NaNoWriMo Nearly Done!!! Keep Going!

So….last week, I didn’t write for four days and I had already mentally composed a blog post where I described how while I hadn’t “won” NaNo, it had still been worth it and blah, blah, blah…November is a brutal month for this, particularly when you ARE the person who cooks Thanksgiving dinner for 14 people and puts up the Christmas trees (fun fact: the Christmas decorations are in boxes on my kitchen floor right now and have been there since Friday). I have been following along with Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! which has been useful and fun, but Chris, lemme tell you, I don’t have a “caretaker” in my writing quest. I AM the caretaker. I have five kids and a career where I can’t just write at work, even if I were so inclined to do that morally, because I actually have work that has to be done and I even bring work home I have so much work and blah, blah, blah….NaNoWriMo is just too hard.

So, that was my whiny post until Friday, where I decided that while I wasn’t going to finish NaNo, I’d finish the novel I started. So I sat down to write a more reasonable 1,000 words before starting to put up the Christmas decorations.

But then I saw….I wasn’t THAT far behind. If I wrote a little under 3,000 words per day, I could still “win.” Hmmm….I guess I could decorate for Christmas in early December.

I hate not winning. I’m pretty competitive, even with myself. And while I still maintain that even if you don’t “win” NaNoWriMo, it’s still worth tackling, I, personally, felt it was worth it to see it through to the end.

So, I started tapping away at the keyboard.

Oh, it’s an awful piece of crap, let me tell you. This crap novel will not see the light of day, I swear, but I’m at 41,531 words now (I haven’t written yet today) and I think I’ll finish it.

So, all you Wrimo-ers out there! It might be worth it to keep going! You can do it.

Driving and Accessing the Unconscious

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This last summer, I drove to Austin for a work conference.  I had a choice of flying or driving and most of my colleagues chose to fly. Not me.  For one thing, I did the travel math and figured that by the time I drove to the airport, parked, went through security, waited for the flight, spent 30-45 minutes in the air, landed, got an Uber, etc., I’d actually spend less time in transit if I just hopped in my car and headed out. More importantly, however, once I get out of the special hell that is Houston traffic, road trips are great for writing and boosting creative energy.

Just as with going for long walks, driving is a great way to access the unconscious.  Once I escape the city and I exit onto the smaller highways, I turn up the music and my mind takes off, wandering and exploring.   This is when, while one part of my mind is engaged with the physics of passing slow trucks and keeping a lookout for cops, memories I haven’t thought of in ages come flooding back.  Ideas for stories, blog ideas, characters, Big Questions all come bubbling up in a way that just doesn’t happen otherwise.

When I drive, my mind is open to new experiences, to new energy. Synchronicity occurs. Once, while on a road trip to Florida, the song “Fifty Seven Channels” by Bruce Springsteen came on the radio and a few minutes later, a car passed me with the license plate “57.”  I’m not making that up and I spent the next hundred miles (and beyond) pondering why. I still don’t know, but that experience gave just enough magic to bouey my creative energies for another day.  Driving allowed me to pay attention to that instance of synchronicity, whereas I may have overlooked it in the every day.

So, if you get stuck creatively, you can hardly do much better than to go for a drive.

Update: “Fifty-Seven Channels (and Nothing  On)” is a pretty good tune. The above instance was the first time I’d ever heard it:

https://youtu.be/tm9gSrOy0-4

No Need to Explain (why you write)

hand pic LLAP

This post goes out to the misunderstood.

You know who you are. You live with people who love you very much, but who do not necessarily understand why you’d want to get out of bed early in the morning (and thus wake them up) to creep over to the kitchen table and…what? Why?

Or you realize they are occupied one Saturday afternoon watching YouTube videos, or studying for exams, or playing with the backyard kitties, so you seize the moment to grab your laptop and write for a bit.  As soon a you settle in and begin tapping away, ear plugs in, world out, however, your people find some reason to need you. They can’t locate the sauté pan. They need help revising a paper. They can’t find one of the cats. Please help.

And you have to help because you want to help. Because you love them more than writing–as you should–and to explain to them that “this is my writing time,” doesn’t always sink in. Because they simply don’t understand.

