Getting In Touch With my Inner Perfectionist

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A photo from my recent trip to California

“I need to make a change,” I said to MEH (My Engineer Husband), my feet hitting the floor much too early this morning.

“What?” He mumbled.

I have a blog going live on Writer Unboxed today. (You can read it here.) I’d worked on the post all day yesterday, the day before, too. As I always do, I woke up early, especially early knowing I have a post going live.

I used to blog everyday. Everyday. My husband reminded me of that. But I don’t do that anymore. In fact, I’ve neglected my blog a bit lately. Probably because my writing is more varied, a lot going on. I have two novels under revision; in addition to being a contributing writer, I’m also an assistant editor for Writer Unboxed; I’m helping a friend with a tech start-up company (I’m doing the—big surprise—writing; I’m also about to start a part-time gig with another tech company.

What hasn’t changed is that I’m still a perfectionist. I get nervous when any of my work is about to go public—whether it’s on a blog (my own or another), in a published article, to a tech customer, on submission to an editor or agent, and even being read by a beta reader. I want to put my best foot forward, but more than that, I want my writing to make a difference.

For some of my writing—the technical or business—that means helping someone understand a product or service. For some of my writing—the fiction—it means connecting on a more personal, a feeling level. Finding a way to infuse my writing with the feelings I have, with the feelings I’d like my readers to have.

And that brings me full circle. My post today on Writer Unboxed is about just that. Feeling the feelings. Recapturing the feelings. Because whether I’m writing for a technical audience or a more personal one, that’s important to me. Reaching the reader. Getting to the heart. In that way, writing is writing. Bringing me even more full circle—this is why I started blogging (over four years ago), to say this: Words are words. And whatever those words communicate, and for whatever purposed, they better be the right ones to communicate the right thing.

Because I’m a perfectionist that way.

Why I Love NaNo More Today than Yesterday

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Yesterday’s sky as I drove to the coffee shop to write

I learned something new about myself and my writing today—something I’m not sure I’d ever have learned if it weren’t for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Okay, I know there are split camps on NaNoWriMo. In fact, you might either love it or hate it. Think it’s a great thing or the dumbest idea on earth. Writing a novel in a month? Why would you (or I for that matter) want to do such a thing? By the way, that used to be my opinion…so hear me out.

Truth is that up until last year (when I finished a draft of a novel during NaNo) I thought it was (a) pretty stupid, (b) pointless, and (c) defeated the entire point of writing (writing well, that is). I used to think that something good—especially something creative—couldn’t be forced. That is, that it really had to be done in its own time, at its own pace—fast or slow.

But now I wonder. Here’s the thing. This morning I wrote a scene I never ever thought of for my novel in progress (I’m a plotter by nature, most of the time, with occasional smatterings of pantser). The scene came out fast and furious, and when I looked up I’d spent not quite an hour writing almost 2000 words. But that’s not what surprised me. I tend to write very quickly (for first drafts). It was the actual scene that was different: the writing style and certainly the content, much different than I’d ever written or considered writing (for this novel or any other fiction project).

After I finished, I remembered having this experience with a scene I wrote during last NaNoWriMo—last year. It was a scene about an LSD trip, a wild car race up into the California foothills in a semi-stolen car, a young afraid woman desperately trying to understand and make sense of a young man’s actions and feelings. It’s a scene in the novel I’m currently querying (that I wrote last year during NaNo). It’s a story that has gone through many revisions since the first draft—and will most likely go through additional revisions because it’s a story worth working on. (The novel was named a semi-finalist in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition.)

The important takeaway for me is that the scene I wrote last year and the scene I wrote today taught me something important about myself and about NaNoWriMo. It’s not only that I can force myself to write. The first time out of the gate with NaNo, I figured out that I can force myself into the creative zone, the writing zone, pretty much any time I want to. I’m guessing that most writers who write fiction on a regular schedule know this, but here’s the new thing I learned today.

That sometimes I can actually write more creatively when I push myself. Even—and maybe especially—when I’m not “in the mood.” That sometimes, something very creative and very different comes out. A piece of writing that I love, a piece of writing that I’m proud of.

