Posted in Reading, Writing

Book Review: Becoming a Writer

Becoming a WriterBecoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often read writing books really slowly. After all, the best writing books make you want to WRITE, which makes them easy to put down. It took me almost a year to finish this little 175-page volume by Dorothea Brande, but I’m glad I took my time. It enabled me to let her advice seep in and stay there, infusing my process with better habits. I recommend this book to writers, especially ones who are feeling stuck or sluggish or, as Ms. Brande would say, in the “slough of despond.” There are a lot of good, practical tips in here to get you going again. And don’t be deterred by the fact that it was published in 1934. Replace “portable typewriter” with “laptop” and “talking pictures” with “movies” and most of it is still relevant today.

Here are 10 of my favorite quotes from Becoming a Writer:

From the forward by John Gardner: “Ms. Brande comments on the workaday world’s stereotypic idea about writers– how they’re childlike, undisciplined people, possibly witches, since when writers are very good at what they do, they seem to know more than a decent person ought to know.” (page 14)

“The writer is at a disadvantage shared by no novice of the other arts. He does use the medium of ordinary conversation, of friendly letters and business letters, when he exercises his profession; and he has no impressive paraphernalia to impose respect on the layman. Now that everyone has his potable typewriter, not even that badge of his profession is left to the young writer. A musical instrument, canvas, clay, carry their own persuasiveness by seeming exotic to the uninitiated. Even a good singing voice does not issue from every throat.” (page 50-51)

“When you have completed a fair first draft you can, if you like, offer it for criticism and advice; but to talk too early is a grave mistake.” (page 52)

“When you have found a passage, long or short, which seems to you far better than anything of the sort you are yet able to do, sit down and learn from it.” (page 106)

“It is well to understand as early as possible in one’s writing life that there is just one contribution which every one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us.” (page 120)

“If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.” (page 123)

“How your hero meets his dilemma, what you think of the impasse– those are the things which make your story truly your own; and it is your own individual character, unmistakably showing through your work, which will lead you to success or failure.” (page 125)

“Once we have learned to use words we must be forever using them… The conclusion should be plain. If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways. Instead of going to a theater, hear a symphony orchestra, or go by yourself to a museum; go alone for long walks, or ride by yourself on a bus-top. If you will conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage.” (page 133)

“Every author, in some way by which he has come on by luck or long search, puts himself into a very light state of hypnosis. The attention is held, but just held; there is no serious demand on it. Far behind the mind’s surface, so deep that he is seldom aware… that any activity is going forward, his story is being fused and welded into an integrated work.” (page 160)

“Teach yourself as soon as possible to work the moment you sit down to a machine, or settle yourself with pad and pencil. If you find yourself dreaming there, or biting your pencil end, get up and go to the farthest corner of the room. Stay there while you are getting up steam. When you have your first sentence ready, go back to your tools. If you steadily refuse to lose yourself in reverie at your worktable, you will be rewarded by finding that merely taking your seat there will be enough to make your writing flow.” (page 174)
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Posted in Writing

A Summer of Words

Summer

Writing is like exercise, and I am out of shape.

Writing is difficult, at least for me. I’m a perfectionist and a procrastinator, who’s easily distracted by new ideas, cute animals outside my window, and chocolate. None of these qualities do a consistent writer make. I’m also a teacher, and during the school year I’m a slave to my job, spending so much time teaching and grading and planning and collapsing from exhaustion, that a rarely write.

It’s not that I don’t have time to write. I do. I could. Others do it, and I exist in a state of constant awe of those people. But I don’t. Yes, I can pen a poem now and then, blog a couple of times a month, and maybe work on a short story. But the deep dive into novel work? No, I can’t take that plunge. I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’ve quickly come up gasping for air.

HABIT

So, yes, writing is hard, and the longer I go without doing it, the harder it becomes. For real writing to happen, it must be a habit, and in order for something to be a habit, you have to start small. Anyone who’s ever tried to sprint without warming up first knows it’s a bad idea. You have to stretch. Build up your muscles.

