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

The Curious Writer’s Mind

Prince Edward IsAland

I am writing this post far from home: approximately 430 miles southwest of Maine. This early morning in Philadelphia, in a guest bedroom—more specifically guest bathroom (stay with me here) of my aunt’s house—I discovered this: I never turn off my writer’s curious mind.

But I get ahead of myself. MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I are here to celebrate an important birthday. Our daughter’s 21st! Last night we took her and four of her wonderful friends out for dinner at a delicious Malaysian restaurant. Then we wandered behind them through the streets of Philly, in search of a bar. Can I tell you it’s been a long time since I’ve done this? Of course I’ve never done it with my daughter! We had so much fun!

(An aside: If you have a daughter who at age two asks for a pony? Don’t expect she’ll outgrow wanting one. Even at age 21. Even as she’s sitting next to you on a barstool, ordering a drink called “Bulletproof.”)

I digress. What does this have to do with the writer’s curious mind? Earlier, on our way to the restaurant I took a photo—two houses with pretty unbelievable art displays in their front yards. I thought it was Halloween decorations, MEH thought it was more of a year round thing—and we discussed it for a while. But more importantly, I wondered: who lives there? What is their motivation? Why? What is the course of life events that leads someone to have such an assorted display.


The houses with the amazing art displays in their front yards.
Later, when MEH and I left our daughter and her friends to enjoy the late night scene, we wandered back to our small nondescript white station wagon. On the way we saw an amazing old building, beautifully lit up. I had to take a photo, of course, but I had no idea what building I was looking at—yes, I wondered and briefly tried to figure it out via Google on my iPhone. After I took the photo, we walked by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel—a couple dressed to the nines was getting out of a dark Mercedes, being helped by the doorman with their luggage. I had to wonder: who are they? Why are they in Philly? What’s theirstory? Are they in the foreign service? Are they spies? Are they here for their daughter’s birthday?
The mystery building turned out to be
none other than Philadelphia City Hall!
It just doesn’t stop. And so it was this morning (I told you, I’d come back to it), standing in my aunt’s guest bathroom, looking at the Map of the World shower curtain I noticed something. An island off the coast of Africa labeled: Prince Edward Isaland. No, that misspelled word is not a typo (well, not my typo). Of course I did what any curious writer would do: rushed back to my room for my iPhone to find out if there really is a place called Prince Edward Isaland—more specifically is it a typo?
The answer is yes, it is a typo. But, wait, there’s more! The first five search items returned in Google were other blogs written about this very same typo on this very same shower curtain (well, not my aunt’s shower curtain but another one just like it)! And one of the blogs was “overly harsh” (that blogger’s description, not mine) about this shower curtain, and not just because of the typo, but more about the mapping strategies and politics. And again, I wondered: why? Why the harsh reaction? What was that blogger’s motivation? It is, after all, only a shower curtain.

And that’s my short (not overly harsh) blog for the week—a look into this writer’s curious mind.

Do you, like me, see stories everywhere you look? Do you try to imagine what the people (and places) around you are all about? Can you turn off yourwriter’s curious mind?


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


Finding Inspiration in My Own Backyard

Littlejohn Island, Maine

When I hit a bump in the road recently and wasn’t motivated to write as much as usual, Arizona writer friend Melissa Crytzer Fry gave me some advice:

“…find someplace outside where you can just go and be with yourself—take the camera. That ALWAYS inspires me. Just go take photos one day in your backyard to jar your creative juices into flowing again. You can do it!”

Well, I took her advice, and today I’m guest blogging at Melissa Crytzer Fry’s blog in a post called “The Photo-Therapist,” that you can read here, about what happened when I took her advice to heart (I’ll give you a hint: my guest post includes more photos like the one above!).

I hope you enjoy my post at Melissa’s, and if you aren’t already familiar with her great blog, you’ll definitely want to check some of her posts out too—she’s an amazing writer and a talented photographer.


Cheers,
Julia

Are You Addicted to Social Networking (Like I am)?

As I put the finishing touches on this post, I found out—much to my immense surprise and thrill—that the July issue of The Writer magazine named me (@wordsxo) as a “Top Feed to Watch.” I’m greatly honored and thrilled, but I can’t help but marvel at the irony.

Am I addicted to Twitter? Are you?

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while—ever since I’ve been having so much trouble focusing on my new WIP. Ever since I feel like I’m missing out on something if I don’t check Twitter or Facebook at least several times a day. Ever since I started querying and email is my new best friend (and worst enemy). Ever since I got my iPhone, and now I’m never away from social networking. Ever.

But recently I have an increased incentive. It’s bothering me more. I’ve been restless when I don’t check in. My first thought when I take a photo with my iPhone is I need to tweet this. Then I read an article about social networking addiction. Recent research suggests that all the tweeting and friending and posting we’re all doing may actually be addictive. And there’s a serious problem with addiction in my immediate and extended family.

First. For the purposes of this discussion: What is addiction? Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist, defines it as “a matter of inbalance—between your personal desire to engage in the addictive behavior and your conflicting desire to avoid the negative consequences of said behavior and/or do something else.”

According to one study I read about, people may have a harder time controlling their desire to check social media (when they really didn’t want to) than they do controlling urges to smoke or drink alcohol. The same study showed that workaholism is a very real thing, too—that many people will work when they really don’t need to.

It occurred to me after reading these results that we writers kind of have a double whammy. Not only is it a requirement of our job to build the all-important platform, but building the platform actually involves the requirement to be a social networker. Compounding this, we often work alone, and social networking allows us to connect with other writers and feel like we’re a part of a community. Further, since the majority of us work at home, we can work 24-7 if we want to—hmmm, does that make us workaholics too?

All this made me wonder…. are we as writers more susceptible to becoming addicted to social networking? And then I wondered further….am Ialready addicted? Like I said, as I set out with a brand new WIP, I’m having a harder and harder time focusing—more difficulty with the balance. Some days I give myself an ultimatum: it’s all or nothing. Shut down the social networking altogether. Because here’s the thing.I often can’t figure out a way to limit myself in a positive way. Then, if I cut myself off I end up feeling left out of the social networking scene but if I don’t cut myself off and write less, then I’m disappointed with my writing effort or just generally frustrated without really understanding why.

Of course I know I’m not the only writer who grapples with this—it’s a frequent subject of conversation and blogs and tweets among all the writers I know. In fact, just recently one writer friend and I were lamenting over email (yes, this too can be a part of the addiction) about how unproductive we were with our writing, and I asked my writer friend about the idea that social networking might be addictive. Here’s what he/she said:

“…Social media is an angel AND the devil all wrapped into one, is it not? Yes, I recall you talking about the research saying that it’s addictive. I can see that in myself, too, where some days I can’t pull myself away and am there for HOURS…”

That comment prompted me to email other writer friends—a combination of women and men, published and unpublished, traditional and indie published, new to the profession and lifers, and across genres, too. The general consensus: we all struggle with the balance in some way, shape, or form. It’s a continuum, but we’re all in this together, no question.

