Tag Archives: creative writing

Sweet sleep and ice cream machines: What do you need to create?

It’s almost 4:30 in the morning. I’ve been up since 3:15 when I first heard a little someone who sleeps right beside me in a mosquito-netted travel cot tossing his head from side to side and smacking his lips. Then I heard questing chirps and fingernails clawing at nylon (I’m pretty sure he lives in hope that if he just scrabbles around frantically enough he’s going to find a boob in bed with him one of these days, either that or he’ll manage to dig his way to one). After a couple of minutes of this I got up and gave him what he wanted.

He went right back to sleep afterwards – it’s the only time of day he will reliably go down without a fuss at the moment. I, however, didn’t find it so easy.

Some of the roosters are also awake, neighborhood dogs are having brief and vocal tussles and I can hear rain falling – such an odd sound at this dry time of year. My bad foot aches. I’m hungry for banana bread or brownies or something. (Not fruit, though, or anything else we actually have in the house. No, not that). My mind is busy hopscotching around between blog posts and book tasks and what exactly I might say to Mike when I wake him up with my restlessness and he rolls over and tells me that I should be asleep. I’m cooking up a line perfectly calibrated to convey that I don’t lie here awake just for fun – a line that’s a bit sharp without straying into unreasonably bitchy territory.

They are such useful conversations to have, these imaginary ones.

I don’t often get up in the wee dark hours and write but I knew how this would play out if I didn’t – the same way it has played out half a dozen times during the last two weeks.

I would put Dominic back to bed at 4 and lie there awake until 5. Then, right as I was tumbling off the exhausted cliff and falling into sleepy, Dominic would start to doze more lightly. He would lose his dummy and want it back again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Then he would wake properly around 6 looking for his own version of banana bread and brownies.

And I would be shot for the entire day as far as any good writing goes.

Decent sleep is such a creative basic for me, something I just can’t do without. I don’t have many other real needs. Relative quiet is on that list. A decent chair and a cup of coffee first thing in the morning come close, but I’m not sure even they qualify as needs. Maybe my laptop does. I can barely remember how to write longhand anymore – I think in type.

Wants are another story; I have plenty of writing wants. I want blank notebooks, and pens that spill just enough ink smooth and clean onto the page when you use them, and something to find me the perfect quotation at a moment’s notice. I want beautiful bookshelves and music that articulates the emotional tone of what I’m writing. I want a soft-serve ice cream machine in my own office.

I’ve always wanted my own office. Well, to be honest what I really want is an entire cabin in the woods (or one set in a lush and well-manicured garden – I can never decide which). I want to fill this cabin with books and buy a huge wooden desk made of gorgeous timber – timber that earned its beauty during decades of struggling up toward sunshine in a rainforest – the sort of timber that I should be too responsible and too ashamed to own. And when I grew tired of sitting at this magical desk, I imagine that I would relax on a beautiful Turkish carpet in front of a fireplace.

Somehow my imagination never has me cleaning the ashes out of this fireplace in the cold hard light of day; I only ever sit there during twilight and watch the mystic dance of flames.

Isn’t that the way with wants?

I might want an office, but I certainly don’t need one. As long as it’s quiet enough I can write anywhere. Sometimes I can even write when it’s not at all quiet (does anyone else get some of their best ideas in church?). I can make do without the ice cream machine. Sleep, however, is a different story.

Trying to write without enough sleep in the bank is like trying to drive through fog or swim wearing shoes or bang your head against the wall without putting your bike helmet on first.

See what happens? You come up with sentences like the one above. And then you’re too dopey to edit them out. When I write tired I feel easily overwhelmed. I second-guess myself constantly and nothing I come up with seems good enough (possibly because nothing I come up with is good enough). It’s no fun at all.

Nope, if I had to choose between my cabin in the woods and getting enough sleep it’s not even a close call. Sleep I need. Cabins I just want.

Over to you: What are your creative wants and needs?

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And The Title Is…

I find book titles hard.

