Saturday, February 21, 2015

On Snow and Writing: Sift, Shift, and Shape

February 2015
"It sifts from Leaden Sieves-
It powders all the Wood
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the road..."
---Emily Dickinson, It Sifts from Leaden Sieves (311)

Snow, it keeps on coming down. Not as accumulative here as in the New England states this winter (thankfully), but coming down nevertheless. Six to seven inches already today and it's still falling. It does look a bit as Emily Dickinson portrayed it: sifting from leaden sieves. Beautiful imagery.

Funny, but if you look closely at the above picture--and when I first saw it I wasn't sure what I was looking at--you will see what appears to be a light brown blotch in the middle of the cedar, a tree that randomly sprouted by the edge of our driveway and which I haven't had the heart to let hubby cut down. Too late, and too tall, it already impedes the path to the garage door. But, oh, well--turns out it is a haven for this, the creature nestled there during the recent snowfall.

Tucked in and hunkered down, this soft brown dove chose a unique vantage point to watch the snow sift, and shift. Why, I mused, was she sticking her beak out on such a cold, unwelcoming day? What was so spellbounding that she'd come out of her cocoon to look around? The snow drifted down like flour from a sifter. The landscape shifted shapes like a lumpy cake batter mix.

Sift. Shift. Shape. First drafts involve those same concepts, don't they? I posted about first drafts a few weeks ago (New Year, New Draft: 14 Tips to Grow It). The process of writing my draft continues. Words on paper, story slowly unfolding. I'm still doing all those things I wrote about then--like planting seeds, plowing through, watering. Now I'm sifting and shifting. What am I doing, writing a book, planting a garden, or baking a cake? What will be the end result?

I don't know yet, but as I continue to write through this story, I've resisted burrowing into my cedar cave and giving up. I feel a little bit like the dove--I'm sticking my head out and testing the possibilities. Along the way I continue to gather bits of inspiration on the writing process:

1. Sift. One definition of sift is "to scatter or sprinkle through or by means of a sieve." In other words, give it time; test the possibilities.  "It is common wisdom," Melanie Faith writes in Sifting Through: Writing a Way Into and Through Stalled Pieces, "that it takes time to make life experiences into literature. Rarely can a masterful piece of writing emerge wholly formed immediately after an event. Reflection, space, perspective--these are not immediately forthcoming but necessary for crafting a piece with meaning and resonance for the reader."

2. Shift. But don't stew. Don't get anxious. Jane Smiley, interviewed by Writer's Digest's Paula Deimling in The All-True Result of Loving to Write, said, "...The paradox is that you can't commit yourself until you get rid of your performance anxiety. And the only way you can commit yourself to something is to become so interested in it that all ego considerations disappear and you can feel yourself fully engaged. That's the state in which all your best writing is done."

3. Shape. What's your favorite tip on how to "shape" a novel? James Scott Bell, in 5 Tools for Building Conflict in Your Novel, shares one tool from Sue Grafton: "One of my theories about writing," Mr. Bell quotes her as saying, "is that the process involves an ongoing interchange between left brain and right. The novel journal provides a testing ground where the two can engage." In her journal, Grafton notes things about her life, jots down ideas that come to her, records where she is in her book, explores scenes and trouble spots. She keeps records of details that help her shape her books. A novel journal has proved to be very helpful for me in sorting through and shaping my thoughts, too.

So here we are, on another snowy day, sifting, shifting, and shaping. The snow's doing just that very thing outside. A similar process is going on inside.

How's the process going for you?

Stay warm, little dove!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Shout-Outs, Celebrations, and Terri's Give-Away

photo courtesy pixabay
"Thoughts fly and words go on foot. Therein lies all the drama of a writer." --Julian Green

I'm happy to announce the release dates of books by two authors I've met through blogging--cheering them on and thankful that they not only let their imaginations fly, but that they also marched on to produce wonderful stories that we can all hold in our hands.

