Writing: On Which I Yield to the Idea of a Muse

A long, long time ago (holy cow, five years ago!), I wrote this article about kicking my muse to the curb.

Thanks to a workshop at the San Francisco Writers Conference this year, I have changed my mind.

When I first started writing – back in the day when dinosaurs ruled the earth – I subscribed to the idea of a muse. My muses would invariably take the form of human beings. Most likely, they would be human being males that I was romantically involved with, or were men I longed to be involved with, or were guys who had snubbed me and therefore I wrote as a way to beat down my enemies with the power of my words. I’d never really puzzled through the fact that my relationships (i.e. muses) were somehow compelling me to write, that they were responsible for my thoughts. All I knew is that I was most prolific in times of conflict and angst.

As a writer, it’s nice to have a fairy godmother muse to sit on your shoulder. She can tap you with magic dust whenever you need her and voila! you begin to type as though your keyboard is on fire and you only have twenty minutes to get it down before it spontaneously combusts, Mission Impossible style.

Yee-ahhhh… That might work for some people. I happen to be more pragmatic. If I don’t cattle prod myself to write something everyday, I’d never have completed three novels. Which is why I decided back in 2009 to kick my muse to the curb and set a schedule.

Five years after writing that article, I wandered into a SFWC workshop totally by accident (because the workshop I’d wanted to attend was standing room only and I really needed to sit down) with Lisa Tener regarding writing in the zone. She insisted that we must find a muse, and went about describing other writers’ various muses: mice, insects, old men, young children, birds, etc. Dictionary.com’s definition is the goddess or the power regarded as inspiring a poet, artist, thinker, or the like.

Our first task was to close our eyes and imagine ourselves going down a path in the woods toward a house where we would then introduce ourselves to our muse. We’d ask for direction and guidance.

(You can imagine here how I reacted. With total skepticism. And with horror, as I had killed off my own muse a long time ago. If I revived my muse, I feared he/she would probably kick my ass in retaliation.)

I decided to humor her and play along, but when I got to the house (invariably located in Golden Gate Park) and opened the door, instead of a room, I walked onto the large plain of Ocean Beach.

I mentioned this, and Lisa said, “Yes! That’s good. Water can be a great muse, and the ocean is vast.” Whodathunkit?

Later on, as I was sorting through my handouts of the day, I thought about using the ocean as a muse. Haven’t I been doing it all along? Isn’t that why I return to San Francisco on a regular basis? To stay by the beach, walk near the water, fight a biting wind, collect my thoughts? Isn’t this where my stories are born? My attachment is so great, I’ve used the photo of the Richmond, taken from the beach, on my blog. This photograph has been enlarged and framed and hangs over my bed, so when I feel a need to connect to Ocean Beach, I can look at it whenever I want.

I might have wanted to deny my muse, but I will no more. After all, it’s been there the whole time.

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I’m SO Ready for San Francisco!

This will be a short post, because I have a thousand things to do before I leave Thursday (way early) morning.

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1. I am so ready for San Francisco! I’m always ready for the City by the Bay, but right now I am craving some interaction with creative types, authors, editors, movers, shakers. The San Francisco Writers Conference couldn’t come at a better time. Besides, it’s so cold and snowy here, I need a mini-escape LIKE RIGHT NOW.

2. After the last year, I’m finally feeling like a real writer! That’s because I’ve been writing or editing or outlining almost every day. It’s been tough to get on a schedule, and believe me, you would know. I’ve been bitching about my Real Life problems for years now. However, I’m getting better at carving out a space for me and my writing time. It’s true, if you write, you will write more.

3. I’m planning another book, this one YA. Like I don’t have enough to do? This one will have death as a theme, and I haven’t decided whether I should put my story in Michigan, Minnesota, or California. Hopefully, it’ll be funny. Maybe not.

4. I’ve started editing Virtually Yours Forever (for those of you who were wondering what happened to my Beanie Moms), and I hope to self-publish the sequel by the end of the year. I already have a eCover design, it’s just a matter of getting the story to the point where it makes sense. There’s a lot going on with my moms!

5. I’ve undertaken another launch, but since it’s in the gestational stage, I’m not going to talk about it. Don’t want to jinx it.

I know it’s only Monday, but I’m already packing. I’ll be gone for longer than usual (ten days) so I’ve been plotting and planning my Real Life so there won’t be any Real Life disasters while I’m gone.

Finally, I’m praying that Mother Nature will cut me a break this week. Please don’t send any monster blizzards my way on Wednesday or Thursday, PLEASE. I want all airlines to be running on time, without delay. If I miss one second of this conference, I’m going to be super PO’ed.

Another Kernel of Wisdom via the San Francisco Writers Conference

I know. I am pitifully behind. That’s because I’m semi-recently returned from the 2013 San Francisco Writers Conference. Thanks to this great conference, my head is *b-u-r-s-t-i-n-g* with ideas. Unfortunately, having been out of town for over a week, the other areas of my life are bursting as well.

