Sep 27, 2011

Sheep and Writing

Recently, Pam Asberry wrote a blog post on the amwriting blog asking how writers refill their creative well. Too many rejections, heavy criticism, bad luck: it can all feel overwhelming at times. Why don't I give up when the path looks bleak? It's simple really: I like writing.

I'm the same way about raising sheep. This hasn't been our best year. Lambs didn't fare so well this spring. Our ram was struck by lightning and died. I got thrown by an agitated ewe and broke my elbow. You would think I'd just give up. Why keep going against such bad luck? It's simple really: I like sheep.

So what do I do to recharge? I remember to enjoy the things I enjoy. I give myself double points when those interests overlap.

The Trailing of The Sheep Festival

In just a few weeks, I'll be attending The Trailing of The Sheep Festival in Ketchum, Idaho. There will be spinning, a fiber fest, cowboy poetry, and sheepdog trials. Plus there will be 1500 sheep trailing down main street. I'm attending a symposium in conjunction with the festival: "Women Writing and Living the West." For me, this is an inspiration banquet.

A Little Sheep Music

The Sawtooth Bluegrass Association holds its annual Bluegrass Festival at Round Valley, Idaho. Over Labor Day weekend, we camped and soaked up wonderful music. My newest favorite Idaho band is The Panhandle Polecats. They hooked me when Hank introduced his sister, Molly, the sheep-shearing song writer. The song definitely fits into a story-telling tradition that's alive and well in Idaho. It took me a little too long to grab my camera, but here they are singing (most of) "Sheep Shearing Blues."


Yes. Sheep do often make their way into my books. A writer friend even wrote our ram into one of his books after the lightning incident.

Over on Escape Into Life, I have a short story inspired by a petroglyph found just down the river from where I live. The story is Evil's Day Off and this is the petroglyph:

In case you're wondering, I do have the usual inspirational sources of family and kids, but the unusual interests really spur me on as a writer. Think a sheep interest is crazy? Mmm. Just wait until I tell you about my cemetery ramblings and the way thrift store objects nearly write their own stories.

So how about you? Do you have unusual inspirations that replenish your creative spirit?

Sep 15, 2011

Effective vs. Efficient

My husband is a project manager and sometimes I'll be mulling some idea about how I'm spending my writing time and he'll drop an idea on me that stops me in my tracks.  Here's one of them:  being effective is not the same as being efficient.

Being effective is about results.

Being efficient is about process.

(He's not responsible for any of this further mulling. So if you know Greg, don't ask him to explain any of what I'm thinking. He gave up on that a long time ago.)

All the writers I know have other gigs in their lives.  Time is precious.  It's not enough to be effective or efficient; we need to be both.

When I'm efficient with my time, I might measure that in words written or pages edited.  I might look at how many blog posts I've written.  Being efficient is important.  How can I be more efficent?

  • Get up early so I have time alone without disruptions.

  • Watch the clock.

  • Limit frivolous distractions.

  • Write during the time of day when I think most clearly.

  • Take care of myself, so my mind is sharp.

  • Set a timer so I persist through writing discomfort.

  • Listen to music that sustains my writing frame of mind.

All of this efficiency is great, but what if I am channeling my energy ineffectively?  What if I really need to re-envision my rough draft and I'm checking for typos instead?  I might end up with a manuscript 99% free of typos and then need to go back and rewrite every scene.  Maybe I've been efficient in hunting typos, but I've been ineffective in producing that final draft.

What about blog posts?  What if I'm blogging like crazy to build an audience for my novel--but I never have time left to write the novel?  I can be efficient at writing posts.  I can even be effective in building an audience.  Yet, when I stop to assess, I'm no closer to my goal of becoming a novelist.

What can I do to be more effective?

  • Define my goals in concrete terms.

  • Identify steps toward completing my goals.

  • Of those steps, identify the most time-efficient processes.

  • Be honest with myself about how I spend my time.

  • Be honest with myself when something isn't working.

  • Take responsibility for the path I'm on.

So that's it, right?  Be more efficient.  Be more effective.  End of story.

Not so.

All of these steps improve my odds at becoming a better writer, but the creative process requires something more.

I can't always measure the effectiveness of daydreaming, but I feel it.  I can't always explain why I need to research some weird aspect of Idaho history, but I feel it.  I can't always explain why I need an hour to block out a relatively simple scene, but I feel it.  Whether we call it intuition or inspiration or motivation from the muse, these gut feelings are rarely wrong for me.  Often impulsive actions feel neither effective nor efficient and yet they are essential.

How do you spend your writing time? Are you effective and efficient?  Do you follow your intuition?  How are you with setting goals?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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This post first appeared as a guest post for Ev Maroon.

Sep 13, 2011

Raising The Stakes

As writers, we're always hearing the importance of raising the stakes.  Not enough tension in a scene?  Raise the stakes.  Midpoint dragging?  Raise the stakes.  Reader doesn't care about the main character enough?  Raise the stakes.

Like most writing advice, we can hear something so many times that it fails to have any meaning for us anymore.  Not everything can be a life or death situation, right?  And if it is, how do we top that when it's time to raise the stakes later in the book?  So now it's life or death for me and my best friend.  In the next scene it's me, my friend, and the dog.  In the next section, all those plus two more dogs.  Now it's the two of us, the three dogs, and the orphanage.  Right.  Plus their goldfish.  Fine.  Now are the stakes people happy?


Why?  Because too often we're looking at public stakes rather than personal stakes.  Instead of asking what will happen to the world around the character, we should be asking what will happen inside the character's heart, mind, and soul.

And the great thing about this?  Our characters are complex and layered, so there are always ways to increase the stakes.

We should be asking, "What matters most to this character?"

What one thing could you threaten that would make your main character completely wig out?

How has your character structured her life to protect that one thing?  It might be a belief system or a moral code.  It might be a need to nurture those in need. It might be an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

You know your characters better than anyone.  If you really wanted to make them hate you, what buttons would you push?  Could you make them so angry they'd never talk to you again?

Now you're getting somewhere.

Raise the stakes.