Monday, December 19, 2011

A journey of 1,000 miles can start with a cup of coffee and a guitar

This weekend, the universe gave me both a gift, and a reminder.  I sometimes question if there's such a thing as divine providence, but then the universe seems to step in with a subtle kick-in-the-right-direction. 

Last Saturday, my husband and I decided to stop by a coffee shop before heading home from grocery shopping.  We had our laptop and planned to look up cool things to do on our trip to the west coast.  We wandered into the cafe, a place that we had been hoping to test out for a few weeks.

Much to our surprise, there was a man in the corner playing the guitar and singing to an empty room.  He had a smooth voice and was playing everything from blues to folk to oldies.  Several patrons had chosen to drink their coffee outside rather than listen to the musician.  My husband and I looked at each other, tossed aside our plans for playing on the computer, and sat down, an audience of two.  Not long after, a man that looked like he had ditched his biker gang to hear this guy play wandered in and requested some blues.  We hung out with the biker and the musician for several hours.  The performance was mesmerizing--and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why no one else was there.

This performance rekindled a desire I've had for years--to learn how to play the guitar.  The two boyfriends I dated before I met my husband were both guitarists, and I would be lying if I didn't say that their strumming skills were a big part of my attraction.  They both transformed when they picked up their guitar, from scrawny geeks into sexy troubadours.  However, when the second of my guitarist-boyfriends didn't work out, I did a bit of soul-searching.  I realized that rather than looking for this oh-so-sexy trait in someone else, I should get off my butt and learn to play the guitar.

That was five years ago, and though I have found happiness with my loving, non-guitar playing husband, I still have not learned how to play.  But this is the year.  It's the perfect time for New Year's Resolutions, and I'm ready to pursue this dream.  Thankfully, the guitarist had a few suggestions for learning to play--he said to check out Happy Traum's instructional videos.  It's funny how if we had chosen a different course--if we had gone home instead of tarrying, we would have missed a private concert and the renewal of a dream.

What about you?  What are your forgotten dreams? 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It may not be pretty, but it's mine.

Before I shared my story with my critique group(s), I wanted it to be perfect.  I wanted to shine and polish it until it sparkled like prose straight off a Barnes and Noble shelf.  I wanted it to be flawless because then, of course, my critique partners would ooo and ahh and tell me what a genius I am.  Or at least, they wouldn't think I'm a hack. 

I didn't have a chance to polish my story up really pretty because, as I said a few days ago, I'm still working on it.  That's my excuse.  There's another, deeper reason, though.  One that I am ashamed to admit:  I didn't know how to make it perfect.  Yes, writing is subjective, but anyone who has judged a contest will know--some writing sucks, and some sparkles.  The piece that I shared with the group didn't sparkle.  It wasn't pretty.  It needed help.

Which was why I shared it.  At the end of the day, the ladies in my critique group are diverse readers and excellent writers.  They could step back, look at my story and say, "Here's what I would do."  If I had gone back to polish my story without any outside feedback, I know that I would have continued to make the same mistakes.  I might have switched around the word choices, but I wouldn't have made the deep re-structuring that the story needs to have a shot.

I am grateful to have a group with so much insight and patience.  Someday, I hope to be more skilled at re-writing and revising.  Is it a skill that can be developed with time?  Any suggestions or recommendations for improving?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Start with the bad guy in mind

Every time I learn something about writing that resonates with me, I slap my forehead and immediately wish I had done things differently.  For example, in the YA paranormal novel I'm working on now, I didn't think too much about the antagonist before I started.  I had an idea for a setting, a heroine, and a really cool set of superpowers.  So I set out, and when I hit about 50,000 words, I started wondering about my antagonist.  Who was he?  What made him tick?  And most importantly, how did he fit into my story?

