Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Finding Time to Live the Dream

One of the first hints I get that someone knows his or her purpose in life is when they are simultaneously pretty sure they can’t have the dream and security too. Most dreams don’t seem to have anything to do with paying the mortgage, feeding the kids, setting aside a nest egg for retirement. They almost seem mutually exclusive. My greatest fear about living the writer’s life was living it under a leaky roof and eating peanut butter three times a day. I wasn’t about to jump willingly into that world. I wanted a compromise, a way to test the water before it started pouring down on my head.

I found my compromise in a question: What would you do if you had an extra hour a day? (And you can’t say sleep.) That came out of a Stephen Covey time management course I took. My answer was always the same. (I took the course twice, but asked myself that question many times.)

The answer: Write novels.

The fear: Starving while shivering alone in a hovel.

The solution: Devote one hour a day to writing novels.

Right away I realized that I might not have an hour every day, but I also knew that I could probably find extra time some evenings and weekends. If I set a goal of seven hours a week and only achieved half of that, I was still ahead of wishing but not writing. Before the year was out, I had the first draft of a novel completed. On top of that, I met people who wanted to help and support me. The road was wider than I could see from behind that first little crack that I opened in the door. That’s what happens when you give your dream even half a chance. It picks you up and carries you away, without demanding you give up on the mortgage, the grocery bill, the nest egg. It’s a safer journey that it seems, and then again, it’s not. It wouldn’t be any fun if there weren’t a few surprises.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Finding the time to sit and write can be a challenge. I’ve heard a few successful writers say that they write every day, seven days a week. I’ve done that before, but I also find that time away from the page can be invigorating. Chances to meet people, watch the world, listen, and live. While vacationing in Cancun last week, I thought I would find writing time every day. It didn’t happen. But I came away refreshed and full of new experiences. I met interesting people from different parts of the US and from around the world, people with ideas different from my own. If I had it to do over, instead of taking my computer, I would have taken my Little Book of Ideas.

I agree with the adage: A writer writes, but that is not all a writer does—she observes, contemplates, and forms opinions. I’m leaning toward a goal of six and six—six hours, six days a week. How important is downtime to your writing? Do you get your best ideas staring at the page or from your life experiences?

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Writing Process

Sometimes it’s fun to sit down and just start writing, see where it leads. This might start with a character, a setting, or a situation. The writer sits down on the park bench and observes two lovers arguing or climbs aboard a bus and watches the world go by. Taking off on these journeys to points unknown can be delightful, but they can also lead to dead ends. The writer pours out thoughts and images and suddenly she stops and asks, “What am I doing here? Where do I go now?”

Adopting this process can lead to a lot of retraced steps, which in a writer’s world means going back over recently traveled territory. I like meandering. I don’t like rework. That isn’t to say that I don’t like rewriting, but I like to start with a first draft that feels as if it has at least landed in the general vicinity indicated by the flight plan. Of course, that means I have to start with a flight plan.

I find that my chances of getting a story where I want it to go increase when I have done some background work—character sketches, summaries of the main conflict, and descriptions of the setting. I’m still surprised by the twists and turns the story makes as it glides over unexpected air currents and runs into storms that weren’t predicted by the original plan. I have more fun because I stay on track and arrive at an interesting destination. I can’t predict everything that might happen along the way, but I have tools to help me stay the course. I find I can cut back the rewriting process by as much as 75 percent. I use that time to develop new stories.

How do you feel about using outlines or other tools to guide your fiction writing? If you do use them, what tools are you using? Does the planning process improve your stories? Save you time?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Embarrassing Moments Enrich Stories

Embarrassing moments make better memories than current events. I don't want to live through them, but they are great fodder for stories, books, and movies. Some of my favorite stories center around the most mundane events—like running into someone wearing the same clothes as you (or me). Events that turn the cheeks red even in retrospect. Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” explores one potential result of living through just such an embarrassing moment.

My last personal embarrassing experience was seeing someone and waving as if I knew the person (I thought I did), only to realize it was a case of mistaken identity. Why I should feel stupid because someone I don't know reminded me of someone I do know remains a mystery.

Willing to share some embarrassing moments, either lived through or experienced vicariously?