Just one of the reasons I love NaNoWriMo a lot more today than yesterday.

Can you force yourself into the creative zone? Do you write differently—maybe even more creatively sometimes—when you aren’t in the mood?

 

Amidst Swirling Words & Leaves





Yesterday MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I went “leaf peeping,” which is to say we went out for the sole purpose of looking at the changing fall foliage. In this small and excellent adventure, words became a central part—as they often do for me. Because it’s funny how we use words without thinking (and when I say “we,” let me be clear, it’s the universal “we”). In other words, words and expressions become second nature to our daily life—yet others may have no idea whatsoever what we’re talking about.

And so it was with leaf peeping, which (it turns out) is a bit of a New England colloquialism, something I found out when I told Arizona writer friend Melissa Crytzer Fry we were going out to do some of the aforementioned leaf peeping. Thank goodness for Google so Melissa could figure out what the heck I was talking about. Otherwise she may have thought I was peeping through the leaves to spy on neighbors (although if you recall previous posts, I do that too…).

But my story doesn’t end there. Our leaf peeping travels took us to nearby Bowdoin College where once again I found myself thinking of words. This time older ones, because some years ago Bowdoin College graduated some pretty noteworthy writers: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Turns out these two great literary men (along with Horatio Bridge and Franklin Pierce) were good friends and graduated in Bowdoin’s class of 1825.

Bowdoin College’s Massachusetts Hall 

As we strolled and took photographs, we walked the paths they’d walked. And in addition to the leaves, we peeped the original three buildings that comprised the Bowdoin campus during those long ago years: the chapel, Maine Hall, and Massachusetts Hall (that now houses, appropriately, the English department). While we walked, I thought about words these early writers might have used to describe what we were seeing, and when I got home to my computer, I was delighted to learn that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote a poem about autumn.

Autumn

Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,

With banners, by great gales incessant fanned,

Brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,

And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain!


Thou standest, like imperial Charlemagne,


Upon thy bridge of gold; thy royal hand


Outstretched with benedictions o’er the land,

Blessing the farms through all thy vast domain!


Thy shield is the red harvest moon, suspended

So long beneath the heaven’s o’er-hanging eaves;

Thy steps are by the farmer’s prayers attended;

Like flames upon an altar shine the sheaves;

And, following thee, in thy ovation splendid,

Thine almoner, the wind, scatters the golden leaves! 

And while not all the words in Longfellow’s poem are in common use today—Samarcand, almoner, wain, as examples—the verse is clearly English. Still, the language has changed enough over time that I had to read through it more than once and look up some of the words on Google—just like Melissa when I told her we were leaf peeping—to fully grasp its meaning.

This photo reminded me of the descriptions
in Longfellow’s poem.

All this made me realize that whether by distance of time or geography, words can take on different meanings or at times make no sense at all. Yet as writers this is our purpose and daily endeavor: to take words and make them meaningful, to help them take on a life of their own, and to ultimately help others feel the things we felt when we wrote them.

All in all it was a wonderful day amidst swirling leaves and words: “the golden leaves,” as Longfellow said. And as Hawthorne penned (and I can’t disagree):

“I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.”

What are some words and phrases (whether colloquial or from another time or language) that you’ve labored to understand? Do you think by exploring and stretching they make you a better writer—like I do? As for autumn, is it autumn where you are? Or do you live somewhere that you don’t experience the changing seasons at all?


Cheers,
Julia

Words for the Picking

In my backyard, the blueberries are ripening—plump and dark blue, bursting with flavor—so many on one bush they’re almost falling to the ground. But we have three bushes, and the other two have noripening berries, in fact they have no berries at all. It’s a mystery. All three bushes planted in a row. Why are there berries on one bush but not on the other two?

I know enough about gardening to know there must be a botanical answer: the soil is not acidic enough or the bushes are too shaded or they don’t get enough water or the bees got tired after buzzing around the first bush, or… some other unknown buried deep in the cells of the blueberry bush. But I also know enough to cover the one bush that does have berries—we draped it with netting—to keep those amazing blueberries to ourselves and away from the birds—and soon they’ll be ready for the picking.

