I found this video very encouraging. Ira talks about how long it takes to get good at your craft and the key to getting better: Put yourself on a schedule!
Watch it here.
I found this video very encouraging. Ira talks about how long it takes to get good at your craft and the key to getting better: Put yourself on a schedule!
Watch it here.
The Scrivas are a get-together kind of writing critique group. We meet for dinner and a lengthy discussion of Scriva submissions. Recently, though, Sabina was out of town for our monthly meeting, and she wanted to be a part of the conversation. We turned to Skype.
It seems we’re not the only ones. According to blogs.skype.com, on April 3, 2013, Skype users spent two billion minutes connecting with each other. TWO BILLION MINUTES ON THAT ONE DAY! The Skype folks calculate that number to be nearly 38 centuries of sharing in a 24-hour period. This boggles my mind big time.
So much for quality. What about the quality of those two billion minutes? I confess that I use Skype and Facetime rarely. I’m not as relaxed with screen time as I am when I’m emailing or speaking to someone on the phone. Better yet, let’s walk and talk…but I digress.
Skyping with Sabina went better than I thought it would, and it was very much better than not having her with us at all. We used a lap top, so that we could move Sabina close to whichever Scriva was giving a critique. She missed the wine and food, but could get at least some of the conversation. Not everything. And she was limited to hearing much of what the rest of us saw and heard. A couple of times we lost the connection, meaning the electronic connection. But Skyping with Sabina meant that we didn’t lose the human connection. I’m in no position to speak intelligently about 1,999,999,880 Skype minutes on Viva Scriva Critique Day, but the Scrivas’ 120 minutes with Sabina were definitely Skyping well spent.
It was years ago when I heard Christopher Paul Curtis speak, soon after The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was published to much acclaim. I have always remembered what he said, how he wrote most of the book while working on an assembly line in Flint, MI. As I remember, he learned to do his job twice as fast as the line, so that he would have a few minutes to write in his notebook every hour. (Find the full details here, better than my memory.) I remember because I was awed and inspired by the initiative that seemed almost super-human. But over the years, I’ve met authors who wake up at 4 a.m. to write their pages before they go teach school, who write deep into the night in the laundry room after the kids go to bed, who write in their cars during soccer practice, during fifteen minute breaks at the grocery store.
Sometimes, I have a hard time saying I’m a “real” author because I don’t write every day, as some venerated (albeit male) authors say you must do. Sometimes I don’t feel like a “real” author because I’m not willing to sacrifice kids, husband, and social time for my craft. (As Jane Austen may have done. Thoreau, of course, went one step further and gave up society completely.) Sometimes I need to reconsider what a “real” author is. Christopher Paul Curtis seems like a better model for me, and for many wives, parents, career-women and otherwise modern writers. You can write when time is precious. It’s not as romantic as being in your own attic garret and neglecting the rest of life (as Jo March liked to do.) But it may even be more efficient and productive; you may surprise yourself by writing more. What’s more important, you can write good stuff, as Christopher Paul Curtis goes to show. And the good stuff is what convinces everybody, in the end, that you are a real author.
How long does it take you to write a book? How fast do you work? I get asked these questions a lot, especially the first one by school-aged kids. The answer is that it varies – dramatically.
My fastest book was a school library title on tennis (draft in a month, final in a few months) because that was how long the publisher gave me. Next fastest was The Planet Hunter: The Story behind What Happened to Pluto which went from proposal to final approved manuscript ready to be illustrated in a handful of months. (My editor and I wanted to get that book out as fast as possible to explain the fascinating story behind why Pluto was no longer considered a planet.)
Typically, my books take much longer. I am working on a book now called Mario and the Hole in the Sky that will be published by Charlesbridge in 2016. I started working on it in 2007. That’s nine years for a picture book. My graphic novel Muddy Max: The Mystery of Marsh Creek which comes out this year (YAY!) began as a middle grade novel in 2006. That’s eight years. My book The Mighty Mars Rovers took a similar amount of time. I’m working on picture book now that I literally started a decade ago.
The reasons for these long periods of time can vary. Many times, I am writing multiple, completely different drafts of the same book – and that takes a long time. (Thank you Scrivas, for reading version after version after version!) Other times I get discouraged after submitting something that doesn’t sell and I put it aside for a while.