I had written myself into a corner, in some ways.  Introducing the antagonist 2/3rds into a book is poor form.  I knew I had lots of rewriting in my future, but it wasn't until I read Kristen Lamb's post on antagonists that I realized I was about two months late in asking these questions.  I should have sat down, crafted my villain, and had him immediately start interacting with my heroine.  This pitfall will be easier to avoid in the future, now that I have squarely landed in it, but that leaves me with lots and lots of work to do on my current book.

While this feels like a set-back, a frustration that could leave me pulling my hair out, it also feels good.  For a long time, I didn't write anything because I felt like an idiot every time I wrote a boring paragraph or started too many sentences with "She."  Writing anything book length was out of the question--think of all of the disastrous ways that could go wrong!!  To have this kind of structural problem with my book means that I'm trying--hell, I'm actually doing it.  Failing, yes, but picking myself up as well.

So I'm still plugging away at this novel, hoping to begin my first set of real re-writes next month.  But I'm tucking lesson #238 about writing into my writing toolbox:  Start with the bad guy in mind.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Productivity Happens

So, I'm having one of those writing stretches where writing feels similar to pulling teeth.  I sit down at the keyboard and immediately am hit by a paralyzing fear of writing the wrong thing.  I know that this is a first draft.  I know that I can revise anything I write.  But I still have the irrational belief that if I write something horrible down, I'll be stuck with it. 

I'm not a doctor, but I have two diagnosis for this problem.
1.  I shared the piece too early.  I really do know better.  I have several critique groups I joined in hopes of finding a writing community.  Though my piece isn't really ready for public viewing, I shared the first chapter with my dear critique partners.  I've gotten great feedback, but I think this threw off my devil-may-care attitude towards writing the first draft.  Now, the damn thing counts for something, because I have people who are willing to see it.  Ahhhhh!  Cue internal editor freak-out.

2.  I went balls-to-the-wall to finish Nanowrimo last month.  I wrote 21,000 words in three days.  It was awesome to learn that I can actually produce that much in a short time, and much of it was actually decent writing.  However, it threw off my slow-but-steady groove.  Now, I sit at the computer thinking about how I really should write 8,000 words today, when I really just need to focus on my previous 2,000words/day minimum.  When things go hay-wire, I go back to basics.

The upside?  This procrastination has led me to a great find:  Sara Cotner's organization system.  This woman is an organizer extraordinaire, and she has shared her tools with the web.  For her templates, go here.  I follow her blog and am impressed with how effortlessly she seems to juggle her busy life.  I now have all of my writing goals listed on her handy-dandy weekly planner, so I now have no excuses.   My favorite part?  How she incorporates post-it notes into the planner.  Brilliant!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A bit of rodent decency

Sometimes I feel a discouraged about this world and all of the injustice in it.  And then I come across something inspiring, something that makes the world seem a little brighter and a little kinder.  Today is one of those days.

I came across an article proposing that rats are empathic.  Scientists have shown that rats help each other out in a bind.  They trapped one rat in a tiny cylinder that could only be opened from the outside and put a free mouse in the cage to see what happened.  The free mouse fretted and fussed until they figured out how to open up the cylinder and release their friend.  Not only did the mouse persist in freeing his trapped friend, they celebrated together once he succeeded.  Pretty cool.

How often do I stop to help strangers?  Sometimes I fall short from the high bar established by rodents.  My spouse and I were recently at a gas station filling our tank when a man with an empty gas can came up.  He explained that he had run out of gas and needed a few bucks for gas.  I was immediately suspicious, but my spouse said, "Bring it over and I'll fill it up."  They poor stranded guy filled up the can, walked away to the truck stuck a quarter mile down the street, and we went on our way.  I wondered, though, how long he'd been there.  How many people had he asked for help.  And was he really out of gas or looking for a handout? (My skepticism gets the better of me at times).