So what do you do?

Well, I am probably not the best person to ask, given the scenarios above, which happen daily, but in the past, I have written some ideas I had on  how to find time to write when you have a day job,  That post, however, didn’t really address what to do when the little time you do carve out competes with others’ desires for how you spend that time.

As I prepare for NaNoWriMo, my biggest challenge will be that big question from family and (most) friends as to “why the hell would you want to do that?” The implied question is also, “Why should I take second fiddle to your hobby, even for a few hours a day?”

When I wrote my dissertation (much of which I wrote in a fairly short time-frame, buried in notes, writing music blasting into my ears, pen inked up my hands and arms, my bird sitting on my shoulder like a pirate’s parrot, me chattering to myself), I had an easy answer.  After all, no one debates why you’d want to complete your dissertation–I mean, duh. But a novel? Writing just to write? For what purpose?

And the answer to that question is: Because I want to.

How do you like them apples?

There are certain things in life you have to do because you simply want to do them and in general–as long as you aren’t harming others–that is enough of a reason. There doesn’t need to be another.

You get to be you.

Writers, you do not need to explain yourselves or your desire to write (for NaNoWriMo or anything else).  After all, I don’t challenge people’s desires to watch videos of cats knocking coffee cups off high surfaces. And if a person wants to spend an afternoon watching Grey’s Anatomy? By all means–we have choices in life. And fantasy football? I don’t get it, but I certainly can understand why this is enjoyable, and even a psychological need for some people. I get that we all like different things and, frankly, need different things, just as I can understand why someone might want to climb a mountain or venture under the sea, just because it calls them. Isn’t that part of being alive?

The same is true with our writing. And if you’re like me, you’ve been writing since you could spell, so writing has become part of who we are, how we engage with the world, how we make sense of things. And yes, it is part of how we have fun, which is a completely valid reason to write–as valid as any other.

You need no explanation other than, “Because I want to,” but if that doesn’t work, I also have a few more ideas:

  • The people around you love you, so when you are trying to find time to write in your home life, start by explaining to them how you are writing because it makes you happy and you want to do it because you just want to. That’s a good enough reason and you don’t need to explain beyond that. In fact, if you do, you’re defending, which you don’t need to do.  You get to be you.
  •  Let them know that you will be writing from x time to y time and to not interrupt you. This allows them to realize that there is an end to this madness and the sauté pan hunting can wait until noon. Keep it realistic (i.e. I don’t advise ignoring your family for an entire week-end, every week-end. Break it up a bit. An hour here, an hour there, etc.)
  • Earphones and loud music. I can’t stress this enough. I started using this tactic many (many, many) years ago when I lived in a very loud dorm as a college freshman. That dorm was so loud that once, the fire alarm went off at 3:00 a.m. and I completely ignored it because I thought it was just my neighbors’  typical antics. With that level of noise (and the fact that I couldn’t just pack up my giant word-processor and head off to the library in 1990 like I could with a laptop now), I had no other option but to crank up the tunes. The training of that served me well–now I can write anywhere as long as I have earphones and music.
  • Get away to a library or a coffee shop as a last resort (and don’t take your phone). I did this for my dissertation on a couple of occasions when I had a tight deadline and needed little interruptions. I try not to do this often, though, because I prefer to be around my family–them doing their things and me doing mine–and I try not to leave them very often. And clearly, this won’t work with little kids (mine are all teens and/or in college).
  • That said, I wrote when the kids were little, too. When I really wanted to get something done, I wrote at night, but if I needed to write in the daytime, that’s when I broke out a new Lego set or made them a new batch of sparkly play-doh. That type of thing can buy at least an hour until a fight breaks out.
  • Scrivener can be used on an iPhone and iPad….I have been pondering what program to use for NaNoWriMo and I’ve used Scrivener enough to know how to use it (I’ve written three short stories using it), but it does have a very steep learning curve, of which I’m still ascending. So I considered just writing the thing in Word and being done with it, until I considered how useful it is to be able to pick up where I left off with my iPhone and iPad.  Let’s just say that in the past, I have been able to get some words written on an iPhone in a doctor’s office waiting room using Scrivener or Evernote.  That type of thing is golden when you are trying to get your word count up.

But at the end of the day, remind yourself that you don’t need to explain yourself. You want to write because it makes you happy. It’s just how you are. And that’s good enough.

On Being a Pantser

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I expressed excitement in my last post over having time to plan for NaNoWriMo, but that planning will not include outlining, deeply developing characters, or anything of that nature. While no approach–being a “Planner” or a “Pantser”–is the “right” approach and every writer is different, I don’t have to ponder long to know I’m a Pantser.

I know I’m a Pantser because I am a Pantser when it comes to writing short stories.  Most of the time when I begin, I have a character and possibly a situation, and mayyyybe a vague idea of what direction the story might take (and generally, I end up being wrong about the direction), but that’s pretty much it.  Sometimes, I start with nothing at all. One of the best feelings in the world is when I’m finished writing, I feel as if I’ve woken up from a really interesting dream, or feel as if I’ve just been reading really good book. I love the slow realization that I wrote that story–it didn’t even seem as if I were writing, but rather reading and watching the events unfold. For me, the un-known element plays a large part of the fun of writing. That’s the playtime element that makes me want to keep writing, the fun, the reason for getting up early in the morning.

If I plan out my stories ahead of time too much–if I flesh out my characters too much, if I know what will happen each step of the way–then my mind balks at this and suddenly the task of writing ceases to be play and becomes more like writing a dissertation, a research article, or a narrative for a program review. All writing is not fun, in other words, but the writing I do early in the morning for personal fulfillment and enjoyment ought to be.

I started writing originally as a very small child. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but not too long after mastering the basic skills of reading and writing, it occurred to me that I, too, could write and that meant I could make up my own stories and write them down. I could write things that didn’t exist in the world yet. And for me, most of those things are settled so deep in my unconscious that planning them out too much robs them of their magic.

This is what happened to me with the last novel I tried to write.  I got a pretty solid idea based on these people and this experience and it held a lot of promise, but because I wrote it for a novel-writing class, it met its ultimate demise because we had to outline a bit more than I like to do.  We didn’t outline too much (the professor was good–very flexible on allowing us to choose our process), but the small part we did outline was too much for me. Also, the fact that I wrote the chapters as class assignments literally made the novel work and not as much fun as it otherwise would be (I got an A in the class and great comments on the chapters, though). We moved shortly after writing those chapters, then, and the rest of my life launched forward, leaving that novel in its wake.

I don’t want to write that novel now. I have already invented stories about those characters (although I’ve never written one of them down) and as far as what those characters meant to me, I have now answered all the questions I had about them and the themes surrounding that would-be novel, all by merely thinking about them often enough.  I have no desire to tell that tale any longer. Would that novel have been completed if I’d done it for NaNoWriMo, with no rules except putting fingers to the keyboard?  Maybe.  Would it have been written if I weren’t worried about getting an A in a class?  Maybe. But who knows.

This is not to say I don’t plan.  I have the POV choice made, a main character (not fleshed out, but in existence), a couple of other characters, and the general idea of the structure. In short, I did the same amount of planning that I do for a short story.  I think a lot of my planning takes place in my unconscious, though, and to bring it too soon to the conscious frames the ideas too much, solidifies them too much, limits them too much.  It’s better to keep them in the amniotic fluid as long as possible, in the dreamworld as much as possible, until I’m ready to open the tap on my keyboard.  This probably means I need to edit far more than I would if I were a planner, but maybe not. No problem. I can edit.

Rather, my planning involves figuring out how to write 50,000 words in a month.  How many do I need to write each day, then? What if I have to take a day off? (I refactor the numbers). How early will I have to get up? Will family mind if I write in the evening while we’re sitting outside? What will I do when my brother and his family visit? (I refactor the numbers). What’s my game plan here?

I do that kind of planning.  Just not the planning when it comes to the fun, the magic, the story.

November is NaNoWriMo!

NaNo-2017-Participant-Facebook-Cover

Get ready, fellow writers, for the literary marathon known as NaNoWriMo.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it, where writers of all types attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in a mere month.  I have heard of it for years, but every year, it never quite makes it onto my mental radar until the second week in November, or more likely, as I’m contemplating when to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. By then, that ship has sailed until the next year when I again don’t think about it until it’s too late.

But not THIS year, my friends! No, this year, NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) made it on my radar with almost three weeks to mentally prepare. Go me. I’ll need that three weeks for sure since I am not a novelist. YET.

I write short stories. I relate to short.  Little bites. Condensed pieces of what could be a piece of a novel, a single character or two, a couple of places….I can do short stories. That’s not to say I don’t have novel ideas in me. I do. I have ideas bopping all around my mind, but I shove them aside because I’m not a novelist (see the circular reasoning there? The “fixed mindset”?).  I take parts of them and make them into short stories–little pieces of them, little manageable nibbles.

But not in November.  This November, I’m going to start with the biggest idea that’s been knocking around inside my mind for a year or so and go to town on it. I’m going to write and write a bunch of crap that will be a 50,000 word horrible novel because it’s NaNoWriMo and I think it’ll be good, if only pschologically.  After all, if a person can write 50,000 words in one month, then they can probably write 25,000 the next, if they wanted to. After all, we don’t know our limits if we don’t push ourselves. And it’s not like I can’t do it, I tell myself. I’ve written and defended a quantitative dissertation.  I’ve gone grocery shopping by myself with five children ages five and under (pro-tip: it takes two carts and bribery).  I’m pretty sure I can do this.

I’ll keep you updated.

The Lump of Clay

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Yesterday, I read a draft of a short story that I recently retrieved from its “rising” place. I marked out time to “read and make comments” to it, got myself a cup of coffee, and sat back to read.

Oh, boy, was it rough. It read not unlike the above clay face in the photo above (which my eldest son brought home from elementary school and has inhabited my bookshelves ever since).

I took a sip of coffee and slashed through the first two pages. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I wrote notes to myself in the margins on what changes needed to be made.

Then I read on. Okay, well, I liked that….let’s bring out that element more….I kind of liked those eyebrows. The eyebrows work.

Revising is like this at first.  No matter what you are revising, you start with the big stuff first before you get down into the weeds. Whole scenes. Characters. POV. We aren’t at the sentence level yet. Not even close.

Because so far, what I’ve got written is clunky, molded as if created from clay with small hands lacking dexterity.

My job in the revision process is to hone, to shape, to redo the eyebrows and give depth to the eyes.

For me, that takes time.

 

Embracing the Post-It Notes

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Last week, my daughter introduced me to the concept of bullet journaling. If you want to read more about this method of journaling, you can do so here, as well as many other places. That’s what I did, anyway, and before I knew it, I had spent an entire afternoon engulfed in website-Pintrest-YouTube-knowledge gaining of the mysteries of bullet journaling.  As my daughter suspected, I had all of the markers of a budding bullet-journalist:  an intense love of planners and organizational systems (check), a love of all writing accoutrement (check), an addiction to paper (check), a collection of journals and a penchant for toting one around in my bag at all times (check), and generally, a love of anything to do with putting pen to paper (check).

I also have an extensive addiction to Post-It notes (check).

Extensive addiction to Post-It notes.  Bordering on pathological. I easily go through a package of post-its a week and I use them for everything. I post notes on folders, telling my future self what to do with the contents. I put notes on doors, telling people where I went. I post rules for the kids. I post notes all along my computer screen and across my desk. I post them on my bulletin board at work and on the refrigerator at home. While I keep a digital task list on my phone for domestic to-dos, for some reason, I keep a written Post-It note “to-do” list at work, adding notes as I think of new things that need doing. Every Friday or so, I will rewrite the latest tasks and toss out the old notes, which feels as refreshing as making a bed with new sheets after a rough week.

Indeed, the bullet journal approach enticed me and a few Amazon purchases and 48-hours later, I was ready to construct my journal.

I already knew it would be a messy affair, seeing as how I am not remotely artsy or pintrest-y.  Any artistic ability with a pen or pencil halted for me at the age of five and I’m so bad with coordinating colors or choosing matching flair that without my daughters to help, I’d look like wallpaper from the 70’s if I went at it alone. So I expected a visually-messy bullet journal and that was okay with me.  Artistically, I am a writer and at this point in my life, I don’t have time to not be myself and/or learn calligraphy, so I planned to just see what happened and go with it. But–and here’s the crux of this post–I didn’t realize just how much I’d hate the idea of removing Post-It notes from my life. Or at least from my daily “to-do” lists.

After all, one of the potential appeals of bullet journaling would be that I could finally remove the row of post-its from my desk and write all that stuff in the journal instead.  Easy, right? Apparently not.

I arrived at work, opened my journal, and transcribed the current list of notes into my journal, using the little “bullet” symbol to show that it was a task that needed completing. Then I tossed the old post-its in the trash.

Within minutes, I felt withdrawal symptoms.

It’s hard to describe, but I just felt anxious looking at that list, its items all in a row, one item after another. The same list that had inspired me moments ago when written on a Post-It note caused stress for me when written in a vertical list (my general plan of attack is to choose an item that needs doing and then accomplishing it. Once complete, I cross it off and choose another and so on, in no particular order except, of course, sometimes in order of urgency. My to-do list is written with two or three to-dos per post-it, in random order as they occur to me).

So, then two things dawned on me: First, it’s my damn bullet journal and if I wanted to stick a bunch of Post-It notes in the pages because it made me happy and productive to do so, then I wasn’t going to fight that battle. Bullet journals are supposed to be what works for their authors and not what they were supposed to do. If I liked post-its, then post-its I would have!  Boo-yah! I’m a grown-up and can do what I want!

With that, I picked the discarded Post-It notes out of the trash and taped them into the journal. I did write little “bullets” next to the entries and decided to cross them off instead of scratching them out, per the bullet journal best-practices, but I was okay with that.

I felt instantly better.

Which led me to realization number two: My brain thinks in Post-It notes. Who knew?

I always suspected this. My short stories, for example, are rarely linear. They circle, they jump forward and backward in time, the figure-8 around a central issue, much like a dream or my thoughts. When I tell a story about something that happened, I have long noticed that I will start off with the main tale, but then digress to a plot and a sub-plot, before rising back out of the layers to the main story again. Rarely are my ideas for other things linear either. Ideas come at all angles, like a stack of Post-It notes, layered, crooked, connected to one another at times.  Often,  my connected ideas are several Post-It notes away from one another and only by staring at the disconnection, the colors, the different inks and patterns in the juxtaposing ideas do I see the bigger picture.

In short, I think in “Post-It Note.”  No wonder I have an affinity for them.

The takeaway for me here is that we all need to embrace how we think, how we are, and delight and embrace whatever that is. We shouldn’t try to be someone that we are not or force ourselves to stick to a practice that doesn’t work for us. Especially when it comes to writing or generating creativity, whatever it is that we do.

Making Your Writing A Habit

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One of the most challenging elements of being a writer is the art of habit-creation.  I am not talking about writing when we are inspired, of course. When we are inspired, writing comes easily.  We look up and three hours have passed….how did that happen?  (Don’t you love it when that happens?)

No, inspired writing is not the problem. The problem comes when we are uninspired. When we are tired. Or cranky. Or scattered. Or wanting to eat pizza and binge on Better Call Saul. As with anything that requires daily habit to keep on track, once I allow myself to slip up and not write for a day (or two, or three) it becomes that much harder to get back in the game.

It’s not that we can’t catch up if we fall behind–it’s just more difficult. And if we aren’t careful, months can pass before we realize we have fallen off the writing horse and it has now galloped on ahead, four towns over. I liken it to exercise.  Several months ago, my husband and I were in the habit of running (albeit slowly. Jogging is probably a better word for it since neither of us would win any races, but it sounds so much sexier to be a “runner,” no?) 3.2 miles at least three days per week. The other four days, we walked that distance, often a little more. Then, one day, for reasons I don’t remember, but which fell along the lines of  “what a DAY! Let’s go get pizza!” and while we walked, we walked to the local pizzeria, which also has $2 beers on Tuesdays.

And you know, that was not a big deal on the surface. It was just one day, right? The problem was, the next day, with our bodies loaded with carbs and our minds still equally exhausted (because that never really goes away. If you wait to do the important things when you are feeling at the top of your game, you’ll never get anything done),  we were equally uninspired and instead took a shorter walk around the neighborhood instead. The next day, same thing. And so it goes.

Yesterday, however, I decided to get back in the swing of things and when I got home from work, I donned my running clothes, stretched, and hit the road.

Let me just say, it was every bit as terrible as I thought it would be. Whereas a few months ago, I could run that 3.2 miles easily and feel as if I could run another mile at least, yesterday evening, I thought I was going to die.  I ran slower than ever  and the entire time,  I imagined scenarios in which I passed out from heat-exhaustion and concerned neighbors had to rush out and dial 911. I made it 1.5 miles (barely) before deciding to walk the rest of the way. While I was glad I started running again, it would have been so much easier if I hadn’t ever stopped.

(Runners everywhere are laughing at me and my pathetic 3.2 miles, but alas, I have never been speedy.  Still, the idea wasn’t speed, but physical fitness and the knowledge that if I wanted to, I could outrun a zombie in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Right now, a zombie would catch me for sure. All because I got out of my little training habit).

Bit by bit, little by little, we build ourselves into who we want to be. We live our lives the way we want to live them, and this is reflected in our habits. This is true of any habit, which it is so important to do your best to stay on the horse, keep pushing ahead, even if you don’t feel like writing (or running, or whatever else it is you do).

So, what did I learn from this? Here are some thoughts on how to making writing a habit:

Schedule Your Habit. Probably the biggest thing you can do is to make time in your schedule for the important things you want to do, which will include writing. Understand that our lives are filled with a ton of tasks that need to be accomplished, but if we really want to do something, we must schedule time and make it a priority.  Then, prepare for your habit. Charge your laptop. Tell people you will be working from 5:00 to 7:00. Etc. I have read that the best plan is to do everything important “before 8:00 am” and I agree with this, although for me, it’s a far stretch to do “everything” important before 8:00 am since I also value my sleep and have to also be at work by then. This is why I have to move some of these things into the afternoon (i.e.: running). I do try to write in the morning, though, when I’m fresh, because writing is more important to me than running. It’s all about making priorities and living accordingly.

Have Smaller, Achievable Goals. When I am training for the zombie apocalypse, I have a goal of 3.2 miles, three days a week, with walking the other days. When I am writing, I have a goal of 500 words per day Monday through Friday.  I can write beyond the goal, but that is the goal. It’s modest, achievable, and I’ve found that by having smaller goals I can meet, I am more likely to write beyond my goal.  I also have smaller goals–finish this short story by the end of the day, revise this short story by next week, send out this one to ten journals by Monday, etc. This is just what works for me–you might have different goals and this is fine. Know thyself and what motivates you, but have a goal each day so you can concretely say you have “met” the benchmark you have set for yourself.

Remind Yourself Of The Reward (And The Consequences).  I have always been a writer and while I have had short stories, articles, and academic articles published, I have done so slowly and in spurts. Why? Because I have made other choices in my life at the expense of my writing (not that I have any regrets. If I had the chance to go back and do things differently, I wouldn’t change a thing other than getting rid of cable sooner and spending less time watching baby animals on YouTube). My writing career has been haphazard due to these other priorities taking place–some of them were noble, but some of them fell akin to going for a walk to the pizzeria instead of staying focused.  So, when I am tempted to not write for a day, I only have to remind myself of the short story I wrote five years ago that was still unedited when I started seriously writing again. Five years slips by quickly, people. “Just one day” of not writing can add up, day after day, and suddenly, you realize you haven’t progressed and you have a fairly decent draft of a short story sitting in a file somewhere for the last few years. If you had made writing a habit, that story would be published by now.

