How Poetry Made Me A Better Writer

Poetry is the gift that keeps on giving.

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***Originally written for The Odyssey Online in 2017***

Poetry is a curious beast, to say the least. (Hey look, it rhymes! LOL.) It can be beautiful and intriguing, but devilishly hard to understand, and even harder to write, or at least write well. I have loved poetry since I was a child, and filled up several notebooks over the years with my own poems, or, more accurately, my “efforts at poetry.” Though I have never considered poetry my “main writing gig,” I do admire the genre and feel I am beginning to get a grasp on writing it. A kinda, sorta, infant-like grasp.
***UPDATE: I have since had several poems published so I am officially out of pre-school. 😀 ***

But what I really want to share here, is the great influence poetry had and still has upon my fiction. Some of you might be wondering how that could be so. Poetry, especially modern poetry, is short, and often highly personal and not as clear-cut as straight prose or fiction writing. But poetry has taught me two valuable lessons that have helped me tell better stories:

1. Notice the small details

Poems focus to a great extent on small details and subtle nuances. The way light glimmers off of broken glass. The smell of autumn leaves. The way a person removes their gloves or holds their coffee cup. Yes, this is found in fiction too and plenty of books on how to write fiction, but I have to say that poetry has been my greatest teacher when it comes to observing tiny details and learning how to bring those details to life on the page, which is the essence of writing. That brings me to my second point.

2. Unique Descriptions

Poems are nothing if not unique. Reading them or listening to others read them, you will encounter similes and metaphors that you have never heard before, that capture the image or feeling of the subject so well that you remember them for days or years to come. Reading poetry or attending a poetry reading are kindling for my writing fire, and sometimes the whole ton of logs. I really credit my love of description to all of the poetry, both classical and modern, that I have enjoyed over the years.

My advice to all writers: explore some poetry. Even if you don’t particularly like it, you may learn some valuable lessons and others too. You might also find that you love it, and the things we love often become our creative inspiration.

 

Write on!

Cover Image Credit: pixabay

Is Writer’s Block Fact or Fiction?

I am pretty sure that, despite being often being invoked as a lame excuse, writer’s block is sometimes real.

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*** Originally written for The Odyssey Online in 2017 ***

Every  writer has heard of it and every writer dreads it: writer’s block. Though this “malady” seems to strike word nerds across the board at some point, there is debate as to whether it is a real phenomenon or just a cheap excuse not to park your keester in front of your computer and get the keys hot. Truthfully, I have found myself on both sides of the argument at different times of my life. What is my current take on it? I am going to say that yes, in some cases, it is real.

Now we all know that many writers are epic procrastinators and frequently cite assorted reasons why they are unable to write. But beneath those reasons lie a mere lack of motivation and discipline. And then sometimes, life really does happen and you need to attend to real-world issues, which is perfectly understandable. That’s called being a human

However, I have experienced episodes of what I can only describe as “block.” This block goes far beyond knowing exactly what I need to do next in my story and how to do it, but deciding to binge watch episodes of “My Haunted House” instead and eat my way through a bag of miniature Butterfingers. That’s laziness. Pathetic laziness, often rooted in fear of an impending challenge.

But block? It sucks. You want to write, but for some reason your brain is like an overactive beagle puppy cooped up in the house on a rainy day; it can’t sit still long enough to focus and does not want to do what it is told. Furthermore, and this in my opinion is the worst part, if you try to push through the block and force yourself to write, you end up with god-awful dribble on the paper in front of you that is so uninspiring, it is not worth pursuing.

It happened to me after I finished the first draft of my third novel. I knew what I had to do and wanted to do it, but I felt like I was walking through drying concrete. Like a good little trooper, I slogged through for a while, but finally I had to take a hiatus that lasted for several months. Those first seven chapters that I rewrote when I was struggling are quite frankly mediocre and need to be rewritten again.

I have no explanation for it, but I do remember feeling sort of empty, like a corn field that had been picked clean of its crop. Only husks of my creativity remained and I needed to wait for next year to come back to life. I had given all I had to give and now I needed to rest and replenish.

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Maybe this is just the natural ebb and flow of life at work. Everything after all comes in cycles and I assume creativity is no different. Writing is satisfying but challenging work and maybe our brains really do need a break occasionally. Knowing when to retreat is just as valuable as knowing when to forge ahead. Retreating though does not mean you lost the war; you’re just recouping and waiting to come out in full force again.