Before I forget, I would like to relay the best advice on storytelling that I have ever received, thanks to a SFWC workshop lead by Mary Knippel and Teresa LeYung-Ryan. These are two, very smart ladies, and I don’t love them because Mary and I shared lunch and Instagrams of Mark Hopkins’ famed room service hamburgers, or that Teresa is so effusive, she dragged me into a photo after last year’s workshop.

Are you ready? Because this is the wisest sentence I’ve ever heard about writing:

Someone we care about wants something very badly and is having a difficult time achieving his/her goal.

Honestly, it was a lightbulb-over-the-head moment. (Yes, I know. I’m slow. That’s already been established.)

Wiser words have never been spoken. Okay, so you can study hard and obtain a Masters of Fine Art in literature. You can take all the classes on story arcs and layering and the intricacies of denouement the world has to offer. You can belong to the critique group made in heaven (I’d have Edgar Allen Poe, Ayn Rand, and Carly Phillips in my fantasy crit group), or to national writers organizations. You could line the basement walls with past issues of Writers Digest. You might even be able to lock yourself in a room for eight hours straight with no internet and no distractions and tap at the keyboard until your fingers atrophy. You can hang out at conferences and learn from the best.

You can do all these things and more, but if your story cannot be told in this simple sentence, you don’t have a compelling story.

I grew up eons ago, when creative writing teachers claimed a good story had to have conflict – man against man, man against nature, or man against himself. I’m also a fervent believer of having a beginning, a middle, and an end. (You wouldn’t believe some of the writing I’ve read that has none of this.)

Someone we care about [protagonist] wants something very badly [possible end result] and is having a difficult time [the journey] achieving his/her goal.

It’s so simple, I’m wondering why I’d never considered it before. Like, DUH. No wonder I had a difficult time writing the first novel. (By the second one, I’d kinda-sorta figured it out. By the third, I’d fleshed out stories for each of my characters before sitting down to write.)

My new mantra also makes for an excellent measurement for the casual elevator pitch or for the first sentence of a query letter. Breaking down your story to its most basic form (a single sentence) crystallizes the concept, making it easy for the prospective agent to see what the heck your story is about.

I spent the plane ride back to Detroit devising a simple sentence to explain each of my novels. See?

Finding Cadence:

After her husband dies, Cadence Reed tries to find a new normal, but confronted with Carter’s secret life and with finances in disarray, she battles a powerful attorney (and once friend) for control.

Virtually Yours:

A bereaved parent wants to get closer to an online moms’ group, but traverses a minefield of secrets that could blow up the friendship, until the truth finally comes out.

Virtually Yours Forever:

Janna and Ashe are (finally) getting married – that is, if she can lose ten pounds, if Ashe can get over his cold feet, and if the Virtual Moms can book flights through a Snow-maggedon Nor’easter.

Acorns and Oaks:

Amberly Cooper escapes frozen Michigan to her tony life in LA despite a few minor roadblocks: her grandma is crazy, her mom doesn’t want to leave, her Cali friends are uninspired, and oh…she’s 14.

While these aren’t perfect, completing this exercise helped focus my attention on the story, the guts of the matter.

Everything else is icing.

 

The San Francisco Writers Conference – 2013 Edition

Five years ago I was THIS: an author with a freshly pressed “The End” at the bottom of an abyss-like (and therefore abysmal) tome of 175K words. My first novel. I’d researched plenty of writers conferences and thought the San Francisco Writers Conference was the one for me. Highly touted by everyone, and when my writer pals found out Donald Maass was slated as one of the speakers, they pushed me to attend. It’s held in February, when I can usually take a week off without the (Real) world coming to a crushing end. And my son was going to college there, so visiting after the conference was a definite plus. But I was self-conscious and didn’t think my work was good enough. That was the year I thought, “I’m just going to be a fly on the wall and observe dispassionately.” I’ll become the human sponge and soak up all the knowledge I can.

Yeah. Right.

I must admit, I was star struck, flabbergasted, and so amazed that my head didn’t stop spinning for a month. Agents, writers, editors – genuine best selling authors! But there was more to it than a reporter’s unbiased look at a world class writers conference. As with any love, I fell, deep and hard.

Wallflower no more, I made friends. I chatted with people around the country and around the world. Their positive energy and enthusiasm caused me to step outside of my comfort zone. Even though my draft was a first draft, and needed a TON of work, I signed up for agent speed dating and gave it a whirl – where I learned not only was my book not ready for the big time, I was not ready either.

Tomorrow morning at 6 a.m., I’ll be jetting back to the City by the Bay for yet another conference. This year, it’s different. I’m seasoned. Thanks to the SFWC, I have accumulated a ton of writing friends, belong to the RWA (PRO member!) and Greater Detroit RWA, and have an editor that I work with. I self-published what was my second completed novel last year. I’ve learned to stalk agents on Twitter without having them take out a personal protection order out on me. I’m hooked up with so many helpful writing web sites, and have increased my writing reference library by 10 fold. But just because I’ve attended five years in a row doesn’t mean I know it all.