Here’s a sampling of what some of my writer friends had to say, clearly I hit a nerve.

Writer A: “…With the publication of my book and a newly realized need to “build a platform,” my social networking mushroomed into a blog, a couple of groups on the Writer’s Digest site, a Twitter account, and a second Facebook “author” page. There is a substantial list of other sites I’ve read that, as an author, I should be participating in, but let’s get real….”

Writer B: “To me, social networking is the epitome of a double-edged sword. It has introduced me to so many outstanding writers and authors that I can’t imagine my life without it. I have found “my people”! But in all of this wonderful relationship building, my writing has suffered….If I don’t check Twitter, Facebook, etc. at leasta couple of times a day, I feel anxious. I do think it is because of my “profession,” though, that I am so addicted. Writers are supposed to build their platform to gain an audience but then we don’t know when to quit! I think through social media it is evident that people desire connection, but there is a price we pay.”

Writer C: “It’s difficult for me to balance social media, life, and creative writing.  I don’t like to inundate people on any social media platform with lots of posts or re-tweets, but I worry that, “being out of sight is out of mind.” That’s a constant struggle.  And social media can be a time-suck, albeit a pleasant one.  So when I write creatively, I tend to just have my document file open and nothing else.”

Writer D: “I know exactly what you mean about social media feeling like an addiction; for me it’s a constant struggle. It’s the strangest thing because as much as it’s interfered with my life, it’s enhanced it in many ways too. So it’s not easy for me to describe in such absolutes as love/hate. There are days when I absolutely know I can’t go on Twitter, whether it’s because of work or because I’m out, away from my desk. There are times when I’ve gone on Twitter and had the most wonderful conversations and made genuine connections, so that when I’ve stepped away from it I’ve felt like it was a worthy way to spend my time. But the flip side of that is, there have been many, many times when I’ve stayed on longer than I should have, disengaged from the Tweets I’m reading but perhaps hoping that the next one will be like the last time, fun and full of great links, replies, etc. And I’ve stepped away wondering, “What did I just do with that hour of my life?” In that way, it’s very much like an addiction.

Writer E: “The internet, and especially twitter, has been a wonderful source of both friendship and support for me. I have made many fine friends there.  (And three of the authors who gave me fabulous blurbs for my novel were people I met on twitter.)… Of course, like so many things, the trick is knowing when to stop (and then actually stopping.)  I have precious little willpower, and so I employ artificial means to save myself from temptation when I really have to knuckle down and work.  I use software called Freedom that disables the internet completely.  Knowing that I can’t check email or social media sites allows me to put it out of mind completely, so I can concentrate on the job at hand.”
Writer F:I think one of the hardest parts of the writing life nowadays—life in general, really!—is how to find a way to keep social media’s impact at a minimum without losing touch with it’s very worthwhile points. I know for me it’s push and pull. I can’t say enough how grateful I am for the personal connections I have made through social media—the friends I’ve made…and there’s no question that social media can broaden a writer’s reading audience. But that said, it can sometimes feel as if we spend more time online than off it. For me, not having a smart phone is one way I am forced to curb my time online—and by not being able to access social media at all hours (and it not being able to access ME) I think has allowed me a modicum of boundaries. All in all, I am glad to have jumped in to the social media pool. I just wish some days I didn’t feel as if was sinking more than swimming in it!”

Can you relate? I know I can, and we’re clearly all in this together. I’d love to hear from you, to start a conversation…

Do you spend more time on Twitter, Facebook, blog responses, etc., than you think you should or than you really want to? How many hours a week do you spend on social networking—have you ever kept track? Has social networking ever interfered with your writing productivity or your “real life”? Are you like me? That some days you chalk up greater word count in tweets than on your WIP? Can you resist better than I can? Or maybe you think that the idea of social networking addiction is just not really a problem and/or not worthy of too much attention? Please leave a comment!
Cheers,

Julia

Multiple Genre Obsession

This work is in the public domain in the United
States because it was published (or registered with
the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with the idea of writing (and reading) in a variety of genres, especially those new to me. For the past week I’ve been trying to figure out how to sum it all up—how to write a post about my new writing obsession. Then today, just when I gave up and decided to write a post about something else, I read Henry Denker’s obituary in the New York Times.

If you’re like me, maybe you don’t know who Henry Denker was (I’m a little sad and a little embarrassed that this is the case, by the way.). The headline grabbed me: Henry Denker, Author in Many Genres, Dies at 99. But if that hadn’t pulled me in, this quote would have:

“A writer should be active in several forms of his trade. Writing is a business and should be practiced as such. On days when you think you can’t possibly write a line you do it anyhow.”

When I read that, I knew I would’ve liked Henry. And the more I read, the more I liked him: Henry had a prolific career, during which he wrote plays, radio scripts, television movies, novels (over 30!), and more. And his writing sounds fascinating and important—I will definitely be checking it out.

But what really struck me about Henry Denker was his versatility as a writer and his interest in writing a variety of genres. Henry Denker and I, we’re cut from the same cloth in this way, because although right now my heart lies with women’s fiction, I’ve also written short stories, picture books, and middle grade novels; I’ve dabbled in ghost stories, romance, and humor. (This doesn’t begin to sum up my nonfiction writing experience, but that’s a horse of another color.)

My current WIP is a modern-cozy mystery. I’m also in the planning stages of a dark romantic-suspenseful women’s fiction novel. But in truth I’m fascinated with writing in other genres, many genres. And I confess the more I read, the more interested I am in writing an even wider variety of fiction.

A few weeks ago I read two books that gave me pause to think….what if? Would I want to try to write something like one of thesebooks, way outside anything I’ve written before?

One was a romance: The Bro-Magnet (A Nice Guy Romance Novel)by Lauren Baratz-Logsted. This novel is told from the male POV. One of the reasons I find this so fascinating is that one of my WIPs has three main characters and two are male, and I’ve been thinking of writing from each character’s POV. This novel made me think outside the box, and I like that. It was a unique and different novel, which I also like. And it was a fast and funny read, too.

The other book was Drawn, by Marie Lamba. I’ll be honest. I started this novel because a sample chapter was available free on Amazon for Kindle. I read the sample chapter and was hooked: it’s about a young woman who moves to England and starts sketching drawings of a “hot ghost” from the 1400s. Yes, this novel is a paranormal YA novel, and it’s only the second YA book I’ve ever read. I rarely even consider reading paranormal books, but I LOVED this book. It absolutely captivated me, and it actually made me think about writing a paranormal and/or a YA novel. I highly recommend it.

Because here’s the thing. As I read in a wider circle, I’ve realized I like writing a variety of fiction. And these two books—and now Henry Denker—made me think that maybe I might expand my “genre writing circle” even more. It also made me realize once again, how much I love writing about almost anythingreally everything.