So yes, I am pretty sure that writer’s block, despite often being invoked as a lame excuse, is sometimes a bonafide issue. What it is not though, is a good reason to completely give up and abandon a project. Give yourself a rest if need be; and then when you’re ready, give it everything you got!

 

Write on!

Cover Image Credit: Pixbay

Three Things I Learned From Writing Historical Romance

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*** Originally written for The Odyssey Online in 2017. **

As you may recall from my previous posts, I am in the process of rewriting my novel, a love story set in the 18th century. I have always been a history buff and deep down, I think I always wanted to write a historical work, sans vampires or any other paranormal elements. However, I always thought it too difficult a project to tackle and far beyond my capability. At last, the itch grew too strong and I began work on one in earnest. Dedicating countless hours to research and incorporating that research into my writing has certainly been no cake walk, but it has proven to be a fascinating romp through yesteryear. During my journey, I have learned a few things.

1. History is not necessarily what we believe it to be.

I have discovered that many people have what I refer to as “pop culture” ideas of historical figures, events, and entire eras. I certainly did. Misinformation prevails and we often have partially developed ideas about the past and its people or downright incorrect ones.

History is frequently not as cut and dried as we believe either, especially when it comes to conflicts. Sometimes one side was downright wrong and were truly “the bad guys.” Sometimes both sides were downright wrong and downright horrible to each other and sometimes both sides had valid points and reasons for their behavior. There are many angles to be considered. Rather than being black and white, a lot of our planet’s past is a shade of gray, sometimes closer to black, sometimes closer to white.

2. Historians are NOT impartial.

As a bumbling novice, I assumed that historians, like judges are supposed to be, were impartial. They researched and reported on facts and that was all. But apparently, that is not what historians do–at least from what I have seen. These dedicated people do tons of research and then build a case around that research. Each historian has a different interpretation of the very same events or people.

As a storyteller, you will need to read widely to get a good grasp of the history you are working with. But, you will need to more or less take a side and even cherry pick facts to a certain extent. Align with the interpretation that fits your story best and run with it to build your own “case” and garner empathy and sympathy for your characters.

3. You will develop a galloping fear of being wrong.

We have all heard the hair-raising accounts of them. The dreaded nit-picky reader who will leave a one-star review or fire off an angry e-mail over a minor inaccuracy in a story. It doesn’t sound like much but one bad review or snarky message can shoo other readers away from your book or cripple your confidence in your writing ability.

You imagine this happening to you (after publication, of course) and it begins to hang over your head. Soon, you develop a phobia of screwing up your facts or even overlooking something entirely and making a complete idiot of yourself.

Yes, we are often accidental philosophers, analyzing and shedding light on the human experience, but at our core, we are entertainers. As hard as we might try with our research, we cannot and should not bill ourselves as experts or historians–unless that is literally your day job. I personally feel that we should strive for excellence in all that we do and make a solid attempt at portraying the world we are building correctly. But, at the end of the day, my work is still one of fiction, a world in which things have to make sense. My portrayal may be largely accurate, but should not to be taken as a scholarly dissertation.

My journey is nowhere near its end yet. I still have books sitting around which I have not finished or even cracked, and the learning continues–both historical and writing-wise. After two and a half years of research and writing and rewriting, I admit I still feel like an amateur. People may wonder why anyone would undertake such a difficult project when there is no guarantee of literary or financial success. For me, it’s a labor of love, born from a drive to write mingled with a fascination with humanity’s past. Hopefully, I will get to share it with the rest of the world.

Write on!

 

Cover Image Credit: Pixabay

 

 

Why Do Writers Love Coffee Shops?

This writer chick can think of a few good reasons.

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*** An article I originally wrote for The Odyssey Online in 2017.***

Pop culture insinuates that writers and coffee shops go together like peanut butter and jelly. I have even seen memes on Facebook goofing on writers “feeling the need” to “be seen” in coffee shops. Apparently, some people view this as a vanity on the writer’s part, whom is assumed to be a hopeless and self-absorbed amateur, trying to prove they are a real writer.

 

1. It Fosters Creativity

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Sometimes a change of scenery really does “clear out the cobwebs,” so to speak. An influx of new energy can breathe life back into your piece or back into your writing brain if you find yourself struggling.

