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.

Character Motivation — Analyzing your Characters

I popped into the grocery store for a few items. I almost didn’t need a cart. As I started to unload at the checkout, a large woman in a baggy coat charged at me and practically yelled, “Can I go in front of you!” It wasn’t a question.

Usually when I’m in line at a store and someone behind me has only a few items, I always ask if they want to go ahead of me. So why did this woman irritate me so? It wasn’t like I was in a rush for an appointment, or that I may have left starving, wailing children and husband at home. As she counted out her pennies from her coin purse to give the exact change (when my swipe of a credit card is so much faster), I had to stop to breathe deeply and analyze why I was so upset.

Could it be because I didn’t have the opportunity to be gracious and kind and offer the woman the spot in front of me like I normally do? (i.e., my gift-giving was snatched away)

Could it be that I had six items in a cart and she carried her two items by hand? (i.e., not much of a difference in ringing up the items, so why did she need to be ahead?)

Could it be that I felt forced to say, “Why, yes, of course” instead of being given a choice? (i.e., I’m all about options)

Could it be that this woman didn’t even take the time to say thank you? (i.e., how uncouth)

Could it be that I knew she could beat me up with or without her cookies? (i.e., terror motivates many an action)

The reason I got upset may have been some of all those. I’d hoped to get out into the parking lot and pull out before she did just to let her see how fast I was. But once outside I didn’t see her. I recalled a quote: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Was the baggy lady with her two bags of cookies really an angel in disguise? If so, I certainly failed any spiritual or good character test. Even though I had done the polite action. My attitude did not parallel my action.

This bitty incident in the grocery store made me think of my book characters. How well do I really know them? How well do I really express in my language their true motivations?

So, here’s your writing challenge: Take this situation, but put your own characters in it. How would X respond-reply-act to this woman? How would Y respond-reply-act to this woman? And continue plugging in your various characters into the same situation.

Happy writing. (And now back to NaNoWriMo.)

You’ll End Up In My Novel

My husband bought me a T-shirt which reads: Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.

I don’t normally wear T-shirts with writing on them in public, but tomorrow, I’ll boldly be wearing this one at the Leilapalooza Music Fest in Battle Creek, MI. Because I write historical fiction (with some fantasy books tossed in), I have an 1850’s hoop skirt outfit I wear to presentations, or an 1890’s Victorian outfit to do the same. But a music festival with sixty bands playing throughout the day and evening on six stages? Naw. Victorian clothing would not be the proper attire. Perhaps if I went more steam-punk, but I haven’t got that. So… a grey T-shirt with “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel” seems appropriate. (Who would have ever thought when I started writing decades ago that I would have to make fashion decisions when presenting or representing my books?)

Of course, I have a disclaimer in the front pages of my books about any similarity to characters being coincidental, plus I wouldn’t make a big, bad bully in my real life recognizable for fear of my life. I’d change the age, gender, nationality, etc. Unrecognizable, except in my memory. There are some characters out there in real life who are stunning, and I don’t mean that in the beautiful sort of way, but in the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks-and-hope-they-don’t-catch-you-staring sort of way. After attending nine Sturgis Motorcycle Rallys in South Dakota, I can tell you that not many outfits or lack thereof surprise me. But characterization goes far deeper than just the clothing.

They used to be refered to as “tags” — various aspects of a person’s character. The style of clothing. Color of hair, eyes, skin. A “prop,” like a pipe or wand or parrot on shoulder. A physical character, like a twitch, chewing on a toothpick, or the walk. The voice, scratchy, low, stuttering. Actions and reactions. Introvert or extrovert. Much variety.

People are made up of many characteristics. So tomorrow as I sit in my booth, smiling at you, telling you about history and hoping you’ll buy one of my books, my warning holds: Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.

Happy New Year! (and a writing challenge)

I’m all about celebrations. It’s a day late, but Happy New Year! Yesterday was the first day of Advent, that is, the 4th Sunday leading up to Christmas. This is the Christian New Year. Happy New Year!