And then it made me wonder… how many other writers out there are like Henry and me? I’m so curious how other writers—how you—feel about cross genre writing. Are you tempted to write in a variety of genres? And if so, have you written in multiple genres? Or are you true blue to just one? I’m so interested to hear!

Cheers,

Julia

As The Nest Turns

Watch live streaming video from cornellherons at livestream.com

If you’ve followed my blog for very long, you know that I’m a bird watcher—in fact on Twitter, I’m part of a small group of writers who alerts one another about our bird watching activities—we call ourselves the bird nerds.

And this week, as a bird nerd, I found a new distraction: nestcams!

This is extreme bird watching up close and personal, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Three sets of birds—Great Blue Herons, Eastern Blue Birds, and Red-tailed Hawks, tend nests of tiny baby birds while closely watched by hundreds, probably thousands, at any given moment.

And let me tell you… this is high drama in the bird world, as high as it gets—as I wonder and worry along with everyone else: will all five chicks survive in the heron nest? (the fifth chick is a little small and runty looking—we’re rooting for you #5!). Will Mama Red-tail Hawk ever stop demanding her chicks eat one more squirrel entrail despite their obvious soporific lethargy? Will the blue bird eggs ever hatch? Tune in tomorrow…I’m telling you, this stuff is addictive!

You may think this post is about bird watching—okay, it is—but not just about bird watching. Because as I watch these nestcams, I can’t help but think about my own nest—just a few short years ago I too had a full nest—just like those mama birds on the screen. One-by-one my chicks flew the nest. And now my nest is empty….mostly.

Because here’s the thing—it’s a process, just like almost everything in my life these days. And this mother-in-progress, after all these years, is getting used to change (kind of)—I think it’s a requirement for the job. This month the nest is refilling for a while. My son is taking a class at a nearby hospital (he’s a medical student) so we’re happily seeing him more than usual, and my daughter will be coming home for a few weeks before starting an internship in another city. Then my son’s wonderful girlfriend will be here for a family birthday celebration later in the month—when we’ll go to our favorite sushi restaurant (maybe we’re not that different from the herons afterall…)

Our happy nest will be filled again—for a while—and it will be full of song, too (no this isn’t a metaphor—my kids listen to a lot of music and the house seems pretty quiet without it). And for a while, I’ll be more irregular in my writing while I slip back into my mom-routines of chatting at the kitchen table, cooking bigger meals, walks together on the beach and in the woods—setting my daily writing schedule by more than just my own whim. In short, I’ll be one very happy mama bird, tending my nest.

But then, come the end of May, when each chick flies off, our nest will once again empty. And MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I will settle back into the life of the empty nesters: our schedule rising and falling by the walks with the dog, me returning to a more-regular writing schedule, and—yes—watching the nestcams.



Then just like those mama birds when their baby birds finally fly away—I’ll take a long look in the direction my baby birds flew. And I’ll wistfully remember the lingering evenings at the kitchen table talking to my son, the wonderful cuddles on the couch watching movies with my daughter, and the sweet sweet music filling the air.

Cheers,

Julia




Related posts: Check out my friend Christine Grote’s great post: Early ancestors, vegetarians, parenthood, and ambivalence.

Lucky 7 with a Twist


A huge thank you to Hallie Sawyer and Karen Wojcik Berner for tagging me in the Lucky 7 challenge! This challenge allows a glimpse of other writers’ WIPs or latest book. And the rules for this challenge are simple:

The Lucky Seven basic rules

1. Go to page 77 of your WIP or latest book.

2. Count down seven lines.

3. Copy the 7 sentences that follow and post them.

4. Tag 7 other authors.

The Twist

Nonetheless, I’ve decided to break the rules, twist them, and sometimes I think that’s okay, especially when it involves building suspense. My just-completed The Cottage on Quarry Island is women’s fiction with significant revelations, reversals, twists and turns, when main character Annie moves to a small island in Maine. Page 77 reveals a significant plot turn, a spoiler if you will, so, instead I’m using page 7.

Page 7, 7th line down, 7 sentences from The Cottage on Quarry Island

      And it was on these small items I staked my future: the letter, the photographs, the business card. I closed the door to my father’s house in Boston, I got in my car, and I drove to Maine. And then once I arrived in Bertie’s Cove and made my way down Main Street to the real estate office, several of my would-be neighbors smiled and greeted me, and I imagined myself as a new citizen in the most welcoming town in Maine.
After caring for my father for six months, nursing him through cancer—I desperately wanted respite. And the small picture on Deb’s business card of the harbor of Bertie’s Cove—with its tiny boats and houses, wispy clouds on bright blue water—looked ideal.
Buying the cottage? A sudden, precipitous decision based on a whim after a half-day kayak tour around Quarry Island.

My Lucky 7 authors

I think I’m a little late in the game to Lucky 7’s, so please forgive me if you’ve already been named… or if you don’t want to participate. (You won’t hurt my feelings one bit!) But if you do participate, please let me know when you post—I want to have a chance to read what you post, too!!

Cheers,

Julia




p.s. Today I’m also guest blogging about what it means to be a Third Culture Kid and how it impacts my writing. Check it out at the blog of my wonderful friend Emma Pass in my post: Word-by-Word, Scene-by-Scene, Chapter-by-Chapter.

Today I’m Making Snowman-Ade!

MEH and I made this snowman.
Yes, this morning

I’m not going to lie. When I looked outside this morning and saw snow—more than a dusting but certainly not a blizzard—my heart sank.

It’s March 28, people, “you” didn’t warn us. And by “you” I think I mean the weather people, although I’m not sure why… for one thing, I don’t watch the weather….I do look at the NOAA forecasts, the iPhone forecasts, and occasionally listen to the radio. So, yes, THOSE PEOPLE. They said there would be sleet today. A 50 percent chance.

Which does not translate to measurable snow. Not in my book.

And speaking of books, that’s why I’m annoyed. Because I’m a hair’s breadth (whatever THAT expression means) from being done. I don’t like unexpected things, like snow apparently, to happen when I want things to be predictable.

I want my ducks in a row, smooth sailing, no surprises, so I can sit and write and finish and not worry about anything new or unexpected.

Like snow.

Or a potential power outage.

Or undependable weather forecasters.

Or the fact that maybe the real reason I’m upset is that this business of writing? It’s kind of like the snow: unpredictable. Just when I think I’m close, a hair’s breadth, I realize that Chapter 4? It really is too much backstory. And in Chapter 22? My MC would never do that.

And then? Then all of a sudden it’s snowing in my novel and it takes place at the end of summer. What will my MC do? Maybe build a snowman.

So this morning? When it’s snowing? This morning, instead of being upset anymore?

This morning, I’m making snowman-ade!

How about you? What do you do when the unexpected strikes? Are you like me, first thrown for a loop but then figure out Plan B and go with it? Writers: do you make snowman-ade when your writing doesn’t go as planned?