2. It’s Easier to Concentrate and Drift Off Into Story Land

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Some writers would surely argue on this point as they find themselves too easily distracted by the hustle and bustle around them. That is understandable. For me, it works the opposite way. At home, with the TV on, the phone ringing, adorable cats and dogs demanding attention, and conversations possibly relevant to me taking place, I frequently lose my focus. Removing myself from those distractions can be valuable particularly since I only bring notebooks with me.

Anyone who knows me well understands that my laptop does not leave the house. It is far too precious a tool to me and I have imagined too many “nightmare scenarios” (I drop it in a parking lot, it gets destroyed in an accident, curious black bear breaks into car and crushes it, and so forth and so forth) to take the risk. It also eliminates the possibility of jumping onto that delightful time-suck known as Facebook or adding more items to my wishlist on Etsy. (Yep, I also silence my phone and conceal it safely in my handbag when I am alone and getting serious about my work. No apps for me!)

3. It’s Inspiring

Writing in eating and drinking establishments can also be deeply inspiring. Any writer who reads “how-to” articles (and most of us are obsessed) will tell you that we are commonly advised to people-watch and even politely eavesdrop on conversations to learn how real humans speak and therefore how characters should speak. Yes, creepy creative people are watching you!

 

4. FOOD AND DRINK!

Lastly, coffee is found in these places. Coffee. And brownies. And cookies. And sometimes the cookies are even warm. Who could resist that?

Write on!

Cover Image Credit: pixabay

Hemingway Was Right: The First Draft Really Is Excrement

There is no such thing as a perfect first draft.

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*** Originally written as an article for The Odyssey Online in 2017. ***

Ernest Hemingway, prolific writer of the 20th century, had some truly great writing wisdom. One of my absolute favorite Hemingway quotes appears in the 1984 memoir by Arnold Samuelson titled, “With Hemingway. A year in Key West and Cuba.” Apparently, Ernest told Samuelson that “the first draft of everything is shit.” Why do I like this snippet of dialogue so much? Because it is a simple bit of brilliance that often goes overlooked by aspiring writers.

It is the first draft that trips up many amateur writers. To be sure, it starts off on a magnificent note. All at once, you are thunderstruck by an idea. You spend weeks, months, maybe even years writing your brimming heart out with an unshakable faith that this is it, the next great American novel, your ticket to a publishing contract and a loyal fan base. At long last, your dream is in sight. When you’re finished, you reward yourself with a Malibu Bay Breeze (or four), a ridiculous-sized sundae, or a shopping spree. You take a few weeks off to bask in well-earned glory, then begin the rewrite.

And that’s when your heart sinks like a stone cast into a murky lake. The more you read, the more panic-stricken you become. Your masterpiece, your beloved, your precious, is a mess. Not a chocolate-chip-pancake-that-fell-on-the-floor-as-you-were-flipping-it mess either. Actually, it’s more of a train wreck. It is off the track at best, and twisted into only a bizarre semblance of a story at worst.

All right, not all first drafts are that atrocious, but you understand what I am getting at. Feeling helpless and ashamed, you wonder how on earth you can repair this disaster of the written word. That feeling, that “sinking feeling,” builds and builds until you start to believe the worst, that your manuscript cannot be salvaged, and it would probably be in the world’s best interest if you ceased writing now, lest you burn an unsuspecting reader’s eyeballs with your God-awful rubbish and cause them to swear off books forever.

That’s when you need to take a deep breath and remember Hemingway’s quote. It’s why you should print it out and tape it to your laptop before you even type “Chapter One.” There is no such thing as a perfect first draft. No writer has ever written one and no writer ever will. The first draft is that first coat of nail polish that is streaky and uneven. The second draft is the second coat that evens it all out, takes it from “meh” to “glam,” earns compliments, and makes the time you set aside to do it worthwhile. No real writer escapes this part of the process. None of them.

So do not hit delete. Do not set fire to your pages in a display of drama and roast marshmallows over them while you sob over your incompetence. The prospect of turning coal into a diamond is a daunting one, and it may take a third or even a fourth draft to fashion your creation into a marketable product. But rest assured, it can be done. You have as much of a chance of becoming a bestseller as any other writer.

Write on!