In fact, it would be misleading to suggest that I was working on all these projects all the time in those years. What is much more typical is that there are times in the life of project when I put on the gas and other times I put on the brakes.
A current project in development on the inventor of the piano is a good example. When I got the idea in 2010, I start researching furiously (gas). I worked on it off and on through summer of 2012 (little pumps of gas), when I took a research trip to Florence, Italy (gas, gas, gas). When I got back, I did some writing and thinking (gas). Then I got stuck and I got busy with some other deadlines (SCREEECH! Brakes).
I have to be careful because brakes are easier to sustain than gas (things at rest like to stay at rest.) I didn’t touch this project for almost a year. And that really bothered me because I really loved the idea. So I started to put on the gas – writing, rewriting, problem-solving, polishing. I heard that an editor I wanted to share it with would be going on maternity leave. So I put on the gas big time, getting the book ready to submit.
Alas, she turned it down.
I was disappointed but also a little relieved. I just felt like I need a little more time with the project – to do a few more drafts and try to get it just right. So instead of submitting it elsewhere, I put on the brakes. But only gently. I want to slow down but not stop.
In driving you’re not supposed to put your foot on the gas and brakes at the same time. But for writing, I’m going to try it. I need the gas to keep momentum. But I need the brakes, too, to give me time to get it right.
My own writing process is one of fits and starts. I may go days or weeks without writing more than a sentence or two, and I can really struggle to get back into a story when I finally have time to sit down and write again. My preferred process is to grab a pen and a cheap spiral notebook (I buy them at Target at the beginning of the school year when they’re ten for a dollar), set a timer, and make myself write for 12-15 minutes. Nothing is off-limits, anything goes, and I have to keep my hand moving the whole time. After two or three sessions like this I’m usually on a roll and don’t need the timer anymore, I’m just going, telling myself the story, and the good and the bad are all swirled up together.
My next step is to type my pages into the computer. This is usually re-drafting, teasing apart the story from the places I’m telling myself the story. Sometimes the difference between the two is obvious, but sometimes subsequent read-throughs reveal more places to increase the action on the page and decrease the distance between the character and the reader.
And here is how I typed up the scene later:
So, what did I change? Most obviously, I moved the conflict between Gunter and the University president to the front. I cut down the description of Gunter at his desk, because it doesn’t move the story. I got bored writing it, so I know you’ll be bored reading it. As I read over this, though, I still see verbs that I’ll revisit in future revisions in order to bring Stella and her experience closer to the reader. For example, I expect to delete “she thought” after “cloves and sunlight,” because without “she thought” we’re just there in Stella’s experience of smelling the shirt, and that is where, as the writer, I want the reader to be. I make a habit of looking for what I think of as “distancing verbs” – “thought,” “noticed,” “observed,” “saw,” “heard,” and verb phrases like “could see,” “could hear,” — in my work, and I cut, cut, cut them to the best of my ability. I also notice three adverbs in the typed version above – “slightly,” “deeply,” and “quickly,” two of them preceded by “was.” Adverbs are a sort of shorthand that is effective for moving the story along in a first draft, but usually can be eliminated or unpacked into more specific description in later drafts.
I skipped the description of the door – all we need to know is that Stella can hear what’s happening on the other side, we don’t need to know what the door looks like. But I had to write it that way at first because I was visualizing it and writing that down helped me into the story. At the time that I’m finding it, details like the color of the hallway walls, the glass in the door, and the hardware are part of the story. Knowing when to keep those details in to inform the reader, and when to get them out of the way because the story is actually elsewhere – in this case, in the relationships between Gunter and the University president, and Gunter and his daughter – is an ongoing part of my process. The objects on Gunter’s desk, that Stella is about to pick up and hear the stories of, are objects that Stella and Gunter’s story will be built around, so they stay in. The brass door handles and frosted glass window can go.
Already I’m looking at places where I can further tighten the scene. The second sentence – “As Stella approached she heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside,” contains two verbs: approached, heard; and a gerund: having. Are they all necessary? Maybe. Or will the same information be conveyed even if they aren’t there? Maybe. Here are other options:
A) “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside.”
B) “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella’s father and another man were having a heated discussion inside.”