I spent a decade working on my first novel and I still didn’t have a title I liked when I submitted it to publishers. This turned out not to be a problem. In fact, when I was offered a contract I was surprised to learn that publishers generally retain the right to title (or re-title) your book and design its cover any way they see fit. It’s not completely unheard of for authors to hate the title or cover that clothes their work.

Luckily that didn’t happen to me. I loved both the title and the cover that Moody Publishers came up with for my hands came away red (on sale on Amazon for $5.20 at the moment, on kindle for $7.49, or for the Nook at $7.99).

Sometime during the year and a half between when I signed the contract and “Hands” came out, I asked my editor about how they come up with titles.

“The editorial and marketing staff generally have a big meeting,” he said. “Everyone’s read a copy of the book and we brainstorm on flip chart sheets about concepts and images and words that might suit. We also go through the book looking for phrases that might work. We hope that sometime during several hours of collective brainpower something perfect will just jump out at us.”

Apparently that’s what happened with my novel. Someone in that meeting had underlined the phrase “my hands came away red” – words spoken by the narrator in a pivotal scene about one third of the way through the story – and that phrase became my book’s title.

This time around I started thinking about titles right from the beginning, and for three years all the titles I came up with lacked something. Some were too cute and kitschy, others were too bland, too confusing, or too unrelated to the main storyline. I was Goldilocks with the bear’s porridge, except there were a hundred different bears.

A couple of months ago I decided to mimic the process a publishing house might undertake. I went through the book with a red pen looking for phrases that might make good titles. I also set up an excel spreadsheet and brainstormed words related to the theme of the book. Then I started to play with the different images in my list. I listed a bunch of three word titles, five word titles, and six word titles.

And, finally, something just right jumped out at me.

LOVE AT THE SPEED OF EMAIL

Title, check. Phew. Next on my list? To go over the text for the back cover with a fine tooth-comb. And then to go over it again.

“My advice is not to wait to be struck by an idea. If you’re a writer, you sit down and damn well decide to have an idea. That’s the way to get an idea.”
(Andy Rooney)

What are some of your all-time favorite book titles?

And, if you write, how do you come up with your titles?
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Landmines, literal and metaphorical (Writing Wednesday)

On Monday I took Baby Bear on an outing to the UXO museum (unexploded ordinance), because it’s never too early in life to learn about cluster bombs. (Or because I was desperate to get out of the house and the UXO museum is just a five-minute walk away).

Dominic wasn’t all that impacted by the cluster bombs, he was far more concerned with the fact that I handed him over to the woman who was standing guard over the empty, one-room exhibit, and looking at him longingly. I figured that anyone who had to talk about landmines all day deserved a baby snuggle. Dominic wasn’t sure that he agreed.

More about the UXO museum later, but today’s Wednesday. Wednesday is for writing. Except… I’ve spent much of the last ten days poring over Book Baby with a fine-tooth-comb (for what is at least the tenth time) before I send it off for copy-editing. There’s not much you can do to make that process interesting to read about.

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.
Oscar Wilde

Writing is a fairly lonely business unless you invite people in to watch you do it, which is often distracting and then have to ask them to leave.
Marc Lawrence

So for this week’s writing Wednesday I’m sending you over to GlimmerTrain’s website to check out Janis Hubschman’s list of ten craft techniques that have been most helpful to her on her own writing journey. The post is called Steal This List and I think it’s worth stealing (or at least saving so that you can refer to it when you hit a landmine in your own story).

To close, a conversation Mike and I had over the dinner table after my outing to the UXO museum.

Mike: “What did you think?”

Me: “I was surprised to learn that the number of landmine accidents in Laos is on the decline – from about one a day, to one every two or three days.”

Mike: “Yeah, but, still…”

Me: “I know. Can you imagine? I mean, how much would it impact our lives to lose a limb, or worse, in a landmine accident? And we’re not even technically dependent on our limbs to make money for our families.”

Mike: “If you lost an arm in a landmine accident it would slow down your writing … (pause) … which would impact our family income not at all.”