Yet less than a week later, my spouse and I found ourselves in a similar situation, only on the other side of the fence.  We blew out a tire on a busy highway Sunday afternoon.  We could have changed the tire, had we had a car jack.  We didn't.  After about twenty cars zoomed by, someone stopped.  It was an older gentleman and his wife.  He stayed for fifteen minutes while we changed the tire and insisted we keep the car jack in case we needed it.  What an incredible guy.  I want to believe that people, and rats, are good at their core, that we want to help people out in a bind.  And every time my belief in human decency is confirmed, I breathe a tiny sigh of relief.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On the title

When I decided to start a blog, there were two major hurdles that I had to overcome.  One was picking a blog theme.  I am a writer, and there are a million writing blogs out there.  Rather than dispense a whole lot of writing advice I'm not qualified to give, I decided to keep that as my loose theme, but see where the blog took me.  Once that was decided, I needed a title.

That was the hard part.  I brainstormed and brainstormed and ended up with a list of inane phrases.  None of them worked.  Some were good, some were cliche, and some were just awful.  I was getting so desperate that "Will write for guacamole" and "Don't forget the toilet paper" were looking good.

It was while I was pondering what I should get done that day (since the blog project was stalled), I realized I was thinking about what frog I should swallow first.  It hit me--and that as a writer, sometimes the very act of writing is the frog that I stare down everyday.

No, I do not literally eat frogs.  It was a phrase that I had picked up somewhere in the libraries of self-help books I'm always skimming and forgetting.  Out of all the things I've read, that was the image that had stuck, and whenever I set out to be productive, I thought  about my big, intimidating to-do items as frogs.  When the inspiration for the title hit me, I looked up the quote.  Turns out, the person who's credited with the phrase is Mark Twain, and he had several interesting quotes about eating frogs:

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
Mark Twain

If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.
Mark Twain

And so begins my blog.  Now that we're on the same page (my spouse had not heard of the phrase and apparently the term swallowing has other connotations.  Who knew?), I want to clarify how this phrase applies to my writing.  I like to write.  Sometimes I sit down and the words flow and I come up with brilliant things that I never could have thought of if I tried.  Sometimes I sit down and I barely manage to slug through the uninspired plot point that I had come up with the day before.  Those days suck, and they're hard, and I dread them.  I also dread that nagging feeling that what I'm writing is crap--such horrible crap that people will throw parties to laugh about how bad my writing is.  So as much as I want to write, I sometimes feel like sitting down at the keyboard is like sitting down to pet a cobra--it's dangerous.  And scary.  And yet, it's the most important thing I do in any given day.  I believe firmly in writing every single day to get better at it.  I might not always practice this philosophy, but I try.  And that means every day I stare down a really big, important frog.

So here's to everyone out there who has the courage to swallow their frogs, face their fears, and get things done.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pet Peeves and Personal Promises

I have a few pet peeves when it comes to bloggers.  Therefore, in this blog, I am going to masterfully avoid those things that bug me in other writers.  In announcing them I will either make myself accountable or air my hypocrisy.  Probably the latter.

In any event there are a few principles that I will try adhere to:

1.  I will not tease you with blog posts that I never write.  I've noticed that bloggers who write things like--"I'm running behind on everything in my life but I promise to blog about THIS SUPER-AWESOME THING that you're really interested in" rarely ever follow-up on the super awesome things that they promised.  So I make you no promises, tell you no lies, and hope that you keep reading anyway.

2.  I will not drop off the face of the universe without an announcement.  If I find myself going more than a week without a post, I will try to let the world know what happened.  Because we can all think of a blog we read that has gone underground, almost as though the writer had a life or something.  Or was drafted into a top-secret CIA mission.  I promise to avoid all CIA covert-affairs agents, no matter how hard they woo me and my ninja skills. 

3.  I promise to post absolutely no picture of my pets.  And no bad poetry.  Wait, I can already feel my resolution cracking on the poetry...

It begins...

This whole blog-thing scares me.  I've never had the opportunity to make vast mistakes in front of the entire global community--until now.  In a way, it's freeing.  Once I get past the terror.

So here I am, world.  Testing the waters of the internet. 

Welcome to my blog.