Terri Tiffany writes inspirational women's fiction, and her first book, The Mulligan (Harbourlight Books), was just released yesterday, February 6, 2015. Description: "Twenty-year-old Bobbi Snow is more at home behind an easel than on the golf green. After all, being a pro golfer was her twin brother's goal and her father's obsession. But when Bobbi's careless accident causes a fire that leaves her brother crippled, she's determined to dust off her clubs and follow his dream. Playing the hero might be the only way to save her splintering family. Maybe then her father will forgive her. But can she ever forgive herself?"

To celebrate The Mulligan's release, Terri is sponsoring a very generous giveaway. Drop in over at her blog, Terri Tiffany, Inspirational Writer, Writing Stories That Leave a Fingerprint on the Heart, for details--including the announcement of two $50 Gift Cards! The deadline is February 15.

Elizabeth Varadan, over at Elizabeth Varadan's Fourth Wish, has announced the release date for her middle-grade mystery, Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls, which is June 15, 2015. Isn't that one of the prettiest covers you've ever seen? Although the book isn't available yet, you can sign-up with Amazon here to be notified of availability by email. The book's description: "In Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls, a day after Imogene's obnoxious step-cousins pay a visit, her mother's pearls go missing. When Sherlock Holmes is called in, Imogene, harboring a secret desire to become a detective, sees her chance to learn from the great Mr. Holmes."

I'm looking forward to reading both of these books, and I think you'll enjoy them, too. Wishing both authors much success as they continue on their journeys as published authors!

I would guess both Terri and Elizabeth would agree with these thoughts from author Janet Evanovich (found here at Gotham Writers):
Q: "What is the most valuable advice you received as a writer?"
A: "One of my early editors told me to never hold anything back. Put all your good ideas into the book you're writing and hope to God you have more good ideas for your next book. Also, set aside a portion of time each day to write. Turn off your phone, don't put in another load of wash and don't cheat by answering e-mail. It doesn't have to be a long period of time, but it has to be used exclusively for writing."

Okay, I think I'm going to ignore that obnoxious beeper on my washing machine this upcoming week. What will you ignore in order to get your targeted words down in the days to come?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Place and Proving Grounds: 10 Links for 19th Century Life

photo courtesy
"Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else...Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?"--Eudora Welty

Crossroads (n)--"the place where one road crosses another." At the crossroads--"in a situation where a choice must be made." My personal crossroad direction in writing this time around has taken me to 19th century Ohio. I see the potential of circumstance swirling around my character, the landscape of her proving grounds. She's surprising me in some ways while she whispers her story in my ear, but she's got her feet firmly planted in the times and circumstances of place. So far I've not allowed myself to get too mired in the details (I've already spent enough time there). But here are some resources I'd love to pass along to others who might be looking for just the right 19th century detail for their story, too.

1. Library of Congress. "American Memory" source.

2. Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1864. Internet Archive

4. Household Cyclopedia. General Information  in the Useful and Domestic Arts, 1881

5. Cornell University Making of America Collection. Digital library of primary sources in American history. Browse magazines and documents.

7. 19th Century America. Primary documents, timelines, maps and more

8. Ulysses S. Grant Homepage. Photos and more.

9. A Portal to the Victorian World

10. Victoriana Magazine. Contemporary magazine transporting readers back to the Victorian age.

So far so good in my goal to just get that messy first draft down on paper. Words aren't necessarily flowing fast but neither are they drying up. Place is helping me listen: Who's here? Who's coming? Place is unfolding and determining and challenging me to go deeper.

What part has "place" played in your writing recently?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Words-of-Week Survey: Are You Lucy, Linus, or Charlie Brown?

graphic courtesy
The scene is bucolic. The three characters in the Peanuts comic strip (Charles Schultz,  The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 5, 1959-1960) are lying on their backs on the top of a knoll watching the white, fluffy clouds float by above them in the sky.


Lucy: Aren't the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the formations. What do you think you see, Linus?

Linus: Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean. [Points up] That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there...[points] me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.