Cheers,

Julia

p.s. and if you (like me) are curious what hair’s breadth means (by the way, I did think it was hair’s breath ’til I read this!)… check out this link!

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

Q&A with Alex George (A GOOD AMERICAN)

Last summer, writer friend Erika Marks (LITTLE GALE GUMBO) introduced me on Twitter to novelist Alex George—who was here in Maine researching the setting for his next novel.

Today I have the great pleasure to interview Alex in this post. We share a Maine connection, but the real reason I interviewed Alex was that less than two weeks ago his novel A GOOD AMERICAN was released to wonderful reviews—including being named #1 “Title to Pick Up Now” by O Magazine, February 2012!

I wanted to know more about A GOOD AMERICAN and the writer behind the book; specifically I wanted to ask Alex questions about his definition of home—a theme central to this blog and my heart. I also wanted to know a little bit more about what he thought of Maine as the setting for his next novel.

Finally, I am giving away one copy of A GOOD AMERICAN! All you need to do to be entered into the giveaway is leave a comment before Friday (February 24) at midnight EST!

Please join me in welcoming Alex George! 

Is A GOOD AMERICAN your debut novel? If not, is there a common thread or theme in what you write?

I’ve written four previous novels which were published in the UK and some European countries, but A GOOD AMERICAN is my first book published in the States – hence the “debut novel” tag.  However, this book is so different from my earlier efforts that it feels like a true debut in all respects, not just geographically.

There was no common theme in my earlier books, except perhaps for music – which also features heavily in A GOOD AMERICAN.  But this book is much bigger than the others, both literally and figuratively.  I remember, many years ago, reading THE MAGUS, by John Fowles, and being so completely consumed by the story that I failed to notice that the bus I was traveling in got stuck on the side of the highway in the pouring rain.  I never forgot that.  So more than anything, I just wanted to tell a really good story.  I hope I’ve managed to do that.

A GOOD AMERICAN is called “…a universal story about the families we create and the places we call home.” Because I grew up traveling around a lot, home is something I think a lot about and write a lot about. What does home mean to you and why is it something you wanted to write about?

Home, and what that means, is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, ever since I left England and moved to the States, nearly nine years ago. Of course, there’s the old saying, “Home is where the heart is,” but I suspect that may be a little too simplistic.  If it were that easy, then Missouri—where I live now—would be home, as it’s where my children are.  But it’s actually more complicated than that.  When I return to England, the past rushes up to me in ambush, and I am pole-axed by a longing to return there for good.  But I don’t know if that’s a function of simple nostalgia, unhappiness with where I am, or something else.  It’s very confusing.  What I do know is that you cannot deny the pull of your past.

It’s a topic I wanted to write about because it’s such a universal theme, one that applies to everyone.  We all have a home, even if we might be a little unsure where it is.  The characters in the novel have an ambivalent relationship with “home,” which I don’t think is unusual.  Many of them spend a significant time trying to escape it—but they all get pulled back in the end.  I don’t think that’s an unusual situation.

One of the things that drew me to your book was that your main character is described as “being an outsider.” Are there parts of being an outsider that you can relate to from your own life? If not, what drew you to writing about an outsider?

I’m an Englishman living in the middle of Missouri.  If you look up “outsider” in a dictionary, you won’t see a picture of me there, but perhaps you should!  Every time I open my mouth, I announce my otherness to the people around me, betrayed by my accent and my failure to grasp the rules of football.  But I think that your question touches upon a more universal issue.  I believe that, in some way, we all feel like outsiders.  Rightly or wrongly, we all feel isolated and remote at times.  And that felt like something worth exploring.  James Meisenheimer, the novel’s narrator, feels a little distant and remote from his family, although he loves them deeply.  I think that distance allows him to tell the story he has to tell.

I know you recently completed the U.S. Naturalization process and became an American citizen. I’m not sure how long you’ve been in the U.S., but how did you draw from your own experiences as a newcomer to the United States as you created your novel’s narrator, James?

My experience as an immigrant to the United States mostly informed the characters of Frederick and Jette, James’s grandparents, since they were the characters who made the journey from Europe to America, as I did.  Frederick is an unequivocal and passionate convert to the American way of life; Jette is more cautious, and, indeed, often feels homesick.  I think most immigrants experience a degree of ambivalence about leaving their home country and starting afresh elsewhere; Frederick and Jette personified those two contradictory sentiments. 

Every immigrant is afflicted by the same paradox: one wants to fit in with one’s new country, but one never wants to forget where one came from.  My mother was born and raised in New Zealand, but she has lived in England for more than fifty years.  She still calls New Zealand home.

On February 16, 2012, I became a citizen of the United States, less than ten days after the book was published.  There is a scene in the novel when Frederick and Jette take their oath and become citizens.  It is rather extraordinary that I should be undergoing the same process at the same time as the novel is being published.

What are your favorite and least favorite parts about becoming a U.S. citizen?

I’m looking forward to voting.  I’ve been paying taxes for the past nine years so I think it’s about time I had a say as to how they were spent.  As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system of government in the world, apart from all the others.  It’s an old cliché, but it’s a privilege to live in a country where power changes without a shot being fired.  Sometimes I think many people take such things for granted.  I will vote with pride in November’s Presidential elections.

I am devoted to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  I think they are wonderful, inspiring documents, and I am committed to the principles that they enshrine.  Freedom, equality, diversity, tolerance: these are all magnificent things for a country and its people to aspire to.

I love America, but I won’t deny that a small part of me was sad when I took the oath.  A friend wrote to me on the day of the ceremony, and told me I had an English soul—and that this was something that due legal process could not ever change.  I think they may have been right.

The book has a lot of music in it. I’m curious, did you have a theme song in your mind as you wrote it? Or was there any particular music you listened to while you wrote?

I love to write about music.  It’s always a challenge, since it exists in a totally different medium.  But I am passionate about it, and I can’t quite imagine writing a book without music in it somewhere.  But no, I had no particular song in mind while I wrote.  There are an awful lot of different types of music in the novel – it starts with an opera aria, and ranges from New Orleans jazz, blue grass, ragtime, and barbershop singing.  Funnily enough, the book critic from USA Today said she thought the book would make a great Broadway musical!  Music plays a variety of roles in the course of the novel, but its principal function is to act as a type of glue—it’s a way of forging bonds and making connections between people.

Generally speaking I don’t listen to much music while I write—it’s too distracting.  On those rare occasions when I do have music playing as I write, it can’t have words, for the same reason.  I listened to lots of solo piano pieces – mainly Scriabin, Beethoven, and Shostakovich.  And the Bach cello suites.

We met over Twitter over a mutual interest in Maine, and you’ve said that your next novel takes place in Maine. What drew you to Maine as a setting? Have you found challenges in having a novel set in Maine?

