May 24, 2011

Tools For The Writing Process

I love it when writers talk about their writing processes. Listening to authors describe how they take a glimmer of an idea and shape it into something irresistible and engaging? Oh yeah. I could listen all day.

Twice now I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Terri Farley discuss clustering as a means for taking scattered thoughts and pulling them into something coherent and ordered.  She uncovers details that echo far into the soul and she builds on those.  Until I heard Farley describe her process, clustering was just another form of outlining for me.  Afterward, clustering became a piece of magic I use myself.

Last summer at Willamette Writers Conference, I heard Eric Witchey give a talk called “Levers, Ratchets, and Buttons” wherein he discussed preparing the reader for story revelations.  This workshop changed the way I looked at plot twists.  Specifically, for a plot twist to be effective, the reader has to be set up for it.  The twist should feel right because the writer has included the foundation, the clues, that lead up to the revelation.

Without the proper groundwork, a reader says, “Wait. What just happened there?”

With the proper set-up, the reader says, “WOW!”

I also admit to being transfixed by J.K. Rowling’s chart, prepared for writing Harry Potter and The Order of The Pheonix:

I brought these influences with me when I arrived for Theresa Meyers’ workshop, “Plotting for Success.” I had so many ideas bouncing around in my head that, to write this blog post, I had to go back to my notes to separate out what Meyers actually said and the way I filtered her words through my own experience and practice.  For instance: 

All the while, hearing Meyers talk about the fact that we can track anything using plotting boards, I kept seeing J.K. Rowling's chart. And then I thought, "what if I use one of those columns to look for ratchets and buttons?" I mentally substituted Snyder's beats for steps on the hero's journey. I kept visualizing clusters extending out from every square on my chart. I saw my own story through many lenses at the same time.

A friend asked me later, "Will you use Theresa's process?"

I wasn't sure how to get my mind around the question. It was like someone asking me if I planned to borrow Theresa's car or her toothbrush or something. Um, no. I can't use Theresa's process. What she does, the magic she creates--it's all hers. She shares her process and she inspires us, but we still have to write using our own.

Did I pick up some new tools to integrate into my own process? Oh yeah. All this week I've been filtering ideas differently and trying new things. When I go to my next workshop, Meyers' ideas will be there with the rest, quietly influencing everything I hear.

May 10, 2011

Get Out There And Do NOT Tweet!

I want writers to refrain from tweeting until they can stand it no longer. The conversation becomes too engaging, the discussion too creative and delightful. There seems a very real possibility that remaining silent may cause an author's brain cells to implode. Repressed words bounce around so rapidly, the writer's hair may catch fire from the friction.  Hands begin to tremble. Knees shake. Then, only then: go ahead, writers.  Tweet.

When I started exploring Twitter, I did so anonymously. I had a protected account and I tweeted silly things, like messages to my husband sitting across the room. I took time to see how tweeting worked and what I could expect from it.

While I felt overwhelmed with learning the meanings of @ and # and #ff and the rest, I was not in the public view.

I’m not convinced telling writers to tweet is a good idea, especially while they’re new to the platform. I can’t imagine how anyone could understand Twitter by jumping in and tweeting right away.  It’s like telling someone to enter a conversation by barging into a group of strangers and talking loudly.

Much better?  I encourage everyone to join Twitter to listen.

I started out following reporters.  I’d see someone tweet about the cab ride to a press conference and then I’d turn on the television and catch sight of that person behind the reporter with the big hair—and yeah, big hair, just like she said—how could she even see?  I started seeing familiar bits of the world through other points of view.

And the writer in me danced.

You see what I’m seeing, right?  Access to the world from so many points of view?  It’s a candy store for writers.  I started following so many people, studying how they talked, what they found important, how they reasoned.

I followed reporters who were all at the same events together, comparing what each thought worth mentioning and how they interpreted the same things.

At some point it occurred to me that I’d spent a lot of time doing this weird little internship with reporters and suddenly the world of reporting felt a lot more accessible to me.  Not only could I write a fairly believable character based on these people, but I could actually see my own path more clearly if reporting were something I wanted to do.

Yes. That’s when the lightbulb quit flickering and started really burning a hole through my brain. The next day, I deleted my personal, anonymous account and started an account with my real name.   That day, I did not follow all the same reporters I’d been following for months.  That day I started following novelists.

I still did not tweet.  I followed.  I listened.

Thirsty to drink up the experiences of other writers, I followed a lot of people.  When they followed back, it surprised me. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would be interested in me. Still, I floated along, reading and absorbing, without tweeting much.

When I finally started tweeting, it was not because I needed an author platform.  It was not to “put myself out there.” It was not to publicize a blog post or a short story or a publication. I started tweeting because a conversation intrigued me and I had something I was dying to contribute. If I didn’t respond, I thought my overstimulated brain cells would self-combust.  That’s the moment everyone should start tweeting. As I started contributing, other writers welcomed me and I started making friends.