I’m counting on Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada to host another kick-ass conference, where I’ll learn more than my head can possibly contain (and therefore will take copious notes), be thrilled and encouraged by the successes of others, and jump start my mojo so that I can write yet another day.

They haven’t let me down yet.

🙂

Preparing for the 2013 San Francisco Writers Conference – Yikes!

OMG. I just realized that in one short week, I’ll be packing to go. Am I ready?

Not really, and it’s not just because I realized when my wayward 7 By 7 (code for San Francisco) daughter came home for Christmas that her suitcase was bulging with MY sweaters (I was wondering where my sweaters ran off to…I dry clean them, so they couldn’t have gone the way of missing socks) and I really need to shop for replacements to fill the holes in my trendy, business casual wardrobe – retail therapy I don’t have time for.

No, it could be that my re-write on FINDING CADENCE still is not finished.

That’s because I’ve been tightening and deleting, and tightening some more. Then I had to reread what was left to determine if it all still made sense. I have to balance a tenuous psychological component with the fact that my antagonist is an attorney running for Governor,  so I’ve had to button down the legalities of my story. And I still need to exterminate at least 5K words, to take it from the scary, over 126K mark down to a count that won’t scare off an agent. (I’m fairly confident a little white query lie of 120K will petrify anyone in the biz.) Every once in a while, I drag out my query and take a stab at it. The art of the query is not my major forte. Honestly, it’s like trying to kill an opossum with a chopstick. It’s slow, I’m stupid, and it just won’t offer me a speedy demise.

And while I’m feeling super confident and open to any and all suggestions, I am suffering from the same stomach-trapped butterflies I found in my stomach five years ago – just before attending my FIRST San Francisco Writers Conference. When I was a newbie and afraid of not only agents and editors, but of fellow writers.

Now editors and agents don’t scare me anymore. They’re people, just like me. And fellow writers are the best! They are helpful and kind and many of them stay in touch after our weekend is over. While I’ve made huge strides in my writing, have learned, struggled, written a LOT, queried, even self-e-pubbed, there is still the lingering d.o.u.b.t. You know the drill. Am I good enough? Will my epic tale ever find a home with a good agent, one who has faith in me and my work? Will I ever sell more than a hundred books?

I recently learned I’m not a finalist in the contest this year, another semi-crushing blow (for a minute).

And the final, Big Truth moment? THIS IS MY FIFTH CONFERENCE.

Not that I don’t love it; I do. When I go, I get caught up in the enthusiasm and all the positive energy. I learn something new every year. The SFWC is what I need to drag me out of winter doldrums and writer’s slowdown. No, while the venue is heavenly, it’s just that one would think my learning curve might have improved over time. Over the span of five years (not counting the two years before that I spent on the first draft). Shouldn’t I have been scooped up by now?

Well, I have expended my twenty minutes of doubt and self-pity. It’s time to get back to the edit, and my Honeybaked ham bean soup. And my edit.

See you in San Francisco.

🙂

What Does a Real Writer Look Like?

(Still in San Francisco.)

I love it here, mainly because it’s San Francisco (duh!) and who wouldn’t love to be here? The history is rich, the views are amazing, the people are friendly, the food is to die for and of course, there is the ocean. The ocean is the one attraction I am most drawn to. There is something calming about Ocean Beach. In the early morning when I like to go out, it’s cold, wet, misty, quiet. It’s also deserted. It’s so far removed from the rest of the city, very rustic and wild, it’s almost like being on another planet.

I gather a lot of inspiration from the beach. Take a long walk with nothing but sand on one side and the roar of the waves on the other and a person’s head can clear easily. I write a lot when I come here, but I also write a lot any time I’m away from home and Real Life.

Let’s face it, Real Life is no casual walk on the beach. It’s tedious and scary. I think that’s why it takes so long for me to unwind from Real Life in order to sit down and write. I’m getting better, thanks to Write or Die and an occasional little self-flogging.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past blaming my abilities (or lack of them) on Real Life. I imagined Real Writers sitting in coffee shops in Paris (or San Francisco) with their glasses of wine or demitasses of espresso, chain smoking Turkish cigarettes while penning the next best seller between spirited conversations of politics and love with other like souls. I would love nothing more than to take a little apartment here and work six to eight hours a day after my morning walk along the beach.

Unfortunately, I’ve got to work for a living.

The truth is that most Real Writers are not romantic personalities sitting in dark cafes. Most Real Writers have Real Lives.

One of my recently published internet buddies is a Real Doctor. He has a family and other pursuits, including playing mandolin in a bluegrass band and regular games of golf. How he found time to write a book, I don’t know. (Yes, I do.)

I know others who are Real Young Mothers. I was a terribly pre-occupied young mother. There was no way I could write with small children in the house, or maybe that was me then. I might have changed in twenty years. These published Real Mothers manage to crank out books all the time, even in the chaos.

A Real Writer plugs along, picking up knowledge, making the craft better along the way. The best path to becoming a Real Writer is to tell yourself you ARE. I take a jewelry making class and the teacher calls all of us Jewelry Artists. Not students, not wannabes, but Artists.

Set the bar and get there. Make it Real.