As I’ve kept an eye on those berries, I’m thinking about something else, too—my writing. My current WIP is approaching 30,000 words, and most days (these days) the writing is easy, like the first blueberry bush, with lots of words—almost falling to the page in fact. But other days I can’t seem to write a word, and my pages are as barren as those two bushes void of berries.

I know enough about writing (and myself) to know that it could be I’m grumpy or didn’t get enough sleep or am allowing self doubt to creep in or my mind is wandering, or… something else buried deep in the cells of my brain. But just like the berries I cover to keep safe, I protect my words. I make writing a habit: I sit down every day, I reread what I’ve already written, I write as much as I can, and sometimes if that doesn’t work, I read.

And I wait, confident that like the blueberries, my words will grow and ripen, and soon be ready for the picking.

How is your writing going? Are your words there for the picking or do you sometimes feel barren of words?

Cheers,

Julia


The Nature of Words

One of the things I like about my current WIP is the integral connection of nature with the main character. “Annie” moves to an island in Maine, searching for refuge and gets caught up in a mystery.

Annie spends a lot of time on the beach, walking, searching, and finding answers. In the meantime, she observes the moon and the tides and the water. And she is also working outside in the elements.

While Annie has wandered the beaches, I’ve searched the Internet and in libraries—and I’ve done a ton of research for the book. In fact, I have an entire file box full of information and background, backstory.

I’ve learned about the tides: ebbtide, flood tide, ebb and flow, high tide, low tide, clam flats—and much more—about what each of these things means. And my proximity to the coast (five minutes from the type of beaches Annie would walk on) helps me fuel my research and imagination.

And I’ve researched the stars, planets, and the cycles of the moon—I have a calendar where I’ve sketched out when high tides and low tides are and how they interact with the phases of the moon, waxing and waning, sunrise and sunset times. These heavenly changes add to the richness of Annie’s story.

In addition to these terms, I also have researched gardening and house terms—what plants bloom when on the coast, what might be left of a garden from long ago, how to insulate a house, what kind of wood is used for building—intricate details, many of which will never make it into the actual novel, but are the backdrop of Annie’s (and now my) life.

I’ve also researched the history of Maine islands and houses, of bridges and ferries, and people who have lived on the coast for centuries.

One of the reasons I started this blog was because of my love of words (wordsxo loosely translates into word love)—and every piece of research leads me to new words. Just this morning, on a final read through of my manuscript, I was looking up the words “by in large,” an expression I’ve used many times. And when I did, I found out the actual expression is “by and large,” and much to my happy surprise it is nautical in origins—from World Wide Words:

“The phrase by and large in sailors’ parlance referred to all possible points of sailing, so it came to mean “in all possible circumstances.”

And while by and large does not play a large role in my novel—in fact just three words of over 80,000—it’s a well chosen word that I hope adds interest and authenticity to my work.

Further, every word and every piece of information I’ve gathered while writing—much like the shells and sea glass my characters collect on their walks—has shaped this novel, steeped in love of not just writing and research but also love of the beauty of nature along the coast of Maine.

Are you (like me) fascinated with the origin of words? How they’ve changed in meaning over the years? Can you share examples? Writers: How are your research and word choices entwined with your main character’s personality and journey? Have you collected information and done research for your WIP that enriches your life?

Cheers,

Julia 

Some Words About Word

My current WIP is in the final stages of edits—over 300 manuscript pages, 30 chapters, over 80,000 words.
And almost every day when I sit down to edit, revise, hone my words, I struggle with MS-Word: the word processor I use (I can’t say word processor of choice, it’s just what I have, what I use). And MS-Word and I? We often don’t get along. And that’s a problem because I spend a lot of time with Word, approximately 12 hours a day these days.

First, some background: I’ve been using word processing software since before there was word processing software. The truth is I’ve been using computers to write since before computers were used to write—since typewriters were used to write. And I’ve written users’ guides about computer software. So I know a thing or two about software and computers. Furthermore, I’ve read a lot about using MS-Word.

