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Cheryl's Musings

Cheryl's Musings: March 2009

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Charging Mice and Walking Elephants

Since my to-do list is always full to overflowing (what can I say? I have a lot of dreams!) I spend time daily prioritizing tasks and obligations to make sure that the most important don’t fall off my list. I just discovered a tip for making those prioritization decisions that I love so much, I have to share:

Some deadlines charge toward you and some approach more slowly. We tend to take most notice of those that are charging…but be aware that not all of our obligations are of equal importance. Some are small, like mice; others are large—the elephants.

So when determining your priorities, make sure not to spend all your time on the charging mice. They might be flying toward you, but they aren’t necessarily the most important.

Sigh. Now you know the truth—I’m easily distracted by every new organizational concept that crosses my desk. :) Now I’m back to fielding my mice!

And elephants, of course.

:) Cheryl



Notes to start a writer’s week: signs that you might need to recharge

iStock_000008287624Large I love my family. I love them very much. But I’m an extreme introvert—big surprise, since many writers are—and not everyone else in my family is. So after a week of Spring Break, I find myself with an intense need to spend some time alone. With No One Talking to Me and No Music Playing and No Loud Wrestling Matches in the Next Room.

It’s not that anyone’s doing anything wrong. For the most part, the yelling is happy, the arguments resolve quickly, and the constant interruptions are just overflowing from a bubbling, joyous need to share. In a larger house, or one with a separate guest cottage perhaps?, I’d go away for an hour or so, recharge, and return, ready for the next round of (mostly) happy chaos.

Lacking that guest cottage, though, I’ve just been trying to deal and snatch the occasional outing to my favorite coffee shop—but a snowstorm made that trickier. So I’ve winding tighter and tighter, getting more and more stressed, and have just (duh) finally figured it out: I need a recharging break. So, in case you’re anything like me, here are a few signs to watch out for:

  1. You have the frequent urge to plug your ears.
  2. Your only moment of attempted isolation involves deep breathing in the tub—but it lasts only a few minutes because the kids can’t hear your shouted requests for quiet over the pounding keyboard.
  3. You turn down a family member’s offer to help you shovel snow because it might be your only chance to be alone. Even though you have a sixty foot driveway and sixteen inches of wet, heavy Spring snow to clear.
  4. You fight the constant urge to turn down the stereo volume—even though the stereo isn’t on.
  5. You’re starting to eye the wine bottle and it’s only 10:00 AM.
  6. You’ve created an iTunes playlist that contains 90 minutes of silence.
  7. You’re staying up until 2:00 AM because you desperately need those few hours of solitude to retain sanity.
  8. When someone asks if you want to do something fun, you think they mean they’re leaving for a few hours.
  9. You start wandering in circles, accomplishing nothing because your brain will no longer stick to any task for more than 30 seconds.
  10. You start the day with a pillow over your head, wondering if it’s this noisy in Australia.*

If you observe any of the above symptoms, do not delay! Administer first aid immediately, in the form of silence, a good book, a nap, an afternoon out, or whatever particular cure refills your inner introvert.

Happy recharging!

:) Cheryl

*I checked. It is, unless you want to hang out in the desert, which I hear isn’t that much fun. Plus the airfare to Australia is outrageous. And the family will probably want to come, anyways. :)

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Chugga, chugga, chugga...

I'm in the midst of editing a 19 page, single spaced biotech proposal that has more acronyms than articles scattered across its pages. I'm hoping to finish in time to get in a bit of novel work this afternoon, but man! It's hard to focus on intense editing for hours on end! Gotta love the paying jobs, though.

I'm the Little Engine that Could Edit...

Chugga, chugga, chugga....

:) Cheryl



Beware the crisis of confidence!

P1010048 I’ve discovered something. I can’t pay attention to my current opinion of my WIP (the Peru book, or Lu’s Story, as it’s so originally titled) when writing my first draft. As I plug along, getting this first draft down on paper, my judgment about what I’m writing varies more rapidly than the weather here—and that’s saying something, since it’s 68F today, snowed 16 inches three days ago, and is supposed to be blizzarding (and chilly) again tomorrow.