What’s the difference? In (A), Stella is the one the verb refers to, and (B), the verb phrase “were having” refers to Stella’s father, and is a weak verb form at that. I want my reader to experience the story from Stella’s point of view, and I want the verbs to keep the story moving, so I’m going to choose (A). The reader is still aware that Stella is approaching her father’s office door, but that approach is happening invisibly by moving with Stella, and thus the reader, through the experience.
In my fiction, letting the lady scream is all about getting the right verbs in the right places, but even more so it’s about getting the wrong verbs out of the way of the action.
As some of you know, I live and write in a condo in downtown Portland. My usual hit of nature is the occasional heron at Tanner Springs Park. These goats and the farm wedged into the valley under a big, wide sky were more than a relaxing environment. They were a means to shake awake my creativity.
I had been to this farm outside Hood River once before, which made things perfect. No need to use brainpower to get familiar with nuisance details, such as where the extra toilet paper was hiding, or how to set the thermostat. I could devote all my waking hours to making the most of a change of scenery.
Here’s the deal, at least for me, and maybe for you, too. For a project as long a writing a book, I need routine in both time and place. I put my butt in a familiar chair in one of several writing spots at home or in the library, and my brain is ready to work. But after several months or so, a change of scenery seems to boost my creativity. I find solutions to problems that are plaguing my plot or keeping my characters from feeling fully formed. I “see” things differently in my imagination in part because of the difference in my real world environment.
Bottom line? Strive for a balance between the time and place that generates the predictable, let’s-get-to-work spark for you and the time and place that regenerates the freshness and wonder that nourishes creativity. Get your bottom there, and get going.
The other week, home from a library book sale (which I love, love, love, Book Junkie—and now Bookseller!—that I am), I spread out my haul to savor. Cook books—yum! Art books—beautiful! And a travel guide to Seville (LEFT) and the region of Andalusia—one of those colorful guides, chock-full of intriguing photographs, that I can’t resist. This particular guide was in Spanish, and though I can figure some out (courtesy of my knowledge of Romanian), I mostly looked at the pictures. And I became lost in a reverie…
Graceful hands and swirling skirts of flamenco dancers…
Matadors in ornate, fitted suits…
A candle-lit procession moving at twilight through the streets…
An elegant store with shelves reaching to tall ceilings…
Which of “My Books” could these images illuminate?
One thing to know about me as a Writer is that I have several works-in-progress in the wings, waiting for their turn once the historical middle-grade novel I’ve mentioned here finishes its time in my writing spotlight. These are fantasy and fairytale retellings that I can hardly wait to finish and read myself. The stories are informed by various places, moods, and images. So, as I leaf through the Seville guide, I wonder: which of my future novels will best be served by the image of that elegant tall store? By the mood evoked in me by the movement of people in that candle-lit street?
Of course, the same images could be used in a very different way—as factual documentation—if I were writing a book set in the real Seville.
You probably already use images to support your writing. To inspire you further, here are some ways Scrivas capture helpful images.
You can have a bookshelf or section thereof devoted to a particular project. Scriva Liz I believe does so, with all the books she buys or endlessly renews from local libraries as she researches her fabulous non-fiction books.
You can store images online. One time Scriva Amber showed photographs she found on the Internet of people who looked as she envisioned the characters in her first novel.
You can make a binder book. Scriva Nicole photocopied and printed out in color so many images related to her book set in mid-16th century Flanders that she ran out of printer ink. Or you can tear out pages from magazines, as you come across people or places or other images that remind you of your story.
And perhaps more than one method will best serve your book.
Which do you like best, or want to try first—or next?
I don’t want to leave this post about a writer’s use of images without mentioning an important last one: the collage—be it on posterboard, accordion foldout, repurposed or artist’s book—where you imagine dreams or goals for yourself as a writer.
The collage can help focus you, or show you things may not quite have realized are important to you. It can be a snapshot of where you are now as a writer (“I will pursue my own way!” emerged for me at our Scriva January 2012 goals meeting); of goals; or of ridiculous, wonderful dreams that you barely dare dream but would be thrilled to see happen.
So this year, how will you use images to help further along your fantasy novel, or realistic story, whether fiction or non-fiction…or you?
-Sabina I. Rascol
What is that?
“Gift Offset Day” is a little made up holiday my husband and I observe on a Sunday afternoon every January. The idea is to clear out the clutter that has accumulated all year long, and to make up for the influx of stuff the holidays tend to bring.