Lucy: Uh, huh. that's very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?

Charlie Brown: Well.. I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.

Ah, poor Charlie Brown!

Actually, I can sort of identify with him. The past week has been relatively successful--the rough draft is moving forward, about 4000 words-worth so far. That in itself is amazing since I procrastinated so much on this project last year. I'm not looking back over the mess (see last post about the messy first draft here) to edit or fill in the blanks. Just pushing forward at this point. I'm afraid when I do go back, though, the voice will sound more like Charlie Brown than Linus.

But maybe that's okay. Duckies and horsies might be just what my story needs!

Are you Linus, Lucy, or Charlie Brown in your writing this week? Watching very many clouds go by? And how is your imagination faring?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

New Year, New Draft: 14 Tips to Grow It

photo courtesy pixabay
"I hate first drafts, and it never gets easier. People always wonder what kind of superhero power they'd like to have. I wanted the ability for someone to just open up my brain and take out the entire first draft and lay it down in front of me so I can just focus on the second, third, and fourth drafts." --Judy Blume

We had all five grandkids in the house over the recent holidays in different stages, different combinations, different numbers of days. Happy times (well, except for the flu bug that visited some family members--we could have done without that), albeit messy. Let me count the ways: legos, bristle blocks, books, puzzles, markers, scissors, glue, Whoonu game chips, all that wrapping paper, random lost socks, and spilled flour during a cookie baking session. But I wouldn't have it any other way! Planting seeds in the soil of family is always a good thing.

Can I be as positive in this new year about the new draft I've decided to tackle--I mean really tackle and not just talk about? It promises to be messy, too. In preparation, I "dug up" tips to help me weed through its mess--which I offer to you, too, hoping they'll help you in turn.

14 Tips to Help Grow That First (Messy) Draft

1. Put Your Boots On. You know it'll be messy. You face knee-deep frustration and feelings of inadequacy. But there's a first step. START. Like Pixar's Emma Coates says: "Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone."

2. Plant the Seeds.  Put down words and let them germinate. Don't edit. Don't stew. Sow seeds you will later fix. "The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." --Terry Pratchett

3. Get Your Hands Dirty. Hubby used to watch Master Gardener Rebecca Kolls talk about gardening on TV. He especially liked her signature sign-off: "Get out there and get your hands dirty." Same with our first draft. We just have to dig in no matter how unpromising the pages seem at first. Darcy Pattison explains her process in Awful First Draft: It's Hard to Trust the Process this way: "Most of all, I remember: the purpose of the first draft is to figure out what story you are telling. The purpose of all other drafts is to figure out the most dramatic way to tell that story...I am trusting the process and writing a really lousy first draft."

4. Go With the Wind. Elizabeth Sims, in Writer's Digest's Get Messy With Your First Draft says it this way: 'learn to love anarchy.' She explains, "Ignore the sequence while writing your first draft...Nothing is as freeing as writing what comes to mind next, not necessarily what must come next...the first execution of your ideas must be as unfettered as possible. Which will result in--yes!--some crap: false starts, pretentiousness, clunky images and cliches. Fine. Get them out now. They'll contaminate the good stuff only until you get around to your second draft."

5. Greet the Sun. This is one of my main targets this year. In Write That First Draft: 6 Ways to Generate Material for Your Book, Huffington Post's Lisa Tener says make the time: "You want to talk bills? Kids? Out-of-town guests, day jobs, commutes? At times it seems life was designed explicitly to obstruct us from writing...So when I do manage to set time aside to write, I stick to it. I keep my writing appointments." And what about penciling in that time first thing in the morning? Will Self makes a point: "I prefer to write as soon as possible after waking, so that the oneiric inscape is still present to me." (Okay, I admit, I had to look this one up. Oneiric [adj]: of or having to do with dreams; inscape [n]: an interior view or scene.)

6. Thin the Rows. In other words, don't worry about length the first time through. "I generally write a first draft that's pretty lean," Nora Roberts is quoted as saying. "Just get the story down."

