5 Tips for a Stellar Writing Retreat

By Lisa Alber

I just returned from a five-day writing retreat in Sunriver, Oregon. 7000+ words written. I wrote my way out of a plot blockage. Good friends. Good food. Great vista. All in all, perfection.

I got to thinking about all the many writing retreats I’ve gone on over the years, excluding retreats run by professionals. Half my retreats are solo adventures, the other half with pals. For the latter, here are my five recommendations for a perfect writing retreat:

Come prepped and with specific goals.

If the goal is to maximize word count, then come with research and ideas in mind. If the goal is to finish those last few chapters to The End, then be ready to pound them out and revise later. If you’re in revisions, have a general strategy and perhaps a daily goal.

Choose like-minded retreat pals.

Let’s face it, some people are more social than others. It helps to surround yourself with people with similar work habits. I have several gangs of writing retreat buds. We’re all focused, independent, and ready to relax at the end of a productive day. Being social is part of the fun of a retreat, of course, but it works best if people are on the same wavelength.

Location location location.

Pick a beautiful location with vistas so the eye can settle into a deep and tranquil distance. The closer to nature the better. I’m a big fan of retreat spots with plenty of space, indoors and out, so that we can spread out or write communally, as desired.

Prep the food beforehand.

We come prepared! (And there’s always too much food.) We’re each in charge of a meal, and breakfast is either unstructured, or not. As long as there’s plenty of coffee, I don’t care about breakfast. I also like the freedom of eating lunch while I write, but then for sure coming together for dinner.

Relax with walks, naps, sitting in the sun, early bedtimes, reading …

No point in driving yourself into a state of anxiety. That’s for everyday life. Fill the creative well!

 

 

Seriously Silly

by Christina Lay

I’ve always been a fan of silliness well-done. Be it Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks or Tom Robbins writing from a vibrator’s POV or Douglas Adams taking us across the universe with nothing but a towel and terrible poetry for company, there is a special sort of joy in reveling in a world where the absurd is commonplace and maturity is a liability.  Lately though, it seems like everyone is becoming much too serious; unable to laugh at themselves or enjoy a quirky perspective on life in general. Our entertainment reflