Identifying and Setting Priorities

When we were younger, my husband and I used to say two things stopped us from doing many things we wanted to do: time and money. As we’ve gotten older,  we’ve added a third thing: energy.

Identifying what you do

Make a percentage of your waking hours and mark off: 1) what you do which takes up your time in a day or week; 2) what you spend money on in a day or in a week (or month); and 3) what you feel enthused about doing in a day or week.

Analyzing what you do

Look at your percentages. What do you spend time and money and energy on which is necessary (e.g., shelter and food)? IIs your present square footage of living space what you need or what you want? Do you eat out because you appreciate the treat, because you don’t like to cook, or something else? And what do you spend time and money and energy on which refreshes and renews you? What do you really want to do to spend your time and money and energy?

Prioritizing what you do

The last question above should be your goal for how to spend your time and money and energy. Never forget your dreams. There may be times when you can’t do anything else (e.g., pay for school or medical expenses). But through it all, keep your sights on your vision. And keep on writing, which, if you’re reading this blog, I hope is a priority.

Storytelling and Writing/ Repetition and Revision

Last week I had the privilege to spend a few days with my grandkids, one-month-old twins and a three-year-old. I’d taken my laptop along to write in my spare time–there’s always so much to be working on–but oh, hahahaha, I found that the only spare time was when I slept. (I really don’t know how young mothers find time to write. Really.)

Last January, I’d tell my smart-as-a-whip three-year-old Nursery Rhymes. If she liked it she’d say, “Again.” By the fourth time through, the kid was reciting the rhyme with me. This last visit, because there was often a babe in my arms, I told her folk tales instead.

Once when I asked if she wanted to hear about the Three Little Pigs, she said, “NO!” So I turned to her baby brother in my arms and asked him if he wanted to hear the story. He stared at me, flailing his arms and kicking, anxious for me to get on with it. I told the boy the story of the pigs with his older sister kneeling beside me on the couch, facing me, but not saying a word. It became one of her two favorite “tell it again” stories this visit. Interestingly enough (but not really), I found that each time I told it, I tweeked it a bit, I stumbled over my wording less, until it was storytelling perfection, until at last my telling had come to a point where there wasn’t a word I wanted to change. The three-year-old and I would do a Reader’s Theatre (without us reading, of course), and switch roles of who said the lines of the Big Bad Wolf and who spoke the lines of the Three Little Pigs. I was always the narrator.

Naturally, most of what I do, even if not writing, I can relate back to writing. The retelling over and over of the Three Little Pigs until there wasn’t any word to change reminded me of revisions of my own tales. Every time I read something I’ve written, there’s always some phrase I can rewrite better, always unnecessary words I can cut out, always points where I can add more feeeeeelings.

My writing challenge to you: Keep rewriting until there isn’t a single word you would want to change.

Art and Art Lessons Learned — Watercoloring and Writing

Last night I attended a watercoloring demo with Ken Dey at the Battle Creek Art Center. I’ve taken watercolor classes before, but this style of demo was new to my experience. (And thank you, all my illustrator friends, for your cheers and encouragement at my untalented-but-willing painting-for-fun efforts.)

I do like to dabble with both sketches and paints, but I’ve never felt I was very good. That said, I know from my writing experience the more practice and more I study about the craft, the better I become. But any craft takes time to learn in order to get it…acceptable for others’ eyes. Time is a huge factor in pursuits. At least for me.

With most of my adult life focused on writing (v.s. illustrating), it wasn’t much of a surprise to find my mind last night translating what Ken was teaching into writing. So here are the things I parallel-learned from last night’s demo:

1)  Study and practice your craft under someone who is more experienced than you, someone who also answers even the most basic questions. (For writers, these can be conferences, workshops, webinars, writing craft book clubs, etc.)

2) Good equipment and materials make the act of doing your craft more seamless. (For illustrators, a workspace, paper, paint, and brushes; for writers, a workspace, working computer (or paper and pen), related computer programs.)

3) Have a plan. (Illustrators–sketches; Writers–theme, plot outline, and character sheets)

4) Start with general placement. (Watercolorers–wet on wet, section by section; Writers–rough draft, or what I call Raw Writing, loosely following the Three Act plan until your story is “done.”)