7. Shovel. I love this quote by Shannon Hale: "I'm writing my first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles." Keep shoveling!

8. Shake it Out. Elizabeth Sims again (see #4): "Get Loose. Relax, physically and mentally. If, as I do, you write your first drafts longhand, consider your pen a paintbrush. Hold it relaxed in your hand and move it from your shoulder instead of with your fingers. Your whole arm will move freely, and you'll pour out the words...Legibility is overrated. Remember that."

9. Plow. As in plow on through, surprises await. "Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised." --John Steinbeck

10. Water. It's okay to step away, take a breath, let the story work its magic in the subconscious. Ernest Hemingway advocated reading during such breaks: "When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day...I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it." Go to the well of reading. It will help.

11. Water Some More. Annie Dillard, from her book The Writing Life, admonishes: "One of the few things I know about writing is this, spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a  later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water."

12. Enjoy the Fruit. Have fun! Again, from Tener (above): "This probably seems like the most obvious one. If you're having fun, if you're experiencing the joy of discovery at all, then that freshness and excitement will be contained in the work you are creating. If you've made the time, you know how many other things you could be doing, but tonight or today you get to write. There's fun to be had. It is up to you to have it."

13. Harvest. It's simple wisdom, but as Julie Musil said in her blog post Why a Messy First Draft is a Great Thing: "A messy first draft means you've finished a book." Yes!

So where does this bring us? Why, to...hope for the second draft.

14. Celebrate the Bounty. Messy first drafts offer more than we first think. As Sims concludes, "If you practice looseness and receptivity when writing your first draft, the day will come during revisions when you realize you have a surplus of good writing to sort through." Good to know! Like rain on parched fields, there's hope in what we planted, propelling us to the next step.

So slog through that first draft. Don't let it get you down. And one last word of advice: "The first draft reveals the art, revision reveals the artist" (Michael Lee). So, in the next few months, I'm wearing my boots and getting my hands dirty in the mess of my first draft--and then on to the second. How about you? Are you ready to dig in and grow something with words, too?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Auld Lang Syne, Robert Burns, and Paul Simon

photo courtesy of
"And there's a hand, my trusty fiere! And gie's a hand o' thine! And we'll tak a right guid willy waght, for auld lang syne." --Robert Burns

Auld Lang Syne--the signature song as one year ends and another begins. Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne...

Auld Lang Syne. Originally a poem, written by Scotland's famous poet Robert Burns in the late 1780s, it was popularized as a New Year's Eve song by Guy Lombado when his band used it during a live performance at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York in 1929 (source:

For us today, the original Scottish dialect is quaint: For auld lang syne, my jo, for auld lang syne. We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet. For auld lang syne. And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp! And surely I'll be mine! And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne. ('For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne. And surely you'll buy your pint cup and surely I'll buy mine! And we'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne.')

And yet the sentiments remain the same. Auld lang syne, the meaning translates to times gone by or old long ago, and rings true with messages about love and friendship of times past, important things not to be forgotten.

We twa hae run about the braes and pu'd the gowans fine; But we've wander'd mony a weary foot sin auld lang syne. ('We two have run about the slopes and picked the daisies fine; but we've wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne.')

We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn, frae mornin' sun till dine; but seas between us braid hae ror'd sin auld lang syne.* ('We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine' but seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne.')

Ah, but if Auld Lang Syne is the song to close out 2014, what song should usher in 2015? May I suggest something from Paul Simon? A verse in his song, "Hurricane Eye," goes like this:

You want to be a writer,
Don't know how or when?
Find a quiet place,
Use a humble pen.

Doesn't have quite the 'ring' to it, and it isn't Auld Lang Syne. Still, I think I'll be humming a bit of this from Paul Simon for 2015, telling myself to just pick up that pen. Get those words down. That's how a writer writes. And then, by this time next year, after having continued and appreciated contact with writer friends--real time and blogging buddies--I might be able to sing, And there's a hand, my trusty fiere! And gie's a hand o' thine! And we'll tak a right guid willy waught, for auld lang syne. ('And there's a hand my trusty friend! And give us a hand o' thine! And we'll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.')