 

Cover Image Credit: www.pixabay.com

Three Assumptions People Make When You Write About Love

Let’s do some myth busting, shall we?

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***  This was the third article I originally wrote for The Odyssey Online in 2017, prior to my decision to self-publish. ***

If you have read my prior posts, you may recall that I am working on the second draft of a novel. It is the story of an unlikely couple trying to survive the unique social challenges and tumultuous events of the historical time period they live in. Now that sounds like what would qualify as a romance. (By romance, I am referring to defined genre stories which usually follow a formula of sorts.) Technically though, I do not think my WIP qualifies as a romance and I am not saying that to be a pretentious, literary snob. If it did qualify as a romance it would make my life a bit easier as I would then know exactly what agents and publishers to submit to. According to my own research, it seems the format would not satisfy the standard model and the time period and country are not popular with romance publishers and, I assume, their fan bases. I think that leaves me out of the game, so I will just refer to it as a love story or romantic historical fiction.
Be that as it may, there is an undeniable stigma attached to writers of romantic fiction. Maybe we are all just squeamish when it comes to emotion. Maybe it’s because it has become trendy to denounce any sort of feelings in literature (the inevitable backlash against over-the-top sentimentality). And because there are unfortunately romances out there that have earned their bad reputations. The criticisms and stereotypes of these stories also extend to the writers of them. Knowing this, I was (and still am) reluctant to admit I was writing a love story. Reluctant to share it with my family and friends and even with the devoted members of my critique group, many of whom I have had the pleasure of working with for years. While all of these people have been supportive and helpful, harsh criticisms and stereotypes abound in other corners of the world and I decided to debunk the ones that bother me the most, at least regarding me and my work. (I am not speaking for all other writers here, FYI.)

1. You Must Be An Unabashed Creator of Smut
Naturally if you are writing a romance or something closely related to it, there must be graphic sex scenes on every other page. The story is set in a distant time so that the characters will have sumptuous clothes to tear off of each other’s perfectly sculpted bodies! There’s no real love going on, just a lot of hot hanky-panky!
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 No and no. Sure, there are books like that out there, but that is not what I am doing. While physical relations are a part of it (duh), the true focus is on the building of a real partnership– affection, devotion, honesty, fidelity, trust, you know, all those particulars that make relationships work and sustain them through difficult times. The historical backdrop is integral to the plot because if I move it to modern times, the story falls apart. Move it to a peaceful time in the past, it loses the urgency and the happenings that push the characters to behave as they do, especially in the second half of the book. Assumption #1 debunked.

2. You Have Delusions of Grandeur about Relationships
Apparently, writers of romantic fiction are delusional– or so a lot of people believe. It is assumed that these individuals are hopeless twits incapable of deciphering fantasy from reality, expecting their love lives to be Disney movie knock-offs. I must spend my non-writing time waiting for some gorgeous man to speed up to my house in a new Corvette. We will fall in love on sight and he will whisk me off to his McMansion, filled with roses and chocolate-covered strawberries, where we will enjoy a life of uninterrupted passion and bliss! No arguments and no dirty laundry to do! (You can hear the snark in my tone, right?) I must also be a total diva, driving men away with my unrealistic demands for open displays of affection, expensive gifts and tearful meltdowns.              

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Survey says: Not. At. All. I am certainly old enough to realize that perfection is an unattainable ideal for neurotics, in relationships or out of them. Do I want a happy, committed relationship? Of course, who doesn’t? Do I expect to fall hopelessly in love at first sight? No, my characters don’t even do that. Do I expect a man to solve all of my problems, fulfill all of my needs, be able to read my mind and agree with me on everything? No, that is not possible and is actually kind of unattractive. I am far from perfect and I wouldn’t expect any man to be perfect either. This all makes it difficult to seek advice when you’re having a relationship issue. People will automatically assume that YOU, crowned Queen of All That is Cheesy, are the problem and instead of a helpful opinion, you will come away with a lecture on not expecting too much or a reminder that real life is not a “story”.  Result? You take a vow of silence regarding your love life. (Actually, that might be smart to do even if you are not a writer. Too many cooks spoil the soup if you get my drift.)

