Organizing for Writing

As writers we are always collecting material. I have file boxes full of notes. Numerous computer files. Bookshelves of books. My brain is constantly coming up with new concepts to write about. New angles. New stories. I can’t possibly keep track of them all.

Between my electronic notes and files, and my physical files and notes, I sometimes am overwhelmed with all the resources I have collected. It’s as though an avalanche of ideas is always coming at me and I don’t have time to sort it all and to prioritize it.

I received the book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert, from my son for Christmas. He knows I am a creative type as I dabble in art and music and writing. Incidentally, I finally found a template that works for featuring my photography online. You can view it at LensArt. What I was going to say is that Elizabeth Gilbert sees inspiration as a sort of entity of its own, like a “spirit” that makes an entrance into our lives and beckons us to follow it and create something. She also says we can’t sit idly and wait for this sort of inspiration to knock on our door. We grasp it when it does, but in the meantime creativity needs to find us busy working.

As I’ve already said, my problem is not that ideas don’t come to me. On the contrary, there are too many ideas competing for my attention. Too many projects I’ve started, and so many more I want to begin. My problem is more in the area of effectively working with my ideas and not losing them.

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it is alright to have all of this evidence of raw writing material–files upon files, books upon books. For too long I compared myself with others who were not writers and who didn’t have this semi-organized chaos, and thought I needed to be like them. Then one day I observed that other writers did indeed have the same challenges I have in dealing with endless resources. I wasn’t some odd sort of hoarder. I saw that writers need a lot of material before we put pen to paper. We need lot of exposure to other sources. We end up doing a lot of gathering and collecting.

If only I had someone to help me with the task of sorting, organizing, storing and retrieving. What a luxury that would be.

In the early church there were theologians who had sponsors who enabled them to write because they provided them with scribes or secretaries and often paid their living expenses. I read about one church father, I believe it was Origen, who had seven secretaries at one time. Imagine that. In this way he was able to write reams of material.

Of course, back then all of it was done by hand. At least I have the advantage of a computer which, compared to handwriting or using a typewriter, is an incredibly useful tool, taking numerous hours off of my writing time. I don’t miss the days of pulling paper out of my typewriter and erasing.

Like most writers, I continuously face the tedious task of documenting my ideas and organizing and prioritizing them, without the aid of a benefactor or the assistance of secretaries. I’ve had to train myself to be alright with a bit of chaos when too much focus on cleaning up my reference materials takes energy away from actual writing. 

There is a sort of dividing line I need to be conscious of, an imaginary line dividing the past from the present. It separates the collected material from the collections I am working with.

When I write, I pull items forward from the past into the present. Some of my collected material is no longer relevant. It needs to go. Other material must be accessible, not lost in some slush pile–namely, a place from which it is never retrieved.

From time to time I need to go back into the past and remind myself of what is there.

Memory is an amazing thing, the way it retrieves information. But my memory  occasionally needs a little help and so I go back and review what I’ve written and stored.

I am determined to continue to work at implementing an effective organizational system. An effective organizational system is one where I can utilize material that is helpful and retrieve it when I need it.

Currently I sort documents into broad categories and sub-categories on my desktop, in Scrivener, in my email program (I email links to articles to myself), in online bookmarks and in my physical filing cabinet. I use Google Keep to take quick notes when ideas come to me. I have to consistently work to keep ahead of the clutter and remain focused on what it is I want to write.

Organizing is not an end in itself.  The result I am trying to achieve is to free up more time to write and to become a better writer. Keeping this in mind helps to protect me from what could easily become an obsession–organizing.

My Happy Place as a Writer

...ok, I didn't buy it.

For a long time I searched for my Happy Place as a writer and I didn’t find it. The reason I couldn’t find it was because I needed to create it. I needed to understand what this place is made up of. Most of all, I needed to identify the core of my motivation.

Writing can be a lonely, thankless venture. For about five years I have been in the process of establishing myself as a writer and I admit I am still far from where I plan to be. But I am exactly where I want to be right now because this is the place from which I move forward.

Right now I have a great deal of experience, raw material, writing resources, ideas, and visions of possibilities for the future. With each day that passes I accumulate more writing aids and grist for the mill. This is a good place to be. 

Five years ago I quit my job and began to work diligently on my writing. At that time I gained a lot of momentum as a writer. However, a year later I went back to work at two consecutive jobs. All the while I kept having a gnawing feeling that I was to focus on my writing. Finally I submitted my resignation. (I don’t recommend quitting your job unless you are convinced in your heart that this is what you are to do.)

The past two years have been riddled with doubt and confusion as I vacillated back and forth between staying at home on a reduced income and going back to work again. After repeated rejections from agents and editors I contemplated giving up fiction writing altogether. I over-analyzed and second-guessed myself after numerous blog posts with virtually no reader response.