Luckily for Mike, I thought this was not only true but also funny.

Come back later this week to read about the UXO museum, or maybe joy. I haven’t decided yet. Thanks for dropping by.

Writing Wednesday: To fictionalize or not to fictionalize, that is the question

It’s Writing Wednesday. It has been, in fact, since I woke for the first time last night at 12:30 to put a soothing hand on a stirring baby, and since I fed him at 4:30, and since our wretched dog starting whining outside the bedroom door at 5:00, and since Dominic decided morning had indeed broken at 5:45am.

I do hope no one is expecting anything too profound from me today.

I also hope one of these days soon I’ll stop expecting anything too profound from myself during this particularly fatigue-fogged season of life.

So let me tell you a little more about the story of the book baby that hasn’t found a publishing home. If I were to cast this as a children’s story (of which I’ve been reading no small number out loud recently) it would go something like this.

When the agent overseeing book baby adoptions organized for publishing families to have a look at book baby, many of them said very nice things. Indeed, they said the writing was fabulous. Just like the bear’s porridge though, book baby never seemed quite right to them. Some of the publishers wished book baby talked more about Lisa’s faith and some wished it talked less. Some wished that book baby talked more about Lisa’s work and less about Lisa’s love life, some wanted exactly the opposite. Several wished book baby were not a memoir at all but a novel. And so, eventually, book baby arrived back to the book orphanage without having found a home…

Don’t worry, I’m not going to quit my day job to take up writing children’s stories (although when you read some of the crappier ones that actually get published you have to wonder how hard it could be to kick ass in this genre).

But back to my homeless book baby…

It seemed there were several editors who were seriously interested in the prospect of this book as a novel, and I spent weeks mulling over whether I wanted to rewrite the entire thing.

It felt weird to me. I’d spent three years working hard to make sure this story conveyed emotional and factual truth and here I was being asked to turn it into a novel. Where would I even start with that? By spicing up the details of my past, or adding a serious addiction or abusive parents?

In the end, I’ve decided not to do it. There are multiple reasons for this but here are just a couple.

Rewriting it as a novel doesn’t stay true to my original vision for the book. I realize that in saying this I’m running the risk of coming off as precious. I don’t mean to be. It’s just that the book I wanted to write to tell this story was a memoir. Three years down the track, after I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to carve an actual story out of the therapeutic mind-dump of my first draft, that hasn’t changed. I don’t get all that excited at the thought of taking this story and fictionalizing it, and at this stage I don’t want to see it published by an establishing publishing house badly enough to make that effort.

There is also the other baby.

Yes, that one. And the presence of this other baby means that right now I don’t feel that I have the time or the energy I’d need to embark upon a massive creative re-write. Freelancing, I can do. Essays, blog, even some consulting, I can do (on a good day). But I’m genuinely unsure as to whether I could stretch to writing a novel at the moment. At least, not one I’d be completely proud of.

So what to do about homeless book baby?

That has, indeed, been the question of my life this last three months – right alongside: Is Dominic hungry/wet/tired? If not, why is he crying??? And, what on earth am I going to do to entertain him today?

There are only so many afternoons you can spend gyrating to ABBA’s Dancing Queen in front of the baby bouncer, you know.

Come back next week for more news about the fate of homeless book baby, and if you have good suggestions for entertaining a three-month-old baby, leave them below! I guess you could leave a comment or question related to writing, too, or let me know what you think about the topic of fictionalizing memoirs. It is after all, Writing Wednesday.

I’ll leave you with this quote by John Berryman because it made me laugh. Here’s to a happy Thursday all round the globe. Thanks for stopping by.

“The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”

Great books I’ve been reading (but not writing)

Happy Monday. I’m still pretty busy with consulting work at the moment, and it’s usually very interesting stuff. Today, however, not so much. I’ve spent most of the day going through facilitator handbooks, slides, and handouts, checking and synchronizing reference numbers for a series of workshops on stress and resilience. O holy tedium.