So why can’t I figure out the best way to use MS-Word to write a book?

For one thing, Word keeps changing—I recently upgraded to Word for Mac 2011 and had to learn a whole new way of using it. Frustrating in the middle of trying to finish my novel. But as much as it changed, some of the most annoying things remained the same, for instance: “Why the heck did you auto format that? Please don’t make that into a list…indent that text…change the font size…start a new page…or whatever else you did automatically—unless I want you to!” (Yes that’s in quotes because I actually speak out loud to my computer, specifically to MS-Word.)

But that’s not why I’m writing this post—the real reason I’m writing this post—the thing that is really confounding me about MS-Word right now is: “Why do you not have a way to write (and by write I mean manage) a long document, say a novel?”

The thing is, I keep all my chapters in separate files—for me they’re easier to manage that way, easier to revise as I’m writing, easier to go through, easier to find things in. But now… toward the end, it’s so annoying. To have to repaginate everything every time I make a change, doing seemingly endless searches through 30 chapters for things I want to change. Keeping track of which chapters I’ve changed what things in. And I can’t believe there’s not a better way.

I have writer friends who have one long novel-length document—which is what I started to create this morning from all the separate chapters—but I worry: will it be unwieldy? Will it take too long to load? To search? Should I use an MS-Word “master document” with chapters as contents—which is one of the ways MS-Word suggests to do long documents? (Not that I’m particularly interested in any advice MS-Word has for me.)

And that’s why I’m writing this post, to ask you my writer friends: how do you manage your long documents? What are the tricks you’ve developed, the resources you use? If not for this novel, this WIP, then for the next, I’ll be ready and start with a system that works. So that when I reach the end of my novel, I’m not equally consumed with figuring out MS-Word as I am with celebrating THE END of my novel.

Please leave your advice in comments!

Cheers,

Julia

This is Dedicated to the One(s) I Love

When you have a blog with a name like wordsxo you think a lot about love—roughly translated wordsxo means love of words.

So when I went to look for Valentine’s Day cards and saw a card with x’s and o’s on it, I started thinking about how xo signifies hugs and kisses. Wikipedia says x’s (as kisses) originated back in the Medieval Ages; o’s (as hugs) more recently, perhaps in North America. Even more recently xo has come to simply signify love and affection.

The truth is I’m a little in love with the whole concept of love. I always have been. Maybe it’s because “my family of origin” didn’t express love much. My mother said “I love you” to me only once, and my father has said it only occasionally since my mother died over ten years ago. We didn’t talk about feelings—ever—and to say it was discouraged would be perhaps the understatement of the millennium.

That’s probably why when I married, I married for love. My husband—who you know as MEH(My Engineer Husband)—is the love of my life, my soul mate, and I tell him I love him at least once a day. I sign every single note and email, large or small, with “I love you, xo J.” We end every phone call, no matter how short, with “I love you.”

And that extends to our two kids: every call ends with “I love you.” My son, a medical student, has called me back because he didn’t hear my “I love you” at the end of a call. Every note, every letter I write him is signed with a “heart” Mom. For my daughter, a college student, it’s “I love you xox times a trillion,” even at the end of a text message conversation.

These codes between us, small intimate gestures, let them know they are my number one priority and I love them absolutely unconditionally. They know without question this is so—it’s something we’ve talked about as a family.

Aside from our small nuclear family, this circle of love extends to our and our children’s close friends, our small extended family—and now to you, my blogging and Twitter friends.

One blogging friend, Hallie Sawyer, recently wrote in a card to me: “There are days when I shake my head and wonder ‘how did I get here?’—as a writer surrounded by all the love and support of people I have never met! It’s crazy, wacky, wonderful, priceless, and something I will be eternally grateful for.”

I couldn’t have said it better, Hallie.

A recent post by Hallie on handwritten notes inspired me to start writing more handwritten letters and cards, and since her post I’ve sent out 18 handwritten notes to family and friendsincluding some of you. Through the past year of blogging, I’ve been fortunate to exchange letters and even some packages with several blogging friends. In the past month I’ve written to others; in return I’ve received handwritten letters back, full of love and support, from people “I’ve never met,” as Hallie wrote.