I admit I have yet to regain the momentum I had during the first year before I went back to work. However, the time in between has not been wasted and I have gained many valuable insights.

Little has changed around me, but something has changed inside me. I have embraced the messiness and the beauty of where I am today. I have accepted what I have, and even what I don’t have.

I made two decisions which are moving me forward.

One, I am motivated by love. I write because I love people. I want to inspire, encourage and entertain people.

Two, I want to write.

I can write anywhere and on any subject. I may write comments on social media, or messages and emails to friends, or notes on birthday cards, or I may write in my journal. The success of my writing does not need to be measured in terms of financial profit. I write because I love people and because I love to write.

I am truly grateful for each writing resource I have studied, each note I have taken, each creative line I have written. I am grateful for all that has brought me to this place where I am today and all that will influence my tomorrows to come.

If there is one thing the past months and years have taught me it is this: Writing is a struggle and it will always be a struggle. That is why it is so critical to know why I am writing and who I am writing for.

My future success may not come in the form of a published book. In fact my future may look much like my past. I’m OK with that. I now see intrinsic value in what I am doing from day to day. I am in my Happy Place.

 

How I Beat Writer’s Block

At the Peace Arch border crossing, entering the U.S. from Canada, the border patrol person asked me what I did for a living. He seemed very interested when I told him I was a writer and offered me a cure for writer’s block.

“You know what you have to do to overcome writer’s block?”

Of course I wanted to hear what he had to say.

“You have to travel. That’s what will get you over writer’s block.”

He sounded so confident, I decided to take his advice to heart.

I travel to a park or the beach, and sit in my car and write. I travel to a local tourist area and walk around for half a day. I travel to home decor stores to see their enticing displays. I visit the ocean, or the mountains. Since I live in the Pacific Northwest I have access to numerous places to get inspiration for writing, places like Granville Island, Fort Langley, White Rock, Crescent Beach, Deep Cove, Belcarra Regional Park, Stanley Park. I could go on.

img_20160820_161320

Granville Island, British Columbia

My budget constricts me a little, but I have still managed several longer vacations in the past year or so, traveling to the Okanagan Valley, to Manitoba to attend two weddings, to Ontario to visit family I hadn’t seen for decades, to New England to do research for my novel, and most recently to Portland, Oregon to attend a writers’ conference.

img_2060

Red Lion Hotel on the River-Jantzen Beach, Portland, OR

 

I’ve read a lot of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. If I am blocked, it is for a reason. Usually it is the pressure of the urgent. The sense that something is more important than writing.

I am also an artist and a musician and the answer to why I don’t paint, or play piano or guitar is the same. The mundane duties of life supersede my artistic ambitions. If I am not writing or painting or making music, it is because I have not placed a high enough importance on these activities.

I recently visited the website of an author and agent I met at a writers’ conference and saw that his last writing post was dated June 28. My natural response was one of sadness. Why is this skilled writer not writing regularly?

Maybe it is because we writers are not machines. Yes, we can seat ourselves at our desks and determine not to get up for four hours. This will produce results of sorts. Some writers are able to adhere to a self-imposed writing deadline and I expect their email as consistently as Saturday, or a full moon. But we are not all like that.

The greatest hindrance to good writing is a depressed spirit. Traveling, getting into a new space and making new encounters, works very well to lift one’s spirits.

One weekend I travelled down to Lynden, WA to help my son and his wife paint the interior of their house. My husband took a separate car and came later, after work. When I returned back home, my husband went through the border first and I followed after him. The border guard greeted me and I told him I had been visiting my children.

“I heard you ‘Tom Sawyered’ your husband into painting a house.”

I laughed, and thought to myself, border guards read too. Once again my little journey proved to be inspiring.

Maybe traveling isn’t your way of getting over writer’s block. Find out what works for you and do whatever it takes to get your thoughts out there for people to read. Somebody is waiting to hear from you.

 

Getting Past the Fear

Last night, at 4:00 a.m. I finally pressed ‘Send’ and submitted my first ten pages to the Oregon Christian Writes Manuscript Submission program. For $5.00 you can have an editor or agent look at your first ten pages when you attend the conference. They may or may not want to meet with you and possibly ask for your complete manuscript.

Before I go on, I’ll just give you a brief summary of what has happened since I dropped off the scene for awhile. I hope we can be the kind of friends who can pick up where we left off because that’s the kind of friends I mostly have. We are in this for the long haul and know there will be interruptions for various reasons.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the direction of my life and during the last three years I took two different admin assistant jobs. Previously when I was blogging regularly (2012) I was between jobs and very focused on moving ahead with my writing.