3. You Can’t Really Write At All
This one might be the most insulting yet.  Real writers don’t write about things as ridiculous as feelings, especially any positive ones! It’s all too obvious, too concrete, too mundane.  Thus, you must be disguising your pathetic lack of skill behind a subject as frivolous, silly, and unnecessary as love. The characters are cardboard cutouts, the conflicts are plastic, and you have no talent.
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Please get off your literati high horse. Love in all forms — romantic, platonic, filial, even agape — is an integral part of the human experience. Why shouldn’t it be brought to the page? I do not like poorly-developed characters and do my best to create ones that seem like real people and give them real conflicts to deal with. The essentials of storytelling should always be upheld and I strive to do so.

Is any of this going to deter me from writing? Not in the least. I firmly believe writers should write the sort of stories they want to read, regardless of what anyone else thinks. So if love is the focus of your work, forge ahead. Some people will adore it, some people will despise it and that’s fine. That’s the way life works. People are not obligated to like you or the art you create. Just write in the unique voice you were gifted with. Refusing to do so would be too great a loss to the literary world.

Write on!

What Writing Taught Me About Discipline and Perseverance

No one becomes a successful writer by giving up.

*** I originally wrote this article for The Odyssey Online in 2017. ***

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In mid-March of 2015, the random scenes I had kept in a notebook for two years finally came together, and I began to work on my third novel. This novel was much different than my first two though. Not only did it lack the paranormal element the others had contained, but I felt a seriousness about it, an absolute dedication to it, and a determination to work on it every day.

Though I had read plenty of articles extolling the benefits of daily writing, it was a practice I had never assumed. Keeping schedules and deadlines has never been my strong suit, but this time I set myself the task.

 

Armed with a pretty journal I could easily tuck into my purse and an abundance of pens, I began the journey. Seven days a week, I wrote anywhere, anytime I could. I wrote before work in the living room, after work at the nearest Panera, in my bed before turning out the light, and as the weather warmed, out on my sundeck. I made scene cards that I tacked to a fabric story board hanging in my bedroom, created a Pinterest where I posted pictures of period clothing and furniture, and made two different novel playlists to listen to as I typed the final product and even as I drove my car.

I was seized. I completed the first draft right around my March deadline. I had planned to give myself a week’s rest before embarking on the all-important rewrite. But there was an issue that I hesitated to confess even to myself; my passion had begun to wane.

I first noticed it around the end of January, but I was able to feed the fire long enough to type “The End” by my deadline. During my week off, I tinkered with words here and there, fearful that if I stopped entirely, I would not go back to it at all.

Over the next two months, I grappled with the frustration of the fire burning so low. It dimmed until it almost seemed hopeless. Nevertheless, I continued writing. On the days I could not muster the enthusiasm for my novel, I worked on poetry or just random “rants,” anything to keep my pen in hand.

After 14 months of faithful duty, the bubble burst at last. I had to give myself a break. My focus and motivation fizzled and I passed the next several months — much to my chagrin– writing in intermittent spurts when inspiration struck, something I had sought to get away from. Other distractions in my personal life sucked away my brain power on top of that.

Now, it is August, 17 months after the first draft was completed. I am about half-way through the rewrite and, to my delight, feeling the embers of my fascination reigniting. I have set myself a new deadline and am trying my best to work a little bit every day. Bottom line: I refuse to give up.

In the past, I was all too quick to concede defeat. I backed away from far too many challenges, sabotaging myself by flitting from unfinished project to unfinished project. The old cliché “jack of all trades, master of none” is true. No one becomes a successful writer without enforcing discipline, nor by giving up. Inspiration and skill, while essential to an accomplished writer’s repertoire, are only two pieces of a complex puzzle. It is discipline and perseverance that separate the apprentices from the masters, and that goes for everything in life, not just writing.

So if you stumbled upon this article and are considering giving up on your writing, I ask you, from one writer to another, to please have faith in yourself. I don’t care if you are 18 or 108, refuse to take no for an answer. Batten down the hatches, park your rump in a chair, and write. Ask your loved ones to cheer you on. Reward yourself with something awesome when you meet your goal. Even if you never make a dime off of what you write, do it because you love it, do it because you have to. The world needs stories and it needs people who don’t understand the meaning of quitting. It needs disciplined people who persevere.

Write on!

 

*** Update: I am nearing the end of the second draft at this time. Yes, it seems I was more turtle-like this last year and a half than I like to admit. 🙂 ***

 

Cover Image Credit: pixabay
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