What do you do?
Find the number of items of your age. So, at 35, I need to find 35 items in my house that I no longer use or need to get rid of. You can choose how strict you are going to be with the definition of “item.” In our house one item = a pair of socks = a bunch of unused pens = a shirt = a recliner. We also allow vetos. (Hey! I saw the bottle opener first!) My items will likely come from the bathroom cabinet, the kitchen cupboards, the bedroom closet, and my studio, but if you have a serious clutter problem, you can choose one room (like the garage!) to cull from. Here are some simple rules.
1) Choose a day early in the year. Pick a time when the whole family has two or more hours to devote to the endeavor.
2) Give yourself a time limit. This is especially important if you have someone in the family who is prone to sentimentality and will get waylaid by the process. For kids, set a 30 minute limit and make it a race!
3) Pile all your items in one place in the house — somewhere you are forced to deal with them immediately (like the kitchen table.) You might photograph your pile for posterity, before boxing and bagging to donate, recycle or trash.
If you’re getting excited about this holiday, you’ll have your own very-good-reason for participating. Think about this: how many new things enter your house every year in the normal business of living and shopping? And how many times every year do you go through the house and take things back out? If the answer is “never” or “almost never” you can imagine that someday you will walk into your basement and realize you have grown a monster. Gift offsets let you face down the monster on a smaller scale every year.
What if I can’t find 35 (or X) items?
This really can’t possibly be a problem for anyone in America. I promise you. Try harder.
What if I find 200 items?
Yippee! Way to enter into the spirit of the holiday! Your age should work as the minimum, but there is no maximum.
And how does this relate to writing exactly?
Maybe it doesn’t. But if you’re like me, you can’t start on a new project, or a new year, in a messy space. I think old stories and drawings can have the same “cluttering” effect as actual stuff. So choose old drafts, dead pens, and that printer you’ve been meaning to sack. Sometimes clearing out your office is just what the editor ordered for getting back to business.
In a recent, early-in-the-new-year Scriva meeting, we did two short activities that are meant to sharpen focus, boost spirits and build community.
The first was inspired by Igolu.com, which has some wonderful goal-setting exercises, which you can check out here.
In the simple exercise that we tried, you draw a large circle on a blank page. Inside the circle you write all the ideas, emotions, things and qualities that you want in your life. You can do this for your writing life or your life in general – or both! Outside the circle you can write what you don’t want in your life. Then spend some time just thinking on what you wrote in your circle. How can you welcome those things into your life?
The second exercise is meant to shift the focus a bit to some very important people in your life – your beloved critique group members. This exercise is designed to build community and boost spirits by recognizing each member’s strengths and sharing your hopes and dreams for them. For each member, complete the following sentences (write out your thoughts):
* I really admire/am inspired by the way you…
* The words that come to mind when I think of you are…
* The words that come to mind when I think of your writing are…
* If I could wish anything for your writing life this year, it would be…
Then give these slips of paper for people to read later.
Writing these thoughts down made me think about what I appreciate about each person, made me grateful that they are part of the group, made me hopeful about what the year might have in store for us. And reading mine made me feel understood, appreciated, supported. And that is something we can all use more of in our lives.
I am a starving artist with two kids…by choice.
Rereading the sentence above, guilt fills me. How can one be a “starving” anything BY CHOICE when you have two kids??
Okay, just to clarify, my family is not technically “starving.” Not in the least. My husband and I have a home that we bought during good economic times. We have food. My kids have gifts on their birthdays and at Christmas. They have clothes. Holes in their clothes come from them playing hard outside. We even get to travel sometimes due to all the hotel and airline points that my husband accumulates through his work. But we do live paycheck to paycheck, we pay for our own health insurance, we have had to borrow money in the really, really hard times from family, everything we buy MUST be on sale and bought with a coupon, we rarely eat out, we have OLD computers and no smart phones, we apply for class and camp scholarships, etc…all due to me not having a full-time teaching job in order to pursue my writing.
And at times, the guilt drives me crazy.
My husband works full-time, but he is a freelance journalist, so the money comes in waves. My job many, many years ago as a full-time public school teacher was stable and secure. But I left it all behind before I had kids in order to pursue art. Now I often wonder if I’m being too selfish about my art.