I love Maine.  I have only been twice, but as you know, the place has me in its spell, and I cannot wait to return.  It’s so beautiful, so very different to the landlocked tedium of Missouri.  It is, without question, my favorite place that I have been in the United States.  I believe that you do yourself a favor if you write about things and places you feel passionate about (for better or worse)—that passion will come out in the words on the page.

Mainers have an independence of spirit that I appreciate.  It strikes me as being something that is a good thing to write about.

There are obviously challenges in setting a novel in a place that you don’t know especially well.  A lot of research is required.  To the extent that this involves burying my nose in a book, this isn’t such a great thing.  (And I have a lot of books about Maine.)  But if it means (and it does!) that I have to keep returning there, and that I am able to claim those trips as tax deductible expenses—well.  Definitely a good thing.

Follow on question: What are some of your favorite places you’ve been to in Maine? What are some places you’ve heard about but haven’t gotten to see or experience yet?

I enjoyed Portland, but really fell in love with Maine when I went further north.  I spent a week in a cottage just outside Ellsworth last August.  My friend and I spent most of our days in Acadia National Park, walking and climbing and drinking in the beauty of it all.  It was one of the happiest weeks of my life.  We drove up Route 1 from Portland and wanted to stop in every town we passed through.  I’d love to go back to that area and explore some more.

Please leave a comment to be entered into the drawing to receive a copy of Alex’s book A GOOD AMERICAN! (Deadline: Friday, February 24, midnight EST) The winner will be chosen at random, but I would love it if you would tell in comments a little bit about what home means to you! The contest is now closed: Congratulations Nina Badzin, you won a copy of Alex’s book!

Cheers,

Julia



* * * * * * * *

Alex George is an Englishman who lives, works, and writes in Missouri.  He studied law at Oxford University and worked for eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris before moving to the United States in 2003. A GOOD AMERICAN has been named as the #1 Indiebound pick for February 2012, an amazon top ten book for February, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick for Spring 2012. You can connect with Alex on his website (alexgeorgebooks.com), on Twitter @alexgeorge, and on Facebook.

My Mind’s Eye

My life these days consists of editing and little else. For about eight hours a day, I am seated at my dining room table. And although I can’t say I love the editing process (I enjoy writing more), I must admit I amenjoying it.
And here’s why. My WIP novel is really taking shape, the one I finished a first draft of in September. As I was writing, it gave me a little shiver; in short, I was in love with my book. Then I started editing, and for a while I didn’t really like anything about it. But now? I’m falling back in love.

The shiver is back.

The thing is, I can live in that world—the one where my main characters live. When I close my eyes, I see their faces, I see where they live. I see the paths they walk down, both literally and figuratively. It’s like watching a movie in my mind, and I’m the director. So now I’m tweaking the writing, moving some text, carefully choosing each word, so that when someone else reads what I’ve written, they can see what I see, live in that world.

And feel the shiver.

Do you enjoy the editing/revision process? When you write (and edit) your WIP do you see a movie in yourmind? Do you fall in and out of love with your writing like I do? Do you feel a shiver?

Cheers,

Julia

Putting Pen to Paper

It took a lot of soaking to get rid of the dried ink in the pen

Last weekend I was out Christmas shopping, and I went into a wonderful stationery store I’d never visited before. While I perused the beautiful papers and notebooks—any writer’s dream—my eye was constantly drawn to the fountain pen cases housing rows and rows of pens.

I’ve always loved fountain pens. I used to write with one when I regularly kept a journal. The first Christmas MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I were married, we gave each other identical fountain pens for Christmas. Lest you think I’m just a self-centered gift giver, let me assure you that MEH loves fountain pens as well.

Seeing those fountain pens brought back a lot of memories. Yes, the loveliness of that first Christmas with MEH. But more. The tactile feel of a fine writing instrument in my hand. Connecting, really physically connecting words with paper and feeling the fluid movement of the letters through the pen. Seeing those pens made me realize how much I missed that.

I’ve been spending a lot of time editing my current WIP (and I’m making great progress!). Right now it’s all about the computer: adding words, deleting words, moving chunks of text here and there. But soon I’ll be back to paper and pen, editing my second draft on paper.

As I looked at the colored ink, I wondered: would I want to edit my paper manuscript with a fountain pen? Could I? Would it be frustrating if it made splotches at the wrong places? What if the writing wasn’t always perfectly even? Would I need to stop and refill the ink plunger? Would I be able to write fast enough? I should say…I always, always (well, almost always) edit with red ink, a leftover from Journalism school. And the beautiful bottle of red ink called my name.

In the end, I decided to be practical. It’s Christmas—not the time to spend money on myself. Still, after I left the store I kept thinking about my idea. I found my old fountain pen in the desk drawer, and I felt the weight of it in my hand, opened it and tried to use it but the blue ink was all dried up from years of disuse. But holding it made me realize how much I wanted to write with my long lost friend. And last night I went back to Papier Gourmet in Portland (Maine), and I bought a bottle of red ink. When I got home I cleaned and filled my pen.

 

And I have to admit, when I wrote with that red ink for the first time, it was fantastic!

So, today I’ll be back hard at work at the computer—with just about six chapters left to edit until I reach that second draft. Then, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, I’ll sit at my dining room table with my printed manuscript in front of me. My fountain pen in hand. And I’ll edit like a medieval scribe.


Are there specific writing tools that make your job more fun? Have you ever used a fountain pen? What color is YOUR editing ink?

Cheers,
Julia

If You Give a Blogger a Pie….


This is my first “real” blog in three weeks. Not counting the coast videos or the scientific reports on crows.

I love blogging but it’s kind of falling by the wayside as I’ve focused on my Work-in-Progress, on Thanksgiving, now on Christmas countdown. And the problem is the longer I’m away the more I miss it but the more unsure I feel. Kind of like when you haven’t seen someone in a long time: how will they feel about me now?

And that’s exactly how I’m feeling: how will they (and when I say they, I mean you) feel about me now. Sure, I can write about crows, about Canada geese on Casco Bay, about the sunset and the moon and the tides. But can I write about feelings, about writing….can I still write a blog?

Which made me think: what exactly is a blog? And what makes me think I have anything at all to add to the 145 million other blogs out there. Which made me realize: this is crazy. It’s the same question I’ve been asking since my very first blog post. And which reminded me that this is the way I always am when I’ve waited too long to do anything.

Like make a pie crust. When I made the pumpkin pie this year for Thanksgiving, I was afraid. I love making pie crusts and I used to make them all the time—when my daughter was in her last year of high school I made a quiche every single Sunday. But since she left for college, I haven’t. And I lost my mojo. (Haha, I just love to use that word even though I don’t really know what it means, see second definition in urban dictionary.) Or I thought I lost my mojo (haha again).

But I didn’t. I remembered how to make the pie crust—and it was one of the best pumpkin pies ever. And then two days after Thanksgiving I made a quiche, and that was pretty spectacular, too, if I do say so myself.