Schedule Vacations. I am a huge advocate of taking mental breaks, though. So while this is going to sound counter-intuitive, I feel it is important to allow yourself some planned vacations from your habit. Not too long, but small vacations can give you much-needed perspective. The key here is “schedule” the vacation.  Going back to the pizzeria trip that derailed our running goals, that could have been avoided if we had planned to walk to the pizzeria in the first place. If we run three days a week and we know there is a special deal on Tuesdays, then we could have scheduled our runs on other days and made a plan to walk to the pizzeria on Tuesday. The same is true for writing. I sometimes just need to think–unhindered from the idea that I am supposed to be doing something else.  This is why I don’t require writing on the week-ends (although I often write anyway). Or if I decide, in advance, “I’m taking a mental break on Friday and going to the beach” and not writing for a day, as long as I make this plan ahead of time, as long as it is scheduled, then it will not have the debilitating effect of derailing me in the long run. It’s all mental. It’s not the fact that you aren’t writing–it’s the lack of discipline and feeling of failure for not sticking to your plan that derails you in the long run. If you feel you have given into temptation, you are more likely to do it again tomorrow, but if you schedule the break, then you have control and accountability.

Log Your Success. Keep track of your days of writing and whether or not you met your goals. This can be jotting it down in a notebook or ticking it off on a to-do list or calendar. Whatever works for you. It can be incredibly helpful to see your progress and, again, hold yourself accountable. This is how you can also avoid five years passing without returning to a short story draft you wrote. Or thinking, “I wrote this, when?”

Keep Trying. So, as a fallible human, despite your best efforts, you might still follow the siren call of that unplanned pizza night, metaphorically-speaking. If it does, don’t waste time beating yourself up over it.  Just lay out your running shoes–or charge up your laptop, or sharpen your pencils–and start all over again. You can catch up. You’ll just have a rough patch at first.

Happy habit forming!

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On Creating Characters (Spying On The Neighbors, Part Two)

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Welcome back! So, before we begin, let me reassure you that this post will ultimately deal with how to develop character in your writing. Promise.

I do, however, need to back up a bit. In yesterday’s tale, I made it seem as if I saw the former trio of neighbors for the first time as I watched them from my twin daughters’ bedroom window, but this is not actually the case.  That was just the first time I realized they might make good story fodder. A few weeks before that incident, however, they had already begun contributing to my fictive rendition of their lives.

See, when they first moved in, I didn’t actually know who had moved in. I only knew that someone had bought the house, a moving van appeared, a general ruckus ensued, and after the dust settled, the kids and I baked the new neighbors some chocolate chip cookies, stacked them on a paper plate, and trotted around the corner to their front door. We rang the doorbell. We waited. And waited. We could hear movement inside the house, but no one came to the door. Then, just as we started back down the walk, the kids excited to eat the cookies instead, the door opened. The younger woman—who was about my age at the time—answered the door.

“Can I help you?” she asked. She had her hair wrapped in a towel and clearly, we had interrupted her—maybe she’d been in the hot tub—and I felt bad. I hadn’t meant to intrude on her life, but when we moved in, our other neighbor across the street brought us cookies, so I was trying to learn some civility and be more like her.

I apologized and bumbled around, telling her we had made them some cookies—welcome to the neighborhood! She opened the door a little wider and I introduced myself and each of the kids. Then, however, instead of taking the cookies, she explained she didn’t eat cookies or allow her daughter to eat them either. Cookies had sugar.  Sugar wasn’t good for kids.

She eyed my brood of five, who saw where this was going and began to inch closer to the cookie plate. You have to move fast if you want the competitive-cookie-edge at our house.

“Oh. Okay. Well.”

Such went our first meeting.

The second meeting occurred a few weeks after that when she showed up at our door.  I smiled when I saw her. Maybe she felt bad about her previous decline and made us cookies? Or maybe she had a question about preschools? Maybe she wanted to go to the movies? I invited her in, but she declined and stood there on the doorstep with her daughter dressed in a pink ruffly dress, eating a popsicle.

Then she asked me if we had a CAT? A black and white cat? Because if so, this was a “courtesy visit” to let us know that our cat was sitting on their outdoor furniture and if it happened again, they were going to take the cat to the pound.

Oh no.

I explained to her that the cat was not ours, but belonged to the neighbor across the street (the super nice one who bakes people cookies without awkwardness).