5) Take time to let it set. (Painters–wait till the next day, or use a hair dryer; Writers–time is your hairdryer. There’s no rushing the set time for us. Put your story aside a few days or months and come back to it with fresh eyes.)

6) Go back to fill in details. (For artists this would mean tree branches, grass blades, shadows, removing gumm, etc. For writers this is what we call “revisions,” like making clearer motivations for each action, working on language to make your words count, making sure your readers can use their five senses which you’ve planted in your scenes, etc.)

7) Say thank you to your friend who invited you to the demo (or whatever), and make sure to invite others to things you care about as well. (It’s a lot about connections and networking, people.)

A Taste of Outsider Plots (with thoughts from Cheryl Klein)

I know. I know. Two weeks in a row with a book review (of sorts). My excuse: I’m on vacation, so tend to read non-fiction I can pick up and put down at any time, either to think about what I’ve read or because vacation interrupts my reading. With fiction, I’m more of a cover-to-cover in a breath or two sort of reader, hence the NF.

So this week I’ve been reading SECOND SIGHT, AN EDITOR’S TALKS ON WRITING, REVISING & PUBLISHING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS (December 2013) by Cheryl B. Klein.

First off, I love Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein, and would love to work with her and her stunning insights…That said even though she has very politely rejected everything I’ve sent her. My association: I was once her Personal Assistant for a SCBWI-Michigan conference years ago, and eat up her words of editorial wisdom.

Naturally, I would recommend reading her entire book, but for this post, I’d like to share an example of two “Outsider Plot Structures” she mentions. One is the “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” outsider — someone different who is scorned by the community, but saves them, anyway. The other is the “Ugly Duckling” outsider — someone scorned by the community, who ends up leaving to find his own like-minded kind.

Isn’t that just brilliantly simple? And that’s just from half a page of her 305-page book! Did I mention that I love Cheryl Klein? So if you’re stuck on plot and need a writing or rewriting challenge, when you’re on vacation (or now), pick up Cheryl’s book to keep you on your writing toes.

The Artist’s Way Revisited

For you writers who have not gone through an Artist’s Way course…why haven’t you? Perhaps you’ve heard of the benefits of Morning Pages or the Artist’s Date? Those come from this course.

THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron is a must-read-must-do book for all writers, artists, composers, and other creators (but especially for writers). It is a twelve-week course, with each week’s chapter starting with the word “Recovering.”

I’d heard mummers of it in the writing community when it first came out. A friend took it as a college course. I went through it in an on-line group (with strangers). Now, several years later, I’m going through it again on my own. I appreciate going through THE ARTIST’S WAY as a course or on-line group because then you can whine and complain about how you can’t do some of the things or how hard they are, as well as sharing the joys of recovering your creativity. I like going through the book alone now because I can jump around the chapters or select only some of the activities, plus I have no time factor of when assignments must be done.

In each chapter there are tasks or activities to do. For instance, in week seven you are supposed to make a Jealousy Map. Who in their right mind wants to think about negatives things like jealousy? Well, by doing this exercise (one of several in this chapter), you begin to rethink things. You are to list the who (you are jealous of), why, and one action to move out of jealousy. For one of the examples Cameron gives:  Who (my sister Libby); Why (she has a real art studio); Action Antidote (fix the spare room). An example from me: Who (Stephen King); Why (he writes half the day then takes l-o-n-g walks in the afternoons); My action antidote (write 30 minutes each day and take a 30 minute walk each day, with hopes of increasing those times). With baby steps you can move forward, plus get rid of the negative (jealous) feelings in order to move on to your own creativity.

So if you feel in the middle of winter blues and need a creative perk to get you out of your glum-chum mood, or are simply curious about a way to increase your creativity, I recommend THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron.

Commercial over, but I encourage you to renew your creativity. Learn. Think. Grow. Write.

A Writer’s Death. A Writer’s Vow.

A writer friend died this past Sunday. It’s rare these days that writers actually meet face-to-face (except at conferences), as writing, out of necessity, tends to be such a solitary activity in our busy lives. But writers bond, no matter our differences. Deb and I were in the monthly Black Hill Writers Group 10-20 years ago. I moved to Michigan. Later, she moved to be with family in Indiana. We’d both left “the group,” but now we were only five hours near to each other! We often wrote of getting together. We never did.