And then it hit me. I really didn’t ever forget how to make the pie crust, and I really haven’t forgotten how to blog, either. It’s all coming back. Right? And next time I promise a real blog, whatever that is, or maybe a quiche.


Do you ever doubt your ability to blog or wonder if you really have anything to add to the blogging world?

Cheers,
Julia

Warning: This Post is a Rant.

On Tuesday I almost wrote this blog, but I thought twice. I don’t like to rant on my blog. I don’t like reading rants, and I don’t like writing them. Especially not when I have a 70,000-plus-word manuscript sitting on my dining room table, mid-edit.
But some rants have to be written. They beg to be written. Something is so annoying or frustrating to a writer’s brain that there’s no stopping them. Especially when there’s a 70,000-plus-word manuscript sitting on my dining room table, mid-edit, using an approach suggested by Laura Harrington on Women’s Fiction Writers called Rewriting Part 1: Dealing with Plot (Or Why Love 3×5 Cards).

Because, I—like Laura—love index cards. I use them a lot for everything. In fact, in this house we go through a lot of index cards—in addition to my use, my kids use them for flashcards, and MEH (My Engineer Husband) uses them for…everything.

But it’s not just us. Because two days ago Julie Musil wrote a post: A Love Affair…With Index Cards. I commented to her that I almost wrote about index cards that same day…but not about how much I loved them….

No. Because index cards have let me down lately. They’ve changed. Index cards used to be silky smooth to my touch, heavy in my hands. Any ink I used, even from a fountain pen, easily caressed their surface without smudging or running.

At first I thought it was me. Maybe I’m too demanding? Maybe I’m so used to high-tech printer papers and touch-screen everythings that I was becoming too good for the lowly only-to-be-handwritten index card. So I did what any disappointed lover writer would do. I turned to a trusted friend.

“Is it just me or have you noticed, too, that index cards are so flimsy these days?” I wrote in an email to writer friend Melissa Crytzer Fry.

“Sorry about your flimsy index cards.” Melissa answered. “I just opened mine and I can’t believe how paper-thin they are either. OH MY. I had no idea how cheap they are now.” 

Yes. Cheap. Further saddened, I wondered. Maybe there was another better brand, a deluxe index card, if you will. I went to Staples. No luck. Walmart. Still nothing better. RiteAid. Nope. I know what you’re thinking: that’s one dedicated writer! (Ok, I know what you’re REALLY thinking: she’s nutso!)

My final stop in my quest for the answer to the case of the flimsy index card was my local print shop. In our small town, we only have one small print shop/place to make copies. Literally 2 minutes from my house, I drove there immediately. I knew Dennis—a specialist: a graphic artist and owner of the print shop —would help me in my quest.
I waited patiently while Dennis helped the guy in front of me—someone who was talking about something much less important than my index cards: his 10,000 copy job of multi-colored ink, tri-folded, double-side printed, high-gloss paper brochure that would make him a bazillion dollars in sales.

When it was my turn, I cut straight to the chase. I handed Dennis the small heap of index cards I’d brought with me, a sampling of the many packages I’d purchased. Dennis may be one of the nicest guys I know. He actually took the time to look at the cards.

“Yes, they’re definitely thinner, and the surface isn’t as smooth.” He sighed. (He really did sigh.) “Cost cutting. Cheaper paper, more profit.”

“So it’s not my imagination?”

“Oh no,” Dennis said, shaking his head. “These cards are about 67# weight, lower-quality paper. Probably used to be 80#.” Dennis took me to the shelves-and-shelves of paper. He opened a package and handed me a sheet of smooth 80# cardstock. “That’s what they used to be.”

I almost cried. It was my index card of yesterday, in my hands, a full sheet.

Dennis opened another box on the lowest shelf, in the corner, by the floor. “That’s what you’ve got now. Cheaper made, 67#.” He handed me a sheet. Yes, exactly the lowly paper I’d been frustrated with for days. Flimsy, rough, paper-thin.

We stood there for a minute or two, Dennis and I, our heads bowed.

Finally it was Dennis who broke the silence: “I could print and cut some custom index cards for you. 10 cents a copy. Five cards per sheet. $15 a cut. I’ll send you a quote.”

Stop the presses. No way am I using a ballpoint pen on custom index cards. And since I’ve still got that 70,000-word-plus manuscript sitting on my dining room table, the search for the perfect fountain pen will have to wait for another day…

Have you had a disappointing experience with a paper product lately? Or a writer tool you used to depend on? Lastly, want to order some custom-made index cards? I know a guy.

Cheers,
Julia

The More You Know…

A view out my main character’s window

These days I’m focused on my Work in Progress (WIP)—the one I finished a first draft of last month. I’m all set up on the dining room table with everything I need. Almost everything.

While I reorganize, edit, rework, I’m also doing research. I want to make sure I get it right. It’s a work of fiction, that’s true, but it’s reality-based. It takes place in a fictitious town, on a fictitious island in Maine, but there are still things that need to come across as real.

So as I go through the draft, I have a notebook in hand, and I’ve been making notes of everything I need to check. Questions about things like tides, how water flows, boats, land density, how houses looked during certain times in history, cultural and societal details, renovation and construction of houses, fishing and lobstering, and even treatment of mental health.

These details are what will make my story real to a reader, I know that. But right now—more importantly—they are bringing my story and characters to life for me. Maybe it’s partially my journalist roots, but one of my favorite parts of writing is the research: making lists of questions then figuring out how to get the answers.

I’ve done both primary and secondary research.

I’ve looked at documents, many many old (and new) photographs, deeds, land plots, architects’ drawings, maps of Casco Bay, mental illness case studies.

My dining room work station
I read books, search the web (of course), but I’ve also visited a few libraries, local historical societies, the Town Assessor’s office, the Town Engineer’s office, the County Registry of Deeds. I look at the documents they have, talk to the people who work there.

Because one of my favorite parts of the research process is sitting down with a person or talking to someone on the phone, a list of questions in front of me. Asking questions. Listening. Understanding. People who grew up on islands, people who summer on islands, people with deep roots in Maine but also not so deep. Fishermen and lobstermen, historians, and anthropologists. Contractors, mental health providers, engineers.

And I’ve been going on field trips (which I’m sure sounds like absolute torture…): islands, beaches, out on the water in lobster boats and ferries, old houses, local construction projects, walking trails in local wooded areas, gardens, even coffee shops and cafes. This is one of the reasons I started making the weekly Sunday videos from the beach overlook. Most field trips are planned but some have been impromptu. I’m driving someplace else and I see something I want my main character to see or someone she should talk to. I stop and do some research on the fly.

As I talk to people and visit various offices and experts, I take tools with me: always my reporter’s notebook (and pen), my iPhone (for photos and audio recording), often my SLR camera. Photos have been indispensible in reminding me what I see and even how I’m feeling when I see something: a sunset or sunrise, the starry sky, a moonrise, a boat or a house, a natural landmark or object, and—yes—I’ve even taken some photos of people (some without them even knowing, it’s true).