Part of the problem is that I’ve combed through this material so many times during the last month that I’ve been helping content edit this course. Now, whenever I open the project files the peanut gallery that lives at the back of my mind starts yelling things like, “boringboringboringboringboringboring!!!….” And they throw things – not nice things, either. And sometime they spit.

It’s remarkably similar to the reaction I get whenever I venture to open the draft of my next book, actually.

I like to tell people that I’ve been letting my book sit a while, getting creative distance, so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes for the next (hopefully last) edit before I send it to my agent later this year. Sounds good, huh? Just between you and me, though, I suspect that the following two facts have at least as much to do with my recent dallying on the memoir:

(1) I have not committed to other people to meet certain deadlines.

(2) No one is paying me quite nicely to tell the peanut gallery where to stick all their shrieking and mocking, grit my teeth, and plow forward.

As my husband frequently remarks, I can be bought, so if anyone wants to remedy point 2 let me know.  The currency Mike typically uses is white wine and massages. As one of these bribes, however is currently unavailable to me (thanks a lot, baby), and the other I can source myself with a bike ride and 5 dollars, any offers will therefore have to up the ante a bit.

So, speaking of books, here’s a look at several I’ve read since we arrived in Laos that have provoked an entirely different reaction from the aforementioned peanut gallery – cheers and claps and showers of caramel popcorn.

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood (Robyn Scott): I just finished this last night and loved it – a wonderful, often funny, very well-written and thoughtful memoir of the author’s unstructured childhood in rural Botswana.

What Is the What (Vintage) (Dave Eggers) This fictionalized memoir of Valentino Achak Deng – a refugee from the Sudanese civil war – packs a real punch. It’s interestingly structured for a memoir-esque book, poignant, soul-stirring, and thought-provoking.

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana (Haven Kimmel) This memoir is a great example of how a talented storyteller can turn the most prosaic of raw material into a compelling narrative. I don’t know how Haven Kimmel managed to turn a childhood in Indiana into one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages, but she did.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story (Donald Miller) Part memoir, part meditation on story itself as well as the sorts of stories we are all writing with our lives, I read this book with a pen in my hand. Lots to reflect deeply on in here, and lots of wonderful gems on the writing process (My great author friend, Nicole Baart, loved this book so much she did an entire blog series on it, starting here).

Found Art: Discovering Beauty in Foreign Places (Leanna Tankersley) This memoir of meeting, marrying, and then leaving immediately to spend a year overseas, was a perfect book for me to read at a perfect time. It was wonderful to read someone else’s honest, lyrical, reflections upon transition and marriage. I immediately looked Leanna up and subscribed to her blog.

Water for Elephants: A Novel (Sara Gruen) Really enjoyed this novel. Set in the colourful world of a traveling circus it’s an escapist read that is really fun but is also laced with plenty of depth and poignancy.

Belong to Me: A Novel (Marisa De Los Santos) De Los Santos is also a poet, and her novels are lush, dense with insightful gems on relationships and life, but also compulsively readable. This book helped me pass several hot afternoons inside a guesthouse just after we arrived in Laos.

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books)(Normal Doige) This is an utterly fascinating look at brain plasticity. Highly recommended for people interested in understanding learning and combating learning disorders, brain damage, and aging. I found chapter four on Acquiring tastes and loves: What neural plasticity teaches us about sexual attraction and love particularly intriguing. There’s a very interesting discussion in there on how pornography changes neural wiring around attraction pathways.

I think that’s enough from me today about other people’s amazing books. What about you? What books have you read recently that caused your peanut gallery to whistle, stamp their feet, and give two thumbs up?


The circle of your passion

It’s been a week. For me, it’s been a week of finishing the draft, enjoying a brief high, then falling (temporarily, let’s hope) into a big black woeful hole of not feeling like doing anything at all, and wondering how we can possibly have been in Laos three months already, and whether the rumours are true that we’re staying here for the next couple of years. On that front, it appears so, unless the powers that be mandate otherwise. I’ve had ample time to mull all of this over during a string of nights when sleep eludes me until late – midnight or 1am – and sometimes only arrives after the sort of help that comes in little bottles with child-proof caps on them.