For centuries we westerners have lived with the Julian or Gregorian calendars, that most people forget this little fact of the celebration; and then, that the Christmas season actually starts on the 25th and goes to Epiphany, the time when the wise men (astrologers from Asia) came to find the King predicted in the stars. I state this fact in case any of you wonder why we are the last ones in the neighborhood to take down our tree and decorations. It’s tradition. Christian tradition. We also have Chinese take-out on Epiphany. (Get it?)

Of course, because the story of the birth of Christ includes lambs probably meant the birth was actually in the springtime (so say scholars). But then centuries ago, non-Christians all around celebrated the longest night of the year with light and fire, Christians popped up with the brilliant idea to celebrate the birth of the Light of the World during this same dark time. (All those lights on trees and houses at Christmas? Get it?)

People worldwide love festivals and celebrations. So why aren’t there more of them in our stories? How b-o-r-i-n-g to go through life without celebrations of reminders. Long ago people started festivals to help the illiterate to remember dates of the year.

Rural Ethiopians don’t have birthdays. Well, they are born, of course, but they don’t have annual reminders of that date, not unless they were born at a missionary hospital where records like that are kept. The older I get, the smarter I think Ethiopians are in this matter.

So my writing challenge to you readers is to center a scene or chapter around some sort of festival or celebration. You could even make up one. I give you permission. We Carlsons do that all the time. We’re all about partying.

Oh, and happy new year.




Writing Nasty Smells

Have you ever visited or driven past a chicken farm? My grandparents had a farm. They kept about twenty chickens. Not that. I’m talking about a chicken farm holding thousands of chickens. In Iowa, we lived about ten miles from a chicken farm. I remember as we drove that highway and neared this one particular hill before reaching the farm, I would take a deep breath and step on the pedal (only if I were driving, of course). I found the exact location where the smell would start to hold my breath to and just past the farm. That almost worked. But thousands of chickens radiate their aroma. And when I could hold my breath no any longer (and me a past synchronized swimmer), after blowing out, I have to suck a deep breath, which sent the fowl fumes plunging into my lungs. I guessing it’s not actually the chickens which smell nasty; I’m thinking it’s their poo.

The other day, my husband was visiting a dying person in a nursing home. Most nursing homes have their unique smell, too. I didn’t know the person so decided to wait in the car. Thirty minutes later he came out. The 93-year-old had just passed moments before he stepped into the room. Her daughter was with her, so my husband and her spent that thirty minutes together, talking about her mom and what to do next. Fast forward the thirty-minute visit. The moment my husband stepped into the car, I rolled down the windows. He stank. Death gases escaping the corpse in a small room had clung to him. Death really does stink. It’s a unique smell, nothing like a large chicken farm, but nasty to the  olfactory glands.

Other nasty smells I quite vividly remember — a smashed rotten egg on my grandparents’ farm in Ohio, and a rotting hog corpse along a bank of a narrow waterway my husband and I canoed off the Erie Canal in New York. Vivid. My entire body quivers at the memories.

But I wonder… can we really describe with words nasty smells, or can we only describe our reaction to them? We can parallel the smell to another smell, but that’s not the same thing.

What’s a vivid nasty smell you remember? Can you describe your reaction to it? Can you describe the smell itself?

Wordsmithing in Verse

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At first I thought this goal of writing a poem a day during National Poetry Month was just another writing challenge. Then, I thought writing them was lofty, poetic, oh so literary. Then, I panicked, because I know I’m no poet and couldn’t tell good from bad. I can’t even rhyme. I craved to give up this challenge after the first few days. After all, I didn’t even have a Poetry Month Partner to encourage me along the rocky way.

I’ve found writing poetry HARD. Writing good poetry takes talent. But if I fail in this challenge, then I fail as a writer. Why? Because if I am unable to pick my words well in short focused pieces, how can I choose my words well in larger works? Word detail is vital. Accent, tone, and each syllable is important. What an awareness! I’m thinking that every novelist needs to engage in poetry writing for a time.