Here’s a little backstory…
It seems that Wikipedia really does have a definition for everything. Take its definition for “a starving artist.”
“A starving artist is an artist who sacrifices material well-being in order to focus on their artwork. They typically live on minimum expenses, either for a lack of business or because all their disposable income goes toward art projects.”
Truthfully, I’ve always felt a bit of romanticism about the bohemian lifestyle and starving artists. I love the mod Parisian poet lifestyle showcased in the Audrey Hepburn movie “Funny Face” (as well as the swell ponytail, black slimming pants, long-sleeved turtleneck, and ballet flats she wore.) I love artist enclaves and neighborhoods in big cities, the bohemian vibe of many indie coffeehouses, and those lovable artists in the film, “Moulin Rouge.”
What’s interesting (and I have no reasoning for this that I am aware of right now) is that I didn’t actually follow that way of life when I was in college and early adulthood. I was raised and trained by my family and conservative university to want a stable career and, God forbid, health care! So I buried my dreams of pursuing art and went into elementary teaching, got my first full-time job right after I graduated, began my new adult life in September wearing a conservative “vest dress” (very popular in the early nineties for forty-something year-old women, yet I was only twenty-one) and donning an apple necklace and earring set. I knew in my heart that I loved books and loved writing since I’d been doing it since I was in elementary school, but I NEVER thought of ever risking stability in order to pursue my art. My conservative choice in career felt safe, and since I had just gotten married right out of college, I wanted security for our new life together as well as money for all those student loans I owed.
After seven years, writing and the artist life called to me so strongly that I couldn’t resist its advances anymore. Even though I was a teacher by training, I desperately wanted to become an artist by choice.
My road to the starving artist life began, albeit slowly.
I cut my full-time, public school teaching job to part-time in order to work on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. After two years, having finished my MFA, I decided to quit my part-time teaching job and be an on-call substitute, which enabled me to have more free time for my writing as well as become by all definition what I had romanticized about earlier in my life– a true “starving artist.” Finally, I could be a bohemian in pursuit of truth, beauty, freedom, and love in my writing (as they say in the film, “Moulin Rouge.”)
No, it wasn’t easy. My husband and I had loved eating out. I had liked shopping at Whole Foods Market. I had liked going to lots of movies. But I also liked my new writing time, and my husband was (and still is) a good deal-finder and coupon clipper. We made do and still were able to have few little luxuries.
Less than a year later, my first son was born. As any artist with kids most likely understands, my writing went by the wayside as I began my new life as a mother. It came back in tiny spurts, and after two years, a little more. The economy was strong when I had my son, my husband was doing well in his work, and the “starving” part of my artistic life disappeared. I became more concerned about how to be a “writer and a mother.” Besides, it felt good that the starving part of the equation wasn’t there since I had a kid now…and another kid three years after the first one. How could one ever have kids and be a starving artist? The two just didn’t go together.
Two years later, the economy, and my husband’s job, tanked. Forget trying to find writing time and having an “artist’s life”. Now we needed money in order to live. I searched and searched for a full-time teaching job again, but could only find a part-time one.
Slowly, after a few more years up to the present, my husband’s work has come back, as has the economy. Both of my children are now in school, and more teaching jobs are available again. I could look for a full-time job now. I could go back to stability and security. A part of my brain says I should. I have kids. Kids cost money. They have needs. College funds. Cub Scout dues. Soccer and baseball clubs to join. Drawing classes to pay for. Swim lessons. The list goes on and on.
But I choose my art. Surviving this fact is hard. But my heart says that I must do it. I must keep at this artist life, this writing thing. Or there will be a hole in my soul. And I don’t think I could be a very good mother at all with such a void inside of me.
I don’t have a tidy ending for this blog post. I wish I did. I wish I could leave you with “Ten Tips About How to Survive as a Starving Artist with Kids” or something like that. But I don’t have any answers. All I have is hope.
A never ending hope that…
my art will someday find a home,
my passion and priority for the arts will inspire my children to become creative and have an appreciation for the arts into adulthood,
my children will pass a love for the arts onto their own children,
my children will learn to follow their dreams and passions in life and that money and material possessions aren’t everything,
not denying my artistic self will make me easier to live with,
a happier, more-fulfilled person,
and a better mother overall.
-Nicole Marie Schreiber