One day, I think I’m writing the best thing ever—and the next, I’m wondering why I think I can even begin to capture this girl’s situation, her emotional or physical journey, or—especially—the details of a jungle I’ve never visited.

If I stop to think about these things, a hundred other doubts are quick to crowd onto the scene: Can I really write contemporary YA? Am I trying to cover too much in this book? Is the relationship between my main character and her companion too sappy? Is it sexist and demeaning? And, by the way, the whole plot premise probably stinks.

Yeah. It’s better not to go there. Those are great questions to ask during revision, but if I start trying to field them all right now, I’m paralyzed. I can’t write.

But—if I duck my head, cover my ears, hum “la-la-la”, and keep on writing? Pretty soon I have another scene written. Pretty soon another plot twist springs to mind, or another character insight, or a deeper understanding of what my book’s really about. I guess all those things are what you’re looking for in a first draft, right?

This week’s goal is to FINISH that first draft, even though I have a pile of editing work to do as well. I’m planning to distribute it to my critique group the beginning of May (yeah, I’m an optimist!) so I’ll need the weeks following to polish it to the point of non-embarrassment. I’ll let you know how I do with my (maybe crazy) goals!

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Great tool for bloggers

caseym I have to give a great big THANK YOU to fellow blogger Casey McCormick for turning me on to Windows Live Writer. This blog-writing application has made blogging a ton easier. It does everything Blogger does…but it’s a step or two more intuitive for someone like me, who doesn’t exactly live and breathe html. Plus, when I check the source code the program creates, it doesn’t seem to be adding a ton of clunky code that would slow down the blog.

In fact, Casey’s blog—Literary Rambles—is my discovery of the week. CWIM’s Alice Pope featured her as Blogger of the Week Friday, and I bet a she’s introduced a new favorite blog to a lot of other writers, too. Literary Rambles is a great source for agent profiles, inspiration, and grins.

Oh—and she has a really cool photo. Visit her blog and enjoy!

:) Cheryl

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The List Post

I keep coming across tres cool list posts from other bloggers (maybe because I've been catching up on my blog reading this week? Nah, that couldn't be it....) so I thought I'd share. Enjoy!

  1. Literary Rambles: Blog Topics for Writers (as featured on Alice Pope's CWIM blog). This is a great reference for those days when you just can't think what to write....

  2. Agent Nathan Bransford's "10 Commandments for the Happy Writer". My personal favorite? #10: Keep writing. Or, in Nathan's words: "Didn't find an agent? Keep writing. Book didn't sell? Keep writing. Book sold? Keep writing. OMG an asteroid is going to crash into Earth and enshroud the planet in ten feet of ash? Keep writing. People will need something to read in the resulting permanent winter."

  3. Writer's Digest "There are No Rules" blogger Jane Friedman's "WD's Editors Intensive Cheat Sheet", an AWESOME list of online resources for the writer-in-training, including websites for agent research, community writing/publishing sites, blogging, self-publishing, and social networking.

  4. 57 Useful Google Tools You've Never Heard of", a list of resources for specialized search tools, mapping utilities (if you haven't checked out Google Earth, you definitely need to do so!), social networking, document sharing, calendar sharing, and much more.

  5. "The First Five Minutes: How Editors Evaluate Your Manuscript", also by Jane Friedman. This post not only lists 14 common first-page problems, it also includes links to several other valuable online resources.

:) Cheryl

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Notes to start a writer's week

It's Spring Break. That means:

  1. Your schedule will be all screwy.

  2. You won't put as many words on the page.

  3. You won't bill as many hours, check as many things off your to-do list, or catch up on your reading.

  4. You might even behind on your reading. More behind, that is.

  5. Your forward progress will probably slow on all projects, at least for a little while.

It also means:

  1. You get extra time with your kids, who are growing up too darned quickly.

  2. You get to refill your creative well with games, walks, and laughter.

  3. You'll get paid with hugs, relationships, and, of course, the creative energy they bring.

  4. Your reading pile will wait.

  5. You'll return to those projects next week with renewed joy and energy.

Balancing the different hats of mother and writer can be tricky at times, but it's always worth it.