My Tools of the Poetry Trade: Usually I write with keyboard beneath my fingertips. But in this month-long experiment (well, only a week so far), I’m finding myself using pencil and paper more than any other time. I write down snatches of ideas for poems. I use the eraser a lot. Revisions take on an entirely new dimension. I also use a printed Thesaurus. I haven’t done that in decades. Lately, I’ve lazily depended upon computer-generated words. Soon, though, I may come to the thinking that even using a Thesaurus is lazy.

The very interesting thing I’ve concluded now is that I’ve also found that writing poetry is FUN. There are so many venues. I’ve written sentimental pieces, silly ones from a child’s point of view, love songs, nature and gardening prose, couplets, snatches of ideas. The variety of possibilities is nearly endless, and best yet, I am not limited. I am no longer scared to try wordsmithing in verse. I’m thinking next time National Poetry Month rolls around, I may focus more, like write 30 limericks about nature. Surely, just for the sheer weight of my words, there will have to be one or two which is audience readable.

Onward to engage in my poem of the day.

Voice Workshop – Introduction

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My on-line critique group has taken a break from our weekly critiquing now and then to do workshops. Since “voice” is big with agents and editors now, and we have been talking about it for the past year or more, this week our critique group is doing a Voice Workshop together, led by our own, Rose Green. Then here, smack-dab in the middle of the week, I got this brilliant idea that next week we each write a post on our blogs on Voice, as sort of a term paper summary from this week.

It will take a while to soak in all the things we’ve been learning, so I may be compartmentalizing into more than one post next week. I always tended to be a rule breaker, even when I was the one making up the rules.

What we hope to discover in our Voice Workshop is:

1) What is Voice?

2) How do you create Voice?

3) What kinds of Voice appeal to you?

See you next week.

Face to the Grind — Writing Challenge


Grand Traverse Bay

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Face to the grind.. Not quite sure what that means, except that it sounds painful. I’ve got my face to the grind, working on NaNoWriMo this month. It’s not painful, actually; it simply requires discipline. Then again, perhaps that is painful in a sense.

From participating last year, I know the NaNoWriMo group gives ideas periodically for what to write about for the day, in order to add to your word count. Just like never getting bored, I never have trouble thinking up things to write. What I have trouble with is the discipline of writing. Therein lies my writing challenge for you — do some raw writing about this photo I took on a trip up north last week. Set the timer for ten minutes… Ready? Set? Go.

Daily Writing Word Counts

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I have found that when I record the number of words I’ve written every day, I hold myself MUCH MORE accountable… er… to me. It’s rather like eating or exercising. When you write down everything you shoot past your lips, you get a fairly accurate reading on how many calories you have eaten. When you put on the timer and exercise, v.s. “oh, that’s good enough; I’ve got other things to do now,” then you know exactly how much you’ve exercised.

Do the same with writing. Record your daily word count. I used to record emails and journaling, and would have counted my blogs, too, but I don’t do that any more. It feels like I’m cheating. My DWC (daily word count) is for actual someday-this-puppy’s-gonna-get-published writing, even if it’s background stuff, or very drecky rough draft stuff.

So, write, and record. Hold yourself accountable.

Poor Ole Secondary Characters

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As I was writing on my story this week, suddenly one of the secondary characters died.

Wait one minute! That wasn’t in the outline! Who was typing when that happened?

But then I thought to myself: total twist in the plot element. Cool. So I’m keeping him dead, poor guy. I just must take some think-time now to rework a few things, well, like the rest of the story, basically. Still, very cool.

Before this, I have intentionally gotten rid of characters, even main characters who didn’t serve any purpose except to give company to the main character. A parrot would have been more interesting. For me, taking out one of the major players was simply boring revision junk, to get rid of any sign the person existed.

Writing Challenge: Is each one of your characters essential to the plot? To the MC? Might a couple of them be combined, and still accomplish the same thing?

Poor ole secondary characters. Every last one of mine are now shaking in their paper boots.