For Mike, it’s been a week of waking up early – in the 3’s or the 4’s, occasionally the 2’s – with his mind jumping ahead to the day. The biggest meetings of the year took place yesterday, and coincided with a week-long delegation of all sorts of people that be all sorts of powerful, and not all of whom arrived on the scene happy. We think they be leaving happier, we think. There was a lot of smiling and nodding at the big partnership dinner last night – then again there was also lots of beerlao, which tends to help with the smiling (but not with the sleep, no, not with that).

A couple of weeks ago Mike and I had dinner with a friend, Gabrielle, who Mike first met in the Vanuatu almost three years ago. In January we had dinner with her in Melbourne. Since then she’s moved to Hanoi. Two weeks ago she swung by our new town.

So we met at Utopia and drank Saffron Robes and cheap Chilean wine and gazed upon the Khan River and talked. We talked of things that humanitarianers often seem to talk about when they cross paths for an evening and drink and look at rivers.

  1. How and why did you decide to make this last move/take this last job?
  2. How are you finding this massive uprooting and replanting of your life?
  3. What about the job itself – where are the rewards and the pressure points?
  4. Is it worth it – this move, this job, this whole field …

There is a lot wrapped up in that last question. I could write a whole series of posts just on the different variables that come into play when trying to calculate the opportunity-cost of this work and of this lifestyle. There are issues of meaning and purpose to be considered. And efficacy, community, motivation, finances, and safety. And, of course, passion.

Gabrielle calls this sort of conversation tumbleweeding, which I think is a delightful word. It brings to mind a tangled ball of wiry stalks all intertwined – dense enough to hang together in a round yet light enough to be moved by the wind. A tumbleweed bounces and spins at the same time as it skips along. A tumbleweed goes places. (Sometimes it just goes in circles, but that too is appropriate.)

I wonder what usually happens to tumbleweeds in the end. Do they pick up so many leaves and twigs on their journey that they eventually stop moving and settle into being just a pile of sticks? Do they get snagged on bushes, never to work themselves free? Or do they break apart – thin pieces of brush skittering and sliding in every which direction?

So, passion. That was our primary focal point that night.

“Are you passionate about writing?” Gabrielle asked me.

“Sometimes I get a great day, or hour,” I said. “Those moments are incandescent. I lose track of time. Afterwards I’m tingling with that happy sort of electricity that comes when you don’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. I’m totally buzzed.”

“But,” I continued. “At least as often, probably more often, I sit there and it’s hard, and I struggle, and I want to be almost anywhere else, and I hate it. Except I feel compelled to do it anyway.”

“That’s passion,” Mike said.

“Huh,” I said.

Why do I primarily associate vocational passion with the electric, positive, purposeful, buzz? Wishful thinking, maybe, or is it possible to have those joyous mountaintop moments without trudging through some valleys? Are mountaintop moments over-rated, anyway? Should we really be aiming for a nice picnic blanket halfway up a pretty green slope?

And, if what we were talking about really is passion, how can you live inside the circle of your passion without it consuming you?

That’s what we talked about for most of the evening, sipping our wine, staring at the river, tumbleweeding around. We didn’t come up with the right answer, because there isn’t one. But Mike and I wandered home through the dark streets feeling refreshed and ready to face the windstorms of tomorrow.

After the week we’ve just weathered, maybe that’s what we need this weekend – some tumbleweeding. Or maybe a river. Or friends. Or some wine? Looks like we have options.

What about you: Do you feel like you’re living inside the circle of your passion? How do you keep from being consumed?

P.S. I could practically see the parental eye rolling in Australia when I mentioned wine (again!!). So, my beloved mother, this picture’s for you. It’s Mike, weeks ago now, disposing of the last wine we had at home because it was simply wretched stuff. The bamboo, much to my surprise, has suffered no ill effects.

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