Deb and I didn’t write in the same genre, nor even for the same age group. We also had major differences of life opinion, but we still called each other “friend.” She, too, lived long enough to be a Grandma. She will be missed, both by her family and friends, and by the writing and reading community who knew her.

Besides just the life and death thing — making the most of our time on this earth before we haven’t any more — I can’t express how old I feel at the moment. As my parents aged, they’d hear of friends dying, friends they’d always intended to get together with one more time. Too late. Now, for the first time in my life, I relate. I see The Lion King song “The Circle of Life” relates not just to births, but also to deaths.

I write this post still numbed and raw from the news of Deb’s death, yet think for the millionth time wonder again why I am here and how can I best make use of my mortal life. As a Christian, I feel certain of my life after death. My death is not a worry for me. I’ll be sad for the sadness I’ll leave behind, but for me it’s merely a step from shadow through a doorway to clarity. My concern is more about what I do and say and think here in this time, in this body, on this earth. Unless we humans destroy each other, or a meteor puts a big bang into our planet, etc., I want to make my moments count. I’ll never be a great politician, nor famous for my work with poor or diseased or spiritually deprived, but I am a writer.  I can’t stop school shootings, nor planes crashing, but I can write. And writing goes beyond the grave.

This writer’s vow is not just to pound out word-counts, but each month to improve my craft so my words can relate smoothly to my readers. This writer’s vow is to maintain contact with and encourage other writers, both on-line and face-to-face. This writer’s vow is to be more observant of people and events around me and to deeply think about them so I can not only help, but someday perhaps write about them.

Live. Observe. Write.

What to do About Those Brain-Suckers

I’ve recently returned home from ten days of helping with twin newborn grandbabies and their three-year-old sister. What an honor to be there just the day they were born and able to help with the initial care of this beautiful, growing family. Also, getting to play with a pre-school-mind-sponge was tons of tiring fun.

I was so prepared for this out-of-state adventure. I’d taken several books and finger-puppets for kiddo, and my new laptop, two books to read, and three notebooks for different projects for me, as well as all my state tax information, for I fully intended to do some writing and reading and related business in my spare time.

Spare time? Oh, hahahahaha!

When I wasn’t playing, changing diapers, cuddling criers, sweeping, mopping, washing dishes and clothes, reading picture books, giving baths, braiding hair, acting out nursery rhymes with finger-puppets, fixing meals, cleaning the kitty litter, finding appropriate 3-year-old programs to watch, etc., I was so tired I simply could not think; that is, think creatively enough to put words down onto paper (or computer).

This brain-sucking reminds me of a man from church who had a heart attack. (Yes, this is relative to baby care.) When he was recovering at home, his wife asked him if he needed anything from the store. He answered, “Pampers.” They are in their 70’s. No babies needing Pampers in their house. So she pursued: “Why do we need Pampers?” “For the cat.” It took her a while to figure out he was searching for the words “kitty litter,” but the heart attack so affected his mind that finding the right word choice was difficult.

Today at the grocery store the clerk asked me if I wanted paper or plastic bags. I stared at her open-mouthed as if answering that question was like trying to calculate the distance between Mars and Jupiter in meters.

Medical conditions, emotional problems, or even the best of stress (like lapping up Grandma time) and being doggone tired does funny things to your mind and thought process and writing time.

Can you write during these times? Or better yet, should you write during these times?

Stepping back from those past ten days and slowly recovering (but willing to return in a heartbeat), I’ve realized three things:

1) Family always, always comes first;

2) No matter how idealistic it is to strive for the “write every day” banner, there are just going to be some life times when it’s not feasible to do so; and

3) Take a deep breath and give yourself a temporary guilt-free writing pass.

And now for a bit of grandparent awww:

A Grandparents & 1st day twins

Writing is What Happens While You’re Living Your Life

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression: “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.”

I’ve got another one for writers which I just came up with: “Writing is what happens while you’re living your life.”

Through the years I’ve read dozens of articles, books, posts, etc. about how to write every day regardless of the situations thrown at you. I’m more of the feast or famine type of writer. Given the time, I can easily write 2,667 words in a day, but I refuse to feel guilty if a day or few go past and I haven’t written anything on my WIP.