How about it? Robert Burns or Paul Simon for 2015?

Or some other songwriter? Who would be your pick for inspiration in the new year? If so, what's the title/sample verse you would choose?

Happy New Year! Wishing you the best in all the year might bring.

(*source for song lyrics:

Monday, December 22, 2014

Stairs and Thoughts and Other Things

art courtesy of
Halfway Down

                                                            Halfway down the stairs
                                                            Is a stair
                                                            Where I sit.
                                                            There isn't any
                                                            Other stair
                                                            Quite like
                                                            I'm not at the bottom,
                                                            I'm not at the top;
                                                            So this is the stair
                                                            I always

                                                            Halfway up the stairs
                                                            Isn't up,
                                                            And it isn't down.
                                                            It isn't in the nursery,
                                                            It isn't in the town.
                                                            And all sorts of funny thoughts
                                                            Run round my head:
                                                            "It isn't really
                                                            It's somewhere else
                                                            Instead!" --A.A. Milne

My thoughts have turned to the stairs lately. I don't know if it's because this time of year tends to wax nostalgic or what. Memories take me to childhood traditions, family experiences, life changes and life blessings. Staircases can do that, I guess, since they play a key part in some of those memories. The curving staircase of my great-aunt's farmhouse where we had family reunions. The staircase of my youth at the bottom of which I'd sit and talk on the telephone as a teenager. The staircase even years before that at the top of which, when I was three years old, I attempted to throw a telephone book down--and bumped all the way down myself along with it. The staircase that has carried my children's footsteps up and down and now my grandkids pattering feet as well.

The steps to the upstairs of our house have seen many feet. Big feet, little feet. Old feet, young feet. Happy feet, stomping feet. Ours is an aged country house (though the country around it now isn't so much country anymore), built in 1935. Steep and narrow, the steps ascend at the back of the house behind the kitchen. Awkward placement, it would seem, but that's how old Mr. Meyer built it for his bride-to-be all those years ago. I know this because of the day when I was a young mother and a strange car pulled into the driveway. Out emerged an elderly man accompanied by a younger driver. In the backseat were two women, their respective wives it turned out. Upon answering the knock at the back door, I heard the younger man say, "I have someone here you might like to meet." At which the elderly gentleman said, "I am Leo Meyer, and I built this house."

What a treasure. Questions about my house that I'd pondered could be posed and answered. Hands that dug the basement, erected the walls--and fashioned the steps--gestured over things that had changed, things that remained the same. The sweet wife, now wizened but once a beaming bride, who toured what was once her home and who whispered, "If you find any money, it's mine."

A few years later, I learned that we were only the fifth owners of this house--and the two families that followed the Meyers before we came along each had a set of twins. Twins, in this house, times two! One couple with twin girls. The other with a girl and a boy. Imagine the antics up and down the steps in those years. Then came the couple that sold the house to us. The years march by just like the many times feet have marched up and down the stairs.

And I wonder, did any of the children in those years sit in the middle of the stairs and just 'be'--listening and imagining and pretending? How did the stairs help form their view of life and give them a boost up to their futures? Roald Dahl once commented, "I do have a blurred memory of sitting on the stairs and trying over and over again to tie one of my shoelaces..." What are the memories of the children who traipsed these stairs?

What are the memories of children who've traveled your stairs? What are your memories of stairs? And aren't words like steps--links to places, connections from past to present and future, a starting place and a help to a destination? Steps--and words--support, launch, propel, nurture, serve and lift. And on occasion give our imaginations a place to pause and be reignited.

Here's to that special stair that can do all those things!

May your holiday celebrations be blessed this year with much joy and peace--and with those quiet moments that help you reflect and recharge. Happy wishes to all.