Working at these jobs made me realize that I have a very strong admin gift, as I have been told, but that my passion is not so much in the area of keeping a machine running as it is in connecting with people and finding ways to make meaningful contributions. I like to contribute in many ways. Hosting a meal, planning a birthday party, interacting with children and seniors, finding and sharing significant information, decorating my home, creating beautiful paintings, taking photos, building memories with loved ones, problem solving, and enriching my marriage.

While I was working I kept thinking that I was wasting my time. I know I wasn’t actually wasting my time, but maybe I was missing opportunities. I felt I was missing the things that only I could do. However, I had to counter-balance this with the fact that I was helping others on my job reach their goals and that is very significant to me. I love to help others in this way.

But now I feel the time has come for me to start my own business, in a sense. This is the second go I am having at building a writing career and to tell the truth it scares me. I could have pressed ‘Send’ at 10:00 p.m.yesterday but I had a fear of putting my work out there. When you are younger, I think, your mind doesn’t go so many places and consider so many possibilities before making a decision. In other words, you basically just think, if I mail this, then I might get a publishing contract. What could be more exciting?

But me, I was sitting in bed thinking, is this really how I want to be perceived? Is my novel saying what I want it to say? Am I being true to my characters? Would I be embarrassed if so and so read this? If so, why?

I have a lovely friend, a published author, who is nudging me along with my writing. She even came over this week and helped me sort out my first ten pages. I was completely stuck. I have spent a very long time trying to find out where my novel starts, how much is back story. After sending her several different chapters, because my book is mostly complete, she finally said, “That’s it! That’s where your book starts!” I was so relieved, until I tried to figure out how to move ahead from there and suddenly it looked like none of the rest of the book fit. Thankfully she was able to help me out with that too.

It’s an understatement to say I’ve learned a lot in this process. But one thing I do know. I keep getting excited about sharing what I have learned with my readers, right here, on this blog. It is what I have finally discovered to be one of the things I love the most. As I said before, I love sharing significant information. So, I am keeping this thought in the back of my mind and trying to figure out the best way to do this.

Back to last night. With those questions rolling around in my mind I took another look at my writing, and specifically my last page, because I felt uncomfortable with it. My friend, Gail Sattler (check out her novels-she writes humor), had helped with my edits on these ten pages and really improved my writing. She has a lot of experience and knows how to put the feeling on the page, unlike me. But, as I looked at the last page I saw it wasn’t me. I had to take out the things I loved that she had suggested and turn it into my writing. When I finally did that, then I was able to press ‘Send.’ Incidentally, she is also the kind of friend who says, “I’ll mail yours with mine.” I wonder why?

Writers can relate to the fear of putting ourselves out there. There are so many ways to fail. My plot might be weak, my middle story might lose the reader’s interest, my writing style might be boring, or I realize I can never write like so and so.

Nobody in my family is a writer. I am breaking new territory. I admit I am afraid of what people will think of me, of my writing. I want to be seen as a thoughtful intellectual, but maybe I am just a hopeless romantic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and that is confirmed by book sales. I am just trying to find the courage to put myself out there, whatever it is.

I read something helpful today in Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain.

Don’t try to be all things to all men. Universality of appeal is a myth….Quit wasting your time pretending that it doesn’t exist, or that there’s some esoteric way around it….You can’t change yourself at will to suit a given public. You must accept yourself the way you are. Then, seek out an audience that sees the world the same way you do. Can you be sure that such an audience exists? You can. Individual you are indeed; and different. But not that different, for you’re human also (p.117-118).

“You must accept yourself the way you are.” Haven’t we all heard that a million times before.

I didn’t want to hurt Gail’s feelings by taking out those really good bits, or re-wording them. But the writing process is about helping the writer become the best they can be and that means the best THEY can be. Gail gets this. She’s awesome.

I truly hope that I will be able to write here with some consistency over the next months. But, one of the best things that I have learned this past year is that this is a dialogue. It may look like the conversation has ended when bloggers stop posting for awhile. Maybe for some it is. But others just need to re-group, decide what they want, figure out the best way to move forward, and trust the timing. The break may be exactly what was needed.

 

Why do you write?

Recently I had someone ask me why people blog. I explored a few blogs to see what other writers are saying. If I were to sum it all up I would say we write for two reasons: ourselves and others–we want to give something to others and we want them to give something back to us.

We want to share ourselves and have others do the same. You tell me your story. I’ll tell you mine. We are looking for subjects that resonate with us and we are looking for people who get it, or get us.

I enjoy creating and discovering meaningful dialogue. I feel rewarded and even excited when I read a blog where someone expresses a thought succinctly or uses language in a way I would never have thought to express myself.