That’s why I’m back to using 750words.com. This site’s monthly challenge has been the kick I’ve needed in the past, and I hope it will be the habit-builder I need now. On June 1st, I sat down at my computer (which was hard to do) and started typing (also hard). I used a prompt from my Storymatic cards, thought of a random scene in my novel, and wrote, sluggishly, for fifteen minutes or so before running out of steam. By that point, I had 295 words. And they weren’t good. I doubt any of those words will ultimately make it into my novel.

But I wrote them. And when I couldn’t take that scene any further, I stayed in the chair (which was the hardest of all) and kept writing. I wrote some questions about my novel (to be answered later), then I wrote some of this blog post. After an hour and twenty minutes in front of the computer, I finally got to 750 words. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty. But I did it. And then I went for a walk, because actual exercise is on my summer list too.

DISCIPLINE

For me, discipline in writing requires discipline in all aspects of life. I’d love to be able to sleep until ten, eat junk food all day, watch some TV, and then sit down and write a couple thousand brilliant words, but that’s not how it works. I need to move, be outside, drink lots of water, and fuel my brain with inspiration if I’m going to bring my best, consistently, to the page. That’s why, in some ways, my summer routine is more vigorous than my school year one. It includes daily walks, yoga, or swimming, as well as a healthy(ish) diet and plenty of reading time, both for fun and for research. Equal amounts of coffee and water. Equal amounts of sitting and stretching. Fewer naps and more walks. No TV during the day and time to read the latest Writer’s Digest.

I will not be perfect. Far from it. But if I don’t even make the effort, I won’t come close to succeeding. Already this summer, I’ve been more active in brain and body than I have in weeks, and it feels good. There will be lazy days and gooey chocolate brownies in my future, but hopefully they will be rewards well-earned.

MOTIVATON

Writing is hard, so writers need motivation to keep going. There’s no point in sprinting if you don’t have a destination or a finish line or something scary chasing you, so it’s important to set goals.

Goal setting is something I enjoy, but I’m not always smart about it. As a teacher who’s also a writer, I put a lot of pressure on my summers. The lists of things I want to accomplish is often enthusiastic to the point of overwhelming. Last year, my summer to-do list was three pages long and included all sorts of unrealistic expectations for someone just coming off her first year back in the classroom. At the end of the summer, I checked off some things, crossed off a lot more, and wrote “Hahahaha!” next to a few lofty objectives I didn’t come close to meeting. Realistic goals are key, and I’m trying to get better about that.

Also, motivation can come in many forms. It doesn’t have to be a finished novel. It can be the stay-in-bed day you promised yourself if you meet your word count for the week, or it can be a submission deadline for a publication you want to send your work to. Whatever it is, most of us perform better with a carrot hanging in front of us, so it’s important to find what motivates you and work toward it.

I was fortunate enough to receive a very nice piece of motivation this week. I’m so proud to announce that my current work-in-progress won first place in the middle grade category of the Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest. This honor has earned me entrance to the always-awesome WLT Agents & Editors Conference at the end of this month, as well as a ten-minute consultation with the agent who chose my work as the winning entry. I’m incredibly excited about this opportunity, and now have a LOT of work ahead of me. I want to progress my novel as much as I can before the conference, so that I can (hopefully) speak intelligently about it to editors, agents, and fellow writers. Wish me luck!

In the end, though, none of that hard work will matter much in June if I don’t keep writing in July. And July’s work won’t mean much if I give up in August. So I must find new motivation and maintain discipline and keep getting to the page. Maybe, just maybe, if I fill my summer with words and truly make writing a habit, I can keep it up come September.

One can hope.

Posted in Writing

Why I Ran Away From Home

Photo on 3-12-18 at 4.26 PM

I love my home. I love my husband. I love my life. But two days ago, I took my dog and left it all behind.

Let me explain.