In life, there are the Big Seven for causing stress in your life, all of which I’ve gone through personally or with a family member or close friend. They are birth (or other things related to children), sickness, death, divorce (or relational breakup), job change, changing of housing location, and…can’t remember. Probably something about losing your mental facilities. Actually, all of the Big Seven have to do with loss of some sort. Oh. The seventh has to do with money.

As a living writer, during any given week of life you may go through one or some of these Big Seven, along with the thousands of other smaller life distractions. That’s the challenge for any writer. The trick to being a writer is to write.

Just like athletes or people wanting to lose weight, partners can help you stick to your goals. Without my critique groups and other writing groups, I wouldn’t have the discipline to pound out chapters. There’s just too much life stuff going on all the time causing disturbances in my writing time to be able to write without a commitment to others.

My sister-in-law died this week. Sad. I live in the moment with the relatives, but I still write.

Next week I’ll be a grandmother of twins. I’ll desert my dear hubby and go the five hours around the pond to be a baby-nurse and toddler-helper (and maybe cook and housekeeper) for an unspecified amount of time (probably until just short of homicide; dead fish, guests, and all). I’m thankful I’m healthy enough and unemployed enough to be able to help out — not to mention lapping up tons of Grandma Time. Will I have the energy in all my spare time to do writing? Somehow I think this might be one of those writing famine times. Then again, with writing, I can usually control my characters, or else say, “I can’t belive you just did that,” then wait a day or few for a proper, civilized response. Whether I actually write or not, I’ll be storing up plenty of life experience things to incorporate into my future writing.

But my very best advice, and challenge, to writers is: Don’t quit. Keep on writing.

Happy 2015! New Year’s Goals

I stopped making resolutions years ago. Now I make goals. That way I don’t break them, I just may not reach them. It seems gentler.

This year I plan on revising two MG stories I wrote about 20 years ago and either subbing traditionally or self-publishing. For my Raw Writing (first drafts), I’d like to write more on the collaborative fantasy I’m writing with my son as well as the sequel to WAR UNICORN and work on another MG historical fiction. I also need to learn more about marketing and promotion. I’ve learned a lot these past two years, a whole lot, but it’s just a smidgen of what I should know.

Are these big goals to reach for 2015? You betcha. Will I make them? Find out in December. I write them here to make myself accountable. Thank you for holding me accountable.

Your turn. What are your 2015 Writing Goals?

Burnt Nuts for Breakfast — Revisions or Rewrite?

After making Chex Mix (R) every year since cereal was invented, today I burnt my first batch. Last night I’d left the ingredients out so I could make it first thing in the morning while I did an extended morning workout between the scheduled stir times. Only, before the hour time of baking was up, I noticed that distinct burnt smell filling my kitchen. The only thing I can think of was that because it was early morning, and I didn’t want to turn on the bright overhead lights but used a small side light, this may have meant I pressed in the wrong oven temperature. I also may not have stirred as often as in past times because, well, I was multitasking, after all.

So here was my burnt batch of Christmas treats–with a full extra can of cashews added to the mix!

On went the overhead light to see how much, if any, I could salvage. I put a plate on one side for the burnt pieces and a bowl on the other for the non-burnt pieces. I picked out the obvious ones, and dusted the burnt crumbs off of some bits. I taste-tested many of the sad-looking, dried-out nuts to see if others with those same hues and shrivels should go to the good pile or bad. I’d made a double batch, and it was taking me forever to pick out each individual piece. Plus, my stomach wasn’t feeling too hot from eating all those burnt nuts for breakfast.

All this got me thinking about writing (of course). Or in this case, revisions v.s. rewriting. With any novel I finish and set aside for a time, I always find things which need some serious work. There are pieces which can be fixed with revisions. With other novels I feel need for a total rewrite. And still others were obviously merely for keyboard typing practice.

You, the author of your finished work, are in charge of your words. Should you go over your novel and hand-pick word-by-word, line-by-line to make it good? Or should you toss the entire batch, I mean, manuscript, and start from scratch with a rewrite? Whichever way you choose, choose, but please don’t serve burnt nuts. (I also don’t recommend eating them.) After all, what is your end goal? Isn’t it to provide good taste for your readers (or relatives’ tummies)? Never, ever be satisfied with burnt.

Happy reading, writing,…and eating.