It happens in comments too. I don’t think we give comments enough credit, not only from the reader’s perspective, but also as writers who comment. A good comment can be as skillfully crafted and insightful as the blog itself. Comments are reflective responses that allow us to see how readers received what the author of the blog wrote. They are also an opportunity for creative dialogue.

I guess I am just plain fascinated by how people think and communicate. Some are all compassion and understanding; others are aloof and intellectual; still others are agitated and insulting. Why? What is it in their experience that makes them react this way?

I was facilitating a discussion group this weekend and had an amazing opportunity to watch in person how people interact with each other. One of the participants started out by clarifying that she is a “thinker” and not “emotional.” She didn’t like to be “told”…. Another participant immediately revealed something very personal, hurt from the past, and shared how he was willing to risk being vulnerable. I appreciated both of their openness. But I noticed that the other people in the group were more responsive to a third person, a song writer and performing artist. I think years of experience had taught her how to anticipate the kind of response her words would generate.

In blogging we are looking for a response. How do we get people to talk about what matters to them? Of course, we want to talk about what matters to us, but if we are not tuned in to others we can actually impede communication, as happened with the two examples I gave.

Some bloggers are naturals. They have discovered not only what others want to talk about, but how to get them talking. We love to read their blogs. They are the writers that tend to get picked up by publishers.

I love this writing journey. I love the blend of experience and thought and communication that makes each blogger unique. I think this joy of discovery is the reason I blog. Why do you blog?

OCW Conference

I promised to report on my experience at the OCW Conference. Initially the goal was to find an editor who would want my novel. As the date approached I saw that I would not complete editing my novel in time.

I did a lot of the hard work, as I had intended. But something was missing. At the conference I found out what it was.

I did not show my novel to anyone nor did I pitch it. But I consulted with my coach and a mentor. What I learned was very helpful.

I learned, first of all, that I am writing “women’s fiction,” not a “romance,” as I had thought. In women’s fiction it is the story and issues of the heroine that drive the book, not the romance.

For me coming to this understanding was huge. It meant I now understood why I could not accept some of the recommendations of my critique partner. It is alright for me to do the things I want to do, and feel I need to do.

I also dug deeper, with the help of my coach, and refined the underlying message of my book. I now have greater clarity about how to proceed with my writing.

Several people encouraged me to stay with my novel. One author remembered my characters from the time I shared my story with her last year and she is particularly waiting for me to finish the book.

At the conference I found something I needed and for which I did not even know I was looking. Now I can’t wait to see what my book will look like by the time the next OCW Conference rolls around.

Are you reading Writer’s Digest?

I noticed today that I can drop $40 on two books with scarcely a thought, but I’ll spend considerable time deliberating over the purchase of a blouse for $39.99. Needless to say, my closet looks a little bare and my bookshelves are overflowing.

My reading is mostly about curiosity and learning. I do read the occasional novel, but I’m more often in every section of the bookstore but the novel section. Sometimes I buy a couple of novels the library is getting rid of for 50 cents or a dollar. I don’t like to worry about returning novels.

Recently I have been making more trips to the library. My latest reading has been about the writing process, as you may have guessed. The book I borrowed yesterday is called HELP! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces, by Roy Peter Clark. I just returned Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington. It is an excellent reference book. I extended my borrowing time and made some detailed notes for later reference.

I have also borrowed every Writer’s Digest copy the library has, all thirteen of them. You’d think a library would have a good stack of back issues. I mean, isn’t a library all about writing? I’ve been deliberating getting my own subscription, but it’s so much more fun having a half dozen magazines to peruse. I just looked online and between the five libraries in my city they only have a total of 46 Writer’s Digest magazines. A shame.

The advantages of reading a magazine is that it condenses the best and the latest information.  Take for example, 25 Agents Who Want Your Work: How to Land a Book Deal, from the October 2012 issue. Or, How Creativity Works: 5 Writers Take You Inside Their Process, November/December 2012.

The magazines are published approximately every other month and each is a collector item if you are a writer. An annual subscription costs 19.96 if you live in the US, 29.96 if you live in Canada and 31.96 for international customers. You get eight copies for that price. Writer’s Digest also offers valuable resources such as webinars and tutorials, free writing downloads, a weekly writing prompt and workshops.

A special reduced price is made available for those who purchase a subscription to WritersMarket.com at the same time. This actually looks like a great deal. WritersMarket has up to date listings of writing markets (you probably guessed that!). It can also help you track your submissions and has a few other special features that make it like a personal assistant for writers. I haven’t subscribed to WritersMarket yet but I am seriously considering it.

I will be away on holidays without consistent internet access for the next two weeks so you may or may not hear from me. In the meantime, check out a couple of Writer’s Digest magazines. You might get hooked on them.