“The cat is always at your house,” she said. “And we are allergic to cats. We cannot have cats on our outside furniture, so this is a courtesy visit to let you know to take care of your cat and keep it inside.”

“You said that,” I said, once I found my voice and stable ground, “but the cat really isn’t our cat. You’ll have to talk to Flora. It’s her cat. But Flora is really sweet. I’m sure she’s going to help keep the cat somewhere safe.”

She harrumphed, thanked us, and strutted across the street to harass Flora. Welcome to the neighborhood, indeed.

So, long story short, a narrative of this family had begun to form—even before they began hosting their frequent parties.

Before we continue, though, I should say that I wasn’t tempted to write about this woman yet, or base a character on her.  Mean, small-minded cat-knappers do not by themselves make strong characters.  And why? Because the characters of great stories need to have some type of realization through the course of the story. Characters need to have some epiphany for the story to exist at all, but the previous run-ins I’d had with this person indicated that she, in her current state, was not capable of realization and change.  I’m not saying she didn’t have reasons for her behavior–I’m sure she did. We all have something going on–but at that point, I couldn’t see them or imagine what they could be. So there was no story. After all, not everyone is capable of having an epiphany  at every moment of their lives and clearly, this woman was not about to be dissuaded in her quest to box up Flora’s cat and cart him off to the pound. (In fact, she DID do this, a month later, but I’ve already turned this into a soap opera as it is. But don’t worry. It ended well and Flora got her cat back although he had to live inside forever after).

The Grinch can only be the Grinch if his heart is capable of growing. The ghosts of Christmas appear in Scrooge so that we can learn why Scrooge came to be Scrooge and only then we can understand how he might have the ability to change and grow. Hamlet can’t just rant and whine for the entire play….eventually, he has to make things right, however late. The grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard To Find” has to recognize the humanness of the Misfit and thus her own humanity. And so on. The upshot here is that we can’t have a story based on hateful people who steal cats, unless the hateful cat-stealer has something else going on, something to help us see the mustard seed of redemption. And I just didn’t see the potential for that yet. So, no story.

But then they started hosting parties.

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(Now we actually do have a black-and-white cat. Cats love to adopt us.)

Not long after I first saw the younger woman in the hot tub from the twins’ window, they held their first party.  It was no big deal, really–just some music and people drinking–completely normal partying. No one fell into the hot tub or danced on the outside furniture from which the cat had been ejected. I know this because I combat-crawled across my daughters’ bedroom floor as they slept and peered through the blinds. Okay, I’m not proud of this, but as a child, I read Harriet the Spy more than ten times and not much had changed for me in that department when I reached my thirties. At the time, I was in grad school as well and, living in the suburbs, I took what story fodder and entertainment I could get.

From there, they began to hold small parties every night.  After the child went to bed for the night, the mother and her daughter would have four or five different men over for drinks. Every. Single. Night.

Wow.

Starting about nine every night, I could hear their voices and know it was time to crawl across the floor and, ducking just so to keep out of sight, I’d watch the older mother waltz in and out of the sliding glass door with drinks. I’d watch the younger woman slow dance to music with her arms above her head as the male guests watched. They laughed and smoked cigarettes and played music and what on earth were they up to over there? I guess you could say that it was at this time that I found the sympathetic quality, the detail that helped me to see the younger woman’s redemptive abilities, the oyster inside the shell. Because however cruel she may have been to the cat, and however rude she had been to her new neighbors, no matter what they were up to in their back yard each night, I now had a better sense of the humanity of this woman.

As the weeks wore on, however, the neighbors–and often their guests–started looking up at the window and eventually, they built a fancy enclosure structure with red curtains that they could close off around the entire porch.  Which they did. Game over.

But by then, I had my story. I did notice that after awhile, the younger woman had a new live-in boyfriend.  He drove a yellow jeep and stayed all night most nights and the younger woman seemed happy with him, judging from the way she ran to him and flung her arms around his neck after he’d pulled up into the driveway and exited his Jeep. And I hope she was. I hope she is. At least she is when I get to write the story.

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