As I edit and write, I keep photos handy. In particular, a photo of a house—the one I imagine my main character lives in. I also have a photo of the views my main character sees out her window. My notebooks are also by my side, and I read through them frequently—if an interview is particularly important, I’ll type it out. The physical act of transcription helps me remember. If I make an audio recording, I transcribe it as soon as possible.

But that’s where the information stops: in a notebook, on a typed sheet of paper, in a photograph or photocopy, and in my mind’s eye. Most of the research will never see the printed page in my WIP—not in a form anyone but I will recognize. But these details I’ve collected help me shape the story: my character, her history, the things around her, what she sees and feels. And ultimately they will bring my story to life not just for me but for you too.

How do you make your stories come to life for you and your readers? What kind of research do you do for your stories? Are you like me—you enjoy the research process?


Cheers,
Julia

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


Do You Enter the Zone?


This week I’m knee deep in editing the first draft I finished a couple of weeks ago.
And I’m in “the zone.” I actually did a google search to figure out what was going on—was I the only one? I started by searching for “writer becomes character.” Because a weird thing is happening: almost every time I sit down to work on this book, I start “seeing” my main character’s world, feeling her feelings—entering “the zone.”

After a few minutes of searching, I finally stumbled upon an older post called “Getting Into Character: Fiction Writing Exercises.” (This post also has some great exercises for helping you get in the zone.)

“Many artists and creative people talk about entering “the zone.” This is a state of mind in which you’re running on automatic pilot. Your right (creative) brain is fully engaged and your left (logical) brain is snoozing with one eye open. It is in this state that people often get lost in an activity, lose track of time, and produce some of their best creative work.”

When I am in the zone, I am quiet, more focused. I’m watching and hearing things in my mind: a conversation, a vignette, a scene. I can see places and people. I visualize walking into my main character’s kitchen and from the kitchen to the left, past a peninsula to the main room, a bank of windows straight ahead overlooks the water—to my right a staircase leads upstairs.

Sometimes, if I’ve been working intensely for several hours and I need to run an errand, go out of the house, I am silent and anti-social. I don’t want to leave the world I’ve created in my mind and now on paper. MEH (My Engineer Husband) says he can tell when I’ve entered the zone because I have the same look on my face I get when we’re in a restaurant and I’m listening to others diners’ conversations, like in this post. If I talk about someone—he feels he needs to ask: “Is this a real person or someone in the book?”

Getting into the zone is not always easy. These days it usually happens right when I sit down to work. I’m there. But sometimes I need to go somewhere to trigger the feelings. When this happens, I’ll go and sit in the spot I imagine is the view my character sees from her window. I sit on the rocks and I wait. I think about that place in my mind, that other place in another world, and my view shifts away from what’s in front of me—and into the world in my mind.
When you’re deeply involved in your stories, your characters, are you overwhelmed by their presence like I am? 

Do you enter “the zone”? 

Cheers,

Julia

What’s Rain Got to Do with It?

“…Into each life a little rain must fall…”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It’s raining this morning. And I’m glad. It’s not only that I love the rain—honestly I love a rainy day almost more than a sunny one.

But more importantly, it reminded me: I forgot to have any rainfall in my recently-completed first draft WIP (Work In Progress), that I blogged about here. Maybe it shouldn’t matter—I mean does every single novel need to mention the weather? Not according to Mark Twain, who reportedly received complaints from some readers about not including enough weather in his books (others complained there was too much mention of weather!).

I didn’t realize this about Mark Twain until I talked to MEH (My Engineer Husband) about my rain omission. He said it reminded him of the forward Mark Twain had in one of his books, The American Claimant. Consider this excerpt from a section called THE WEATHER IN THIS BOOK:

“No weather will be found in this book. This is an attempt to pull a book through without weather. It being the first attempt of the kind in fictitious literature, it may prove a failure, but it seemed worth the while of some dare-devil person to try it, and the author was in just the mood….”

Unlike Mark Twain, I’m not in the mood to exclude the weather. In fact, I am particularly surprised about my weather omission because my main character spends a lot of time outside in the natural world. Further, a house is being built. And both these things are affected by the weather, especially in a place where there are seasons.

Fortunately I am editing and rewriting my draft and can easily work in the rain and how it affects, motivates, and propels my main character—and my story.

But, more, today’s rain served as a reminder to me that I need to pay close attention to the details, and that these very details will help me create a more realistic, believable, and captivating story.

As Mark Twain said: “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” Do you talk about the weather in your writing? Is it pertinent to your story or irrelevant?

Cheers,

Julia

Cracking the WIP

Last Friday I typed “The End.”

As a recap… I had two WIPs, lying virtually untouched all the time. Both were about one-third done, and both were good stories. I’ve been blogging for seven months yet writing almost no fiction.

But then a funny thing happened after I wrote my last blog post of August (the one lamenting the fact that I couldn’t focus to write my WIPs): I started writing. A lot.

I joined a small group on Twitter that planned to write 10,000 words over Labor Day weekend (#LaborDay10K). I’ve done these kinds of challenges before and been disappointed. But this time? This time—from Friday to Monday—I wrote over 10,000 words.

And I kept writing. I really got into the story and realized how much I like it; in short, I fell in love with my story all over again. This story, in my head for about 7 years had grown and shifted and developed layers I didn’t think of before. Subsequent to this I’d written Chapters 1-7 and three other pieces that I knew would fit somewhere, including “the ending” (but as it turns out, that became the next to the last chapter).

And I kept writing, encouraged by MEH (My Engineer Husband) who actually wrote a blog post for me during my crunch time.

Honestly, I wrote almost all the time—for 8 solid days. The day before I finished, I wrote for 10 straight hours, so long that I ached.  The story came so fast I couldn’t type fast enough. I had to take notes on a pad next to me to make sure I didn’t forget what else I wanted to write. So distracted by writing that I ate cereal for lunch—and after taking the first bite I found a (live) earwig in the bowl. So consumed with the writing that I didn’t read blogs or go on Twitter for more than a few minutes—and then I just wanted to get off. And I never went outside except for the walks in the morning and evening with the dog and MEH.

And my WIP grew into a full-grown novel: 26 chapters.

And I can honestly say I have no idea why…why was I able to do this after all these years? I don’t honestly know. But…

The blogging really helped. (Which is great, it was one of the main reasons I initially began to blog!) In the past seven months I wrote over 90,000 words for my blog. From February through the end of May I posted every single day. It was a powerful habit to get into. In June when I stopped posting daily, I kept writing everyday and submitting work to various places: essays, short stories, guest blogs.

Which brings me to the second reason I think I suddenly wrote so much: I got some rejections. I know, paradoxical, right? But not right. One of the rejections was from a really good literary magazine. I got a personal note from an editor, and here’s the thing: she liked my story and my voice. She encouragedme to send her another story next month, thismonth.