:) Cheryl


For your daily laugh...

...visit Publishing-911

Thanks moonrat for the link!



Words flowing like...mud?

Sometimes my WIP flows from my pen like water, each word anxious to escape to the page. Sometimes, though, the words more ooze onto the page.

Today is such a day.

I guess that's not totally accurate--I can rapidly write the wrong words, but I'm lost the story's emotional thread, so they come out flat and lifeless. So...I'm stepping back in story-time, re-brainstorming my main character's mood in scene, re-brainstorming the key elements of plot, character development, and theme that need to emerge, and re-brainstorming the logical progression of scene events.

It's working, but very slowly. There are too many distractions in my head.

Oh, well. The work I put in today will set the stage for tomorrow...when hopefully I'll have built up enough momentum that the words will spout! If all goes well, I may finish draft 1 of my Peru book this week. That will definitely be cause for celebration!

:) Cheryl



Notes to start a writer's week: Things not to do while writing

While writing, you should probably avoid the following:

  1. Giving yourself a manicure--because otherwise, you might (theoretically) have coffee that tastes suspiciously of nail polish.

  2. Walk your dogs on-leash, even with a tape recorder--because leash burns on the ears are substantial distractions from creative impulses.

  3. Eating chocolate--because you might eat the whole bag without noticing.

  4. Exercise--because it's hard to type while exercising and both you and your computer will be at serious risk for injury.

  5. Answering children's questions--writers, when distracted by a particularly good bit of prose, have been known to give their children permission to bring home pet goldfish, puppies, rats, mice, ferrets, skunks, and elephants.

  6. Driving--well, I think the danger here is obvious.

  7. Skiing, biking, rollerblading, or engaging in other balance-requiring activities--see #6.

  8. Grilling--because otherwise your family might be treated to blackened steak. REALLY blackened.

  9. Baking cookies--see #8.

  10. Babysitting--because children, even other people's children, have an uncanny knack for identifying distracted grownups and seizing the situation for maximum havoc wreaking.

Writing is a dangerous business. Please observe these safety precautions to avoid bodily injury while your mind is otherwise engaged.

:) Cheryl

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Theory and Practice

As I write this, my younger son sits upstairs taking his fifth chess lesson. The lessons were a birthday gift, one he's been asking for for more than a year. Finally we succumbed. This very nice chess champion (Paul) now comes to our home once a week to discuss the theory and practice of chess with our ten-year-old (who can whup the pants off everyone else in the house!)

I've been sitting in on some of these lessons. The idea is that I'll learn some of my son's tricks, so I'll be able give him a bit more of a challenge when we play. It's kind of fun, learning about chess tactics, discovered attacks, pinning and forking pieces, how to calculate force...there's this whole other language for chess and how to think about the game. But Paul's first and most important lesson didn't involve any special chess language, but rather, the theory of learning:

To become a better chess player, you need two things. You need to know tactics (learned by doing chess puzzles and practicing the different techniques) and you need to practice. Practice one without the other and your game will improve slowly, if at all.

Wow. That's wisdom that applies to writing or, no doubt, to any kind of learning. The practice of writing is important--it helps me become more fluent at putting words to the page. But sometimes, especially as we become more advanced as writers, I think we forget that we need to keep honing our technical skills as well.

Practice and theory: how do you put the idea into practice? Well, if you want to use simile or metaphor in your writing, spend a week doing simile or metaphor exercises. If you want to hone your ability to vary sentence structure, rewrite a passage from your work using a passage from someone else's work (one that displays great variety in sentence structure) as an example. If you want to improve your ability to write dialog, work through the exercises in Tom Chiarella's Writing Dialog.

