visited us in 1982 while my parents were on a trip, I sent him some of my poetry. I was 13 and already full of writerly ambitions, and Grampa was so good at making up verses on the spot, I wanted to know his opinion of my work. The other day, when I was going through a shoebox of mementos, I discovered the letter he wrote me back.

If you can write poetry like you do at your age (and sober) imagine what you could do if you partook of a little bubbly (or grape). I am not suggesting that you start drinking but I love your free style in writing and your active imagination. It’s beautiful.

Not being an expert, I cannot criticize your writing but I do suggest as soon as possible that you get professional advice from a writing expert to steer you in the right direction and give you some of the finer points in context as well as style.

You probably have a better start now at your age with your innate, natural ability than many do in their twenties.

I sometimes wonder if Grampa had my same deep ambitions to make art. He certainly had enough talent in several arenas. We think now that he fought unspoken depression at the time he wrote me this letter, and even long before that, but you would never know when you read his words. He had weathered a number of setbacks by 1982—the loss of my grandmother, health issues, and investments gone bad. He didn’t have the energy of a man who once was president of the DC National City Players or who led the Denver Dairy Council. He didn’t speak of his struggles, like many men of his generation. He didn’t blame anyone but himself for events in his life. He kept cracking jokes. And he found a way to send encouraging words to a 13 year-old who dreamed of one day writing a book as good as Anne of Green Gables.

Grampa's one known modeling stint, for Bolle sunglasses, with the perfect caption: ATTITUDE IS AGELESS.

Grampa’s one known modeling stint, for Bolle sunglasses, with the perfect caption: ATTITUDE IS AGELESS.

I wonder what Grampa would say now if I could show him my books, share my worries, and tell him about my dream to spread my stories.

I think I found the answer on a questionnaire my sister gave him for her high school genealogy project, in response to a query about difficult obstacles and how he faced them.

He wrote: “To thine own self be true. Believing will make it happen. Don’t give up.”

Grampa, I won’t.

Plus, if I did? Hoo boy! Now that’d be a heck of a ring-tailed doozy.

Meeting C. Hope Clark

When C. Hope Clark announced the debut of her first novel, Lowcountry Bribe, she shared in her weekly Funds for Writers newsletter her plan to tour writers’ groups.

What a great idea, I thought. Since her weekly FFW emails share contests, grants, agent/publisher resources, and editorials on market and craft, she’s able to talk not only books but also about every aspect of the writer’s life. I wrote her immediately, since I already belong to two groups and am starting a new writing partnership. I teamed up with my parents, not only writers but also consummate hosts, and offered Hope a place to stop along her tour.

Last night we saw yet again why many view Hope as “the Oprah of the writing world.”

  • She’s a wonderful storyteller. As a friend commented to her, “You had us mesmerized.” Hope talked easily about the grueling process of birthing this book (14 years!) and personal events that inspired the novel, such as being offered a bribe while working for the government, pursuing criminal investigations, and working alongside federal agents. 
  • She’s been through it. Let me say it again: 14 years. This is the story that most writers relate to, as not many of us are Snooki and Kim Kardashian who can say, “Book?” and poof, someone writes it for them. For years she shared her work with local critique groups and an international online writers’ group even though she was told her first draft “sucked.” She kept showing back up with new drafts. One of the most encouraging stories was about the very first draft of the novel. She deleted it off her computer to resist the temptation to repurpose anything, but she did shelve it in hard copy. When this past year her publisher, Bell Bridge Books, sought a title, she stumbled on the infant draft. The publisher had just sent her “Lowcountry Bribe” as a possibility. Hope, 14 years prior, had thought to call her work, “Lowcountry Bribery.” There was a collective “ahhh” in the room when we heard this story, and here’s what I got out of it: No matter how bad that first draft, believe that its existence in your writer’s life serves a purpose. 
  • She can laugh at herself. She noted how every trauma she’s been through has ended up being useful later on. Writing can make meaning out of the mess we call Life, and Hope talked about taking horrible moments and reconstituting them as fiction. She also admits to being a shy writer who’s figured out how to talk to large groups. You have to have a sense of humor to overcome that kind of discomfort. You can check out The Shy Writer, one of her first books, to learn about how one overcomes the fear and challenges of getting outside the writer’s cave.

I read Lowcountry Bribe quickly–ate it up like a good meal–and know I’ll buy the next book. You can read my Amazon review here. Let’s just say that Hope’s Carolina Slade is a the perfect protagonist writers need as a model for big choices, big action, and big trauma. She is the opposite of the meandering, in-your-head, do-nothing characters that plague many novice manuscripts. I add Carolina to my list of writing prompts of how to kick start your pathetic characters.

I loved the book, and I’m not a mystery reader. I just did a genre switch–unlikely for someone in their fourth decade of reading–and I credit Hope as a person. Hope, the encourager of writers, is the reason I bought her book. I felt like I had gotten to know her over the course of newsletters and blogs, and I cared about her success with this book. 
Hope’s story and how her work hooked me is a great example of 21st century reading experiences and how flat our world has become. I would never have met Hope without the Internet. Maybe a subscription to Writer’s Digest in old-school print format might have made the connection, as she’s written for the magazine and also won Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers for 10 years.  But the relationship we have built through her blog, e-newsletters, Facebook posts, and tweets, and her answers to my emails, is a product of today’s online publications and social networking.
Hope walked out of the car, a four-hour ride to our side of the world, talking about the edits she’s doing on the second book. After several hours of hob-knobbing with fellow writers and fans, she got back on the road to edit some more. When I wonder if I can get up the energy to take up my manuscript in revision yet again, I will think of Hope, get hope, and start again. 
Writing Prompts:
  • Have you met an author lately? Attend a book talk at your local bookstore and meet someone new.
  • Have you crossed a genre line lately? Read a book outside your typical tastes and see what happens.
  • Have you subscribed to Funds for Writers? Check out Hope’s list of contests, publishers, agents, her advice and editorials, and other resources, and make a commitment to follow through on a bit of advice.