And, also paradoxically—although we writers (including me) worry about social networking—during all that blogging and tweeting, I made some good writer friends—friends who checked in with me on how my writing was going, friends who I checked in with on how their writing was going. (I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my good writer friend Melissa Crytzer Fry; she not only gave me support and encouragement during the 8 days, but she also gave me some much-needed pointers on how to approach some difficult scenes I had to write.)

Oh, and it didn’t hurt that while I wrote, I fell in love with my book and all its characters. The day before I finished, I wrote a list of the scenes I still had to write. After I wrote the list, I looked at it and got really really sad. It’s almost over, I thought to myself. When I finish, all these people will be out of my head—and someday maybe other people will know them. At that moment I didn’t like that very much.

The next day, the 10-hour-writing-day, I was jubilant, happy beyond belief: I was almost done with the first draft. And I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. After the day was over, and I was walking the dog with MEH, I had an epiphany about the ending of the book.

And the next morning, last Friday, I finished the last two chapters…including that new ending. It wasn’t a sad ending (although not necessarily happy), but it was important. My Main Character had a moment of self-realization and so had I. 

I got pretty emotional: to be honest, I shed a tear. Honestly, I didn’t want it to end. I felt sad that I would never really know how my MC would end up—for the last 8 days I lived and breathed this woman’s life. I didn’t want to say goodbye.

But, more, I felt sad that my 8 days of intense writing were over.

Is the first draft perfect? Far from it. But I have captured the story. Today another kind of work is just beginning—I have layers and layers of edits I need to make, I still have some research I need to do, sources to talk to, gaps to fill, probably even re-writing of the early chapters. And I can’t wait.

Because now I know: I can get to “The End.” 


What breakthrough moments have you had with your writing? Do you, like me, have times you’re not sure why you are able to write more freely than others? How do you feel when you finish important milestones in your writing? Can you relate to my feelings of sadness?

Cheers,
Julia


P.S. You only have a few more days to enter The Great Giveaway! Just leave a comment on the post and you will be entered! Maybe that little house is what did the trick, who knows?? Contest ends September 15!

When Do You Write?

Sunrise on the dog walk
I wake up early, early enough to see the sunrise every morning—some days too early. If I had my way, that’s when I’d be writing—first thing in the morning, a cup of coffee nearby.
When our children were young, MEH (My Engineer Husband) was chief dog walker: he’d head out every morning to take Sadie then Bo then Abby to run free in a nearby open space. And me? That was my writing time. Before our two kids woke up, all was silent and still, and I wrote.

These days, when I’ve “gone writin’,” I still wake up thinking about my work, my writing: my first thought of the day. But nowadays I’m by MEH’s side, taking Abby to Dog Woods Park. When I come home, a little after sunrise, I write.

When is your preferred writing time?


Cheers,
Julia

What’s a Writer to Do?

Unfortunately this beautiful brass bird bell from
Denmark has come to represent Twitter to me:
the big bird in the room that chimes for attention

Have you noticed how some blog posts leave you thinking: “Oh that’s nice.” Others make you think a little more. Still others you could take or leave. Then there are some, just a few, that really make you sit up and pay attention. 


In the past 10 days, I’ve read 3 posts like that. Posts that reinforce the little voice I’ve been hearing in my head, saying: I NEED HELP! Why don’t I write?


The day before yesterday, Nina Badzin posted Mixed Blessings of the Internet. Nina issued “a cry for help,” asking how we writers get our daily WIP writing done while still keeping up with social networking.

I responded (inadequately) in comments. (The truth is I had gotten about 2 hours of sleep after Hurricane Irene. Add to that, I was in a pretty down mood. I think my comment reflected it.) The gist of my answer to Nina is that I DON’T get my WIP done, or not very well. But that I keep doing it (social networking), drawn like a moth to the flame.

The second truth is that in the middle of a hurricane I was thinking about how to tweet about it—I was actually a little more worried about that than I was about not being able to cook a hot meal. (In fairness the storm had been downgraded to a Tropical Storm by the time it reached us, but still…)

Just like all writers, there are a lot of things vying for my attention!
The bird bell, of course front and center, represents Twitter and all social networking

Why do I spend my time the way I do? I started thinking about this last week when I read Post #2 that struck home: Slaying the Green-backed Dragon on Cynthia Robertson’s blog. Cynthia wondered if writers are more productive when working another job full time or when they are able to write full time on WIPs. In essence I responded that it didn’t seem to matter to my productivity level, whether I worked or not.

Right now I don’t work full or part time (about a year ago my part time job dwindled down to two or so hours a week—budget cuts). I no longer have children at home, like some of you lucky mothers. And thanks to the economy, my freelance client base has eroded away. In essence I have all the time in the world for my WIPs.

But my third truthis that my writing productivity is based more on my state of mind—how happy and relaxed I am—than on how much time I have. In fact, my most productive time, as a writer (of fiction), was when I was home full-time with two children. I wrote three middle-grade novels, one early reader, two picture books, three published essays, one nationally published short story. And the editorial feedback I got back from “good rejections” (there were plenty) was, well, good. But, note to self and readers: still no novel published.

Which brings me to Post #3, How Much Time Do We Really Need to Write, posted this morning on Natalia Sylvester’s blog. After reading Cynthia’s blog post, she experimented by dedicating an entire day to her WIP, nothing else, to see how much more productive she might be if she only had her WIP to work on—like I do.

And that, dear readers, brings me to MY problem. I have two really promising (my opinion only) WIPs: “Heavy Duty” and “Manila Folder.” One is over one-third written, the other slightly less. But I spend way too much time (more than I care to track) on Twitter and commenting on blogs.

My two WIPs AKA
“Heavy Duty” and “Manila Folder”

I rationalize: Twitter and blog commenting is necessary—it’s part of building my writer’s platform. That’s why I started. Way back six months ago when I first started, a blog post told me to.

But now something more important has happened. You tweeps are my friends: Nina, Natalia, Cynthia, and about 14 others of you that I talk to almost everyday. I wrote a guest post for Natalia a couple of months ago about this. If I’m not on Twitter as much, I’d miss you! My writing life is very solitary. I don’t go to coffee shops, I don’t have a writer’s group. I sit at my desk or at my kitchen table, (purportedly) writing.

Nonetheless, the fact remains. I need to get to work on my WIPs, drum up freelance writing business, write and submit short stories and creative nonfiction, write my blog, and—oh—live my life, maybe even clean my house. And then there’s Twitter, the big bird in the room…

But the real problem isn’t Twitter, it’s me. Why don’t I write? My two WIPs are well defined, great ideas (just my opinion, granted), but I am making much-too-painfully slow process. I honestly believe it’s not because I’m doing anything else, like blogging or Twitter, too much—it’s just that everything else takes priority. And I’m just not writing enough. So, why don’t I? What’s a writer to do?

Have you had times that you simply can’t or won’t work on your WIPs? What have you done about it?

Cheers,

Julia