Right now, I'm absorbing a great book about writing techniques, Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, by Arthur Plotnik. I say "absorbing" because this isn't the kind of book you plow straight through. It's the kind of book that you peruse slowly, trying out the techniques along the way.

It reminds me of my son's book of chess exercises, only for writers. So if you feel your writing might benefit from improvements in tactics as well as straightforward practice, pick up Spunk & Bite, Writing Dialog, or one of the other great writing books out there. And brush up on your writing skills as a foundation for improving your overall writing game!

:) Cheryl

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For all ye writers of nonfiction...

Jane Friedman of F & W Publications has been kind enough to post her Powerpoint presentation on "Crafting a High-Powered Nonfiction Book Concept". Check it out here. And then put together a great nonfiction book proposal!!

:) Cheryl



A room of her own

I haven't had an official "writing room" for more than a year now. It's been okay--I'm a very portable writer, with my WIP, laptop, and a few key reference books usually stashed in my messenger bag--but I confess I miss having my own space. The desk I use now doubles as a craft/school project/homework area, so I can't leave things spread out quite as much as I used to do.

On the flip side, this works because my kids are both in school (tres weird--I used to write while homeschooling two high-energy boys) and I don't need a private writing spot as often as when there were always other people in the house.

But...this past weekend, we attacked the basement to make a space for a little exercise area: weights , a weight bench, a mat, and a foam roller. I'm so psyched!

Officially, this basement is only a crawl space. The beams supporting the floor above are only about six feet high, and ductwork is suspended below that. You have to duck to get through the miniature door, balance your way down a steep set of skinny stairs, and duck to keep from hitting your head on the ductwork. The floor is dirt covered by an ancient piece of carpet.

But past the ductwork is a spot about five foot square where I can set up my weight stuff, and beside that there's just room for a little table and my writing files--previously relegated to an inaccessible corner even deeper in the dungeon. I scrubbed down the shelves and brought my writing materials out where they're actually usable.

I feel kind of like a kid creating a private clubhouse. It's not beautiful, not brightly lit or particularly warm, but it's mine. Hee-hee. So if you don't hear from me for a while, I'm hiding in my basement....

:) Cheryl

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Notes to start a writer's week: Grist for the Mill

You know that old saying, all the events in a writer's life are grist for the mill? I wonder about that sometimes. I mean, take this morning, when we got up to the amazingly disgusting smell. It turns out that Beau, the boxer pup, had not been feeling well. (Note: ginormous understatement.) Apparently, everything he'd eaten or drunk in the past hours had to be forcibly expunged from his little boxer body using whatever orifice was available.

Yes, large words help me deal with the immense gross-osity.

An hour after the discovery, we had removed clothing, sheets, blankets, and bedspread to the washer; scraped, scrubbed, and steam-cleaned the carpet; opened the window; installed a fan and sage-scented candle; and hand-washed and decontaminated every other item that needed it. (Did I mention he was really not feeling well?) It was the kind of disastrous morning that makes you laugh, it's so ridiculously bad.

When it was time to wake up my son--who slept through both the event and the hour of cleaning, except for a brief eye-flutter when we moved him to another room--he was very grumpy. Beau, he said, had kept him awake for THREE HOURS. He'd hardly slept ALL NIGHT. We asked if it had occurred to him that maybe Beau wanted something. Maybe he needed, for instance, to go outside.

No, that hadn't occurred to him.

But--this is what I mean. Is this event really something that I can use in my writing? Should my children's stories include poop-related disasters?

Hmm. On second thought, maybe Trenton Lee Stuart has a digestively-challenged boxer of his own, because this morning certainly could have inspired the terrible smell faced by his heroes in The Mysterious Benedict Society. Or maybe I'll write a memoir using this event.

Or a blog post. :) Hah. I made use of it, that stinky hour of death-defying cleaning. It IS grist for the mill!

Not that I'm volunteering for more of the same. No, I think that I'm sufficiently inspired in this particular area. Now, if anyone wants to provide me with the opportunity to be inspired by Peru, that's another story....