When it finally came time to send out queries for my novel, the process did not feel foreign. Writing mentors encouraged me and dared me to be brave.  I’d followed others’ progress through the same process and I knew what to expect.  When I had questions, friends provided answers.

When I started my own hashtag on Twitter, my goal was simple: help writers find each other. it pained me that so many of the writers I followed did not know each other. #FollowFriday wasn’t enough. We needed a community of writers talking to each other on a daily basis. Even more? We needed a community of working writers.

I’d watched professional reporters supporting each other and becoming mentors for people they didn’t even know (people like me!) and they did this through sharing their work. This is important, so I’ll say it again. They shared the work of reporting. They weren’t all tweeting links to their most recent articles on whatever news sites.  They tweeted their experiences as they worked.

Most successful authors say there’s very little to describe about their writing days.  They sit and they write.  This is true, I’m sure, on the grand level of looking back, but the details of those days?  Magic.

On Twitter we see those details.  When writers discuss their works in progress, we see despair on the bad days, euphoria on the good days, and all things in between. We see the work of writing: the endless revisions, the courage to face rejections, the inspiration derived from interaction with an editor or a beta reader. We see words evolve to e-book or print or both. These are real writers, not the polished images of muses who dream an entire series and channel words through fingers the next morning.

These are working writers.  They’re tough. And smart. And witty.  And engaging. When I check into the #amwriting community every morning, I chat with colleagues until the caffeine finally pings a response from my brain. Then I turn to my own writing in a virtual office filled to the brim with this crazy, amazing, creative energy.

Yes, in the end we do promote each other, but not because we’ve found some great Twitter marketing scheme. We promote each other because we’ve watched these wonderful books and stories grow from nothing. We’ve beta-read and critiqued for each other. We’ve shared tears and happiness.  We promote because we believe in the work and we believe in each other.

That’s why I tweet. That’s how a little hashtag grew into a community that includes more than 2000 writers tweeting each week--and many more who email to say they read without tweeting--just like I did with reporters! That’s how I ended up with more than 28,000 followers without trying to market myself to anyone.

So if you’re a writer, I don’t encourage you to tweet--not until you’re ready.  Get out there and listen. The tweeting will follow.

May 8, 2011

House Lamb Gets A Name

House Lamb's name is Baxter.

We don't name most of our sheep.  Generally, the wooly creatures do not live their full lives on our small amount of land and naming them makes the process of letting go horribly difficult. I'd say we avoid naming lambs for the kids' sake, but really that protective barrier is as much (or more) for me.

All the same, even without a name, we've been attached to this almost-didn't-make-it lamb and we've alternated between calling him House Lamb and Little Guy.

Sometimes we have to prepare ourselves for loss, as best we can, using whatever means we think will work. This last week reminded me, however, that we never really prepare ourselves for loss, no matter how we try.

Last week, my sister-in-law, Penny, my brother's beloved wife, died of leukemia.

I knew she wasn't doing well. I knew it was coming.  I'd kind-of, sort-of even prepared myself for it.

But really, preparing ourselves for loss is crap.  We love.  We grieve.  It hurts.

So this week, despite my will to accept the vagaries of life, I take whatever measure of control is mine.  House lamb has a name and a home.

I'd say we're keeping him for the kids, but you all know better.

May 1, 2011

Ready, Set, Blog!

This post was originally published on the #amwriting website on May 1, 2011.  As many of you know, I started the #amwriting hashtag on twitter in August of 2009.  It grew to include a member directory and website.  I never set out to build a community, but I'm so happy for the way it turned out.  As we move forward, some things work better than others and member blogging is one of those amazing things.  Here is my post announcing a new emphasis on blogging for the site.

If you're signed up for the Amwriting Newsletter, you received an email a few weeks ago discussing changes to this site.  I've been spreading myself too thin trying to branch out into new areas, so we're pulling back and focusing on the things we do really well.  Something had to go.  Since we're based on a community that already works well on Twitter, the community pages here were an obvious way to trim.  As one #amwriting author reassured me, "This change makes the #amwriting site a very modern writer showcase  - not just another 'like Facebook but for writers' site."

If you miss the ability to work with other writers in your genre, doing in-depth critique work, you might enjoy playing along at the just-made-public Book Country, an author site developed and maintained by Penguin.  Many writers on Twitter served as beta testers for the site, so you're likely to see some familiar faces there.  For more about the site, read "Aspiring Authors Get Help Online," an article by Julie Bosman for The New York Times.

Today I'm very happy to announce a new emphasis on community blogging.  Why?  Because we're writers and we do this well!  By pulling traffic to the site, we create better exposure for all the authors here and we give blog writers a chance to show off their skills and link to their own pages.

I was hoping to get regular blogging started in June, but enthusiastic people started writing to me and I started giving them May dates.  I wrote to a few more people and May blogging is officially under way.

We do still have May dates open so, if you're interested in blogging, let me know.  (Experience with WordPress is a definite plus!)  Guidelines and directions are posted on the guidelines page.

Let the fun begin!