Teaching takes a lot out of you. Not only is it a lot of work, but it’s a lot of extroversion. You have to be ON all day, summoning patience and smiles and enthusiasm even when they don’t come naturally. On a good day, you get a conference period or two, during which you can bask in forty-six minutes of alone time (mostly spent checking emails or grading papers). But sometimes (like the past two weeks, for instance) practically every second of your conference time is taken up with meetings, which means you have to keep that patient, enthusiastic smile plastered on your face all day.

I love my job, but there are many days where I go home after work and just sit in a quiet room, alone, for half an hour. And often fall asleep. So, when spring break arrives, I’m not screaming, “LET’S PARTY!” and calling all the friends I haven’t seen in ages. Instead, I’m craving comfy clothes, quiet spaces, books, blankets, and tea.

All of which I have at home, which begs the question: Why did I run away?

Let me explain some more.

Writing puts a lot into you. Not only is it mental and emotional work, but it also opens the floodgates of creativity. I’m not good at compartmentalizing my writing. I’m not one of those writers who writes a chapter on her lunch break or gets to the doctor’s office a few minutes early and whips up a couple hundred words of a short story. I wish I could work that way, but I can’t. For me, it’s all or nothing. When I’m writing, I’m not doing anything else, and when I truly open my mind to the creative process, the ideas and inspirations start flowing in. While writing a chapter of my novel, I might also jot down notes for a story, or quickly pen a poem, or doodle a cartoon for my next blog post. My brain is everywhere all at once, and it can be very rewarding to get in to that zone, but there’s no room for laundry or alarm clocks or needy pets or schedules. I need time and lots of it, with no responsibilities except to the process. So, when holidays arrive, I often tell myself I’m going to finish those writing projects, but secretly I know that unread emails and unpaid bills and well-meaning friends and family will likely keep me from truly taking the dive.

And that’s why I ran away from home for spring break. To write and relax and be among people I don’t have to smile at or talk to. It’s temporary, but much needed.

Originally, I was going to take a solo journey, but then I remembered what happened at the Books With Bite Workshop. There, I was in a cabin by myself, but friendly faces were just a few yards away, and I knew the following morning we’d all have breakfast together, my absence noted if some dark thing dragged me away in the night. Since I generally prefer for dark things not to drag me away in the night, I decided to bring one responsibility with me—my faithful guard dog.

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He’s more fierce than he appears.

So here we are, at a cabin in an undisclosed location in the Hill Country. I’m reading and writing and walking and napping and basking in the sounds of nature (and the sounds of teenagers whose behavior I do not have to monitor). So far, I’ve finished two books, drafted one and a half blog posts, written two poems, added 1,000 words to a promising short story, and snuck up on my novel-in-progress to spy on it. (I’m planning my attack.) Uno’s stats are not quite as inspiring, although he has peed on an impressive number of trees and chewed on some fairly large sticks.

I think my favorite moment so far was the first evening of my stay, when Uno had finally stopped growling at every tiny noise, and I sat down to do a Tarot reading (as you do on the first night of an adventure). I was itching to get to writing, so I decided to do a simple three-card spread about my retreat, symbolizing what led me here, what will happen here, and how it will affect me. My Halloween cards never let me down, and they came through once again. The first card couldn’t have been more perfect.

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According to The Halloween Tarot by Karin Lee, the Two of Pumpkins (Two of Pentacles in the traditional deck) “signifies duality, or a struggle for balance. The masked jester balances on her tip-toes, weighing two jack-o-lanterns (lit and happy on one side, dark and sinister on the other) in her hands.” Yep. A balancing act, indeed. These three days away are all about me holding on to just one pumpkin for a change.

The rest of the reading was spot-on too, but I’m going to keep that bit of magic to myself.

Tomorrow Uno and I will go back home. A few days from now, I’ll go back to work for the last long stretch before the end of the school year. I’ll pack my patience and enthusiasm and extrovert self to take with me. And my smile? Well… I never truly put that away. 🙂