:) Cheryl

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Book Thoughts: Writer Mama (How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids)

I've been reading a fun book this week: Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids, by Christina Katz. It's a good enough resource that I'm going to purchase my own copy ASAP.

At first glance, Writer Mama is geared more toward writers who are just starting their freelance careers--but it contains plenty of inspiration and information no matter where you are in your writing career. With ideas for everything from gathering ideas, audience identification, contract negotiation, finding time to write, and dealing with home life, it's the kind of read you can pick up whenever you need a little motivation boost or a handful of ideas to tackle the latest obstacle in your writing life.

Plus, Katz relays all this information with humor and sympathy for the ups and downs faced by writing mothers.

I don't have little kids underfoot anymore, but each stage of parenting brings its own unique challenges. Christina Katz's book is a dense package of tools to help me integrate my parent and writer selves, so I'm better at both. I'm glad I picked this one up!

:) Cheryl

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Slow Starts

After a madly productive last week, this week is feeling a bit slow. Take this morning: it's 10:18, and I've yet to pen a single word on my WIP. I keep succumbing to real-world distractions--phone calls, responding to emails, making appointments, renewing library books--all the two-minute tasks that can easily eat up an entire day.

The truth is, I'm feeling a bit agitated. Not stressed, exactly; I get stressed when I have problems looming with no plan of attack. But I've got the adrenaline rush that comes from thinking too much about all the items on my to-do list, and I'm finding it hard to sit down and focus.

So I'm doing as Beth suggested in response to my last post: I'm using the blog for a bit of warm-up writing. I'm here to promise you all that, as soon as this posts, I will plant my butt on my green sofa (I write at the sofa most days, where the dogs can curl up beside me), plop my notebook on my lap, reread the events that need to take shape next in my story, and start dreaming up the scene. Daydreaming is much less threatening, you see, than writing an official paragraph. I close my eyes and think about what my character sees, feels, tastes, smells, and hears, and then I make lists--on the left hand, "unofficial" page of my notebook, of course. Those lists usually spark a sentence of scene description or a snippet of dialog. Next thing I know, I'm usually scribbling away, describing the events unfolding inside my head. Soon I'll have a half dozen pages filled, check the time, and realize that I'm late for something...

It's my process :).

If that doesn't work, I'll have to bring out the heavy guns: others' great books. I just read Thirsty by M.T. Anderson last night, and man, that guy can teach me a thing or three about writing short, intense scenes. But more on that later--I have to go write!

:) Cheryl



Writing and Blogging

Sometimes, I can't figure out how my blog and non-blog writing relate. That is, when my current WIP is going really well, I hate stopping to work on anything else--like blogging and laundry--because I don't want to interrupt the flow. When my current WIP isn't going well, I hate to stopping to work on anything else--like blogging and laundry--because I only pursue non-WIP writing after I've accomplished something in the world of my WIP.

Makes you wonder how I ever manage to blog, doesn't it?!

Most of my blog posts come to me somewhere in that place in between perfect flow and perfect block: you know, when you're getting something accomplished, but your brain is ready to be distracted--I mean, rest--by doing something else. I'll be researching dangers to llama herders in the Peruvian highlands...and have a sudden blog post inspiration. Or I'll finish one chapter but haven't quite geared up to tackle the next, and a blog post inspiration will hit.

Sigh. I wish I could schedule inspiration for blog posts to show up when they won't interrupt my other work and vice-versa.

Anyways, the reason posts have been rather scant is that I've been madly writing the first draft of my current WIP, the oh-so-creatively-titled Peru Book. I'm currently on p. 176 and very happy with where it's going...but even when you're on a writing roll, it takes time to write an entire novel, so my writing roll is interfering with my blog.

There. Now you know. The blog-o-sphere comes second to mad forward progress on my WIP. Don't worry, though--I'm sure I'll slow down soon. If for no other reason, I'll have to reach the book's end eventually!!

:) Cheryl