I don’t know how I got here either, surrounded by the love and support of my blogging and tweeting friends, but it’s something I too will be eternally grateful for.
So please accept this Valentine…

With love from wordsxo,

xo Julia 

p.s. I would love to send you a handwritten note! If you would like one, please let me know in comments, and I’ll contact you for your address. 

Walking the Line

How do I choose what to blog about? How do you choose?

I read a great post that got me thinking about this (again). Sharon Bially, who blogs at Veronica’s Nap—with a newly-published paperback novel of the same title, has a great series of posts, Promo Tips for Authors. The latest tip: Blog About Something Other Than Writing.

Sharon wrote that as writers, “the broader writing population is not necessarily your book’s target audience,” and more importantly the “…‘writing’ space in the blogosphere is saturated.” She suggests that if you blog about other things (than writing) you’re interested in, specifically promo-friendly topics in your book, you’re “far more likely to draw an audience of potential readers.”

Although I don’t yet have a book to promote, I hope to one day. And I agree with Sharon. When I started my blog, I was focused on “my platform” and getting my name out there. I thought I’d be writing primarily about words (hence the name wordsxo: love of words) and writing. But a funny thing happened as I started to blog: I wrote about everything all over the map—mostly about things important to me, but always with an eye on my audience.

Because as a writer, a journalist to be specific, that’s how I’ve been trained: to be keyed into the audience. To write with my audience in mind. For a magazine or other focused medium, this can be pretty straight forward: a hard news story about world events; a feature story on what to expect when you’re heading to a job interview or taking your child to the first day of school; a “color” story about the wonderful woman around the corner that no one ever realized accumulated millions by being frugal her whole life. For a technical manual: how to use the machine.

But for blogging? The world is our oyster. The sky’s the limit. In its original form a blog or weblog originated as an online diary. We can blog about anything and everything we might imagine.

Or so it would seem. But really? Do we really ever feel free to write what we want? Do you? I don’t. I’m still concerned.

I try not to write about controversial subjects. But is there any way to know for sure that something won’t be controversial to someone?

More, will my readers like what I write? Am I serious enough? Too funny? Or not funny enough? If I post fiction will they like it? Or not? Will I offend someone? Will I get an offensive or hurtful comment? How much is too much to share about me? About my life? My family? Will I be safe? Will I be popular? How many followers will I get?

In the end, will it sell me? My book?

The truth is there is no easy answer, and it’s a personal choice each of us makes each time we post. And me?

I walk the line every day between what I want to write and what I think others want to read.

What about you? Do you think about your audience when you write your posts? Are you concerned about offending readers? Have you ever reconsidered posting something based on how you think it might be perceived?

Cheers,

Julia


Wednesday is Word(le) Day

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gleaned off the zillions of blogs and websites I’ve consulted about blogging is this: Develop a following of readers through consistency of theme.

I’ve thought a lot about this business of theme and what the theme of this blog is. In a nutshell, it is:

I love words, words are used to write, and if you write (no matter the style or purpose) you’re a writer, and this blog celebrates all writers of all writing.

I know, it sounds pretty broad, but right now it’s working. And to address this theme, today’s blog focuses on words—specifically my decision, as of 7:42 this morning, to name Wednesday “Word Day.” Here are some FAQs about Word Day, devised only in my mind of course, because (a) I have yet to get any questions, let alone frequently asked ones, and (b) this is my first Word Day blog, so how could I have had any questions specifically about Word Day yet?

Q: First, the obvious question: Why Wednesday?
A: The obvious answer: simple, word and Wednesday, they both start with W, so it will be easy to remember. This is a basic word association rule I learned on Sesame Street.

Q: Why are you even having a Word Day?
A: Aside from letters, words are the most elemental building blocks of writing. I love words, and learning about their origins and meanings. I also like word puzzles, challenges, and games, and Word Day will sometimes have those, too.

Q: Why should I read YOUR Word Day blogs, as compared to the other zillion blogs or websites that talk about words?
A: First, I hope you keep reading those other blogs and websites (I certainly will; see the list of my current favorites at the end of this blog), but I also hope you read mine. I can promise you (a) interesting words and personal commentary, (b) thoroughly researched information, and (c) well-written blogs. In addition, I will blog with a sense of humor, striving to amuse.

Q: Why is today Word(le) day? What’s with the (le)?
A: Have you seen the cool website called Wordle? It creates graphical representations, “word clouds,” of any text you provide. (The picture with this blog is a Wordle created with the text of this blog.)

Q: Do you really think anyone cares if you have a Word Day? Or, for that matter, a blog?
A: Ah, that is a very good question that I will address in a future blog tentatively entitled: “Who Cares if I’m Blogging?”

Q: Are there any constraints on the words you will use for Word Day?
A: Probably only one. I can almost assure you that words will never be obscene or pornographic (as defined by me). Sometimes they will be groups of words, defined by a specific activity like cooking or science or another passion in my life. Sometimes they will be based on other blogs or #WOTD on Twitter. Sometimes they may be based on websites or dictionaries. Luckily for me, there is no shortage of words for inspiration.

Q: Are there any personal benefits you get from Word Day?
A: Yes! (And thank you for asking!) I love to read about and research words, and this gives me an excuse to do that. Also, at least one day a week I have a built-in subject to blog about. (I think this actually may be behind some of the advice that other bloggers give—do bloggers invent these days of the week topics or challenges or …. fill in the blank…. because it’s not so easy to come up with information to blog day after day after day after day after day….?)

Thank you so much for those excellent questions! Finally, as promised, I want to give a nod to all the great websites and blogs that I enjoy so much. Some of my current favorites are wordnik, wordsmith, Oxford Dictionary, oedonline, and Cambridge Dictionaries Online. I also just discovered the Times Word Nerd test for Twitter users. (I’m sad to say I got the lowest grade possible; I’m hoping it’s because I haven’t been tweeting very long.)

On Twitter, I follow tweeters who post a #WOTD each day, for instance: @wordnik, @awad, @oedonline, @cambridgewords. Just for fun, I try to tweet a sentence-story based on each tweeted #WOTD @wordsxo.

Oh, and in case I wasn’t clear at the beginning of the blog: today’s word is Wordle, a website where you can create “word clouds.”

I’d love to answer some real-life readers’ questions about words or why I chose to write about them. Do you have any word questions? Do you write about words, too? If so, please let me know so I can check out your blog or website or tweets. Is there a favorite word or type of word you’d like me to write about?

Thanks for checking in!

Cheers, Julia

Alike

(adj) Having close resemblance; similar.

Under construction: these placeholder words sat on my blog for nearly a week before I could bring myself to post anything.

I’ve read—it seems—hundreds of blogs, articles, and tweets. I’ve consulted a zillion websites, received countless en-(and dis-) couraging emails, and talked my husband’s ear off about blogging and tweeting. As a “lurker,” if that word is still used, I am afraid, very afraid, to put my toe in the proverbial water. What could I possibly add?

The truth is, just like me, my blog is under construction, so are my words and my writing. So is my house, an old Maine antique with water leaking through the walls from ice dams; so is my life, as a perpetual searcher.

As a long-time technical writer, by training and profession, I’ve often been told “you’re not a real writer.” I remember the first time someone said that to me, I’d just finished writing a 400-page technical manual. Let me tell you, I certainly felt like a writer. Still, even as I branch out to business, creative non-fiction, fiction, those words ring in my ears.

But, when I really think about it, I come back to this: words are words, writers are writers. As a cross-over writer, going back and forth from technical and business to fiction and creative nonfiction—I’m blurring the lines. This blog examines those writing lines and the people and pieces that blur them. Writers are writers, regardless of genre or specialty, we’re all putting words together. As Maya Angelou wrote: “We are more alike, my friends,/ than we are unalike.”

So here I go, diving in. And I’m hoping that maybe (if you’ll pardon the paint) this blog will entertain and inform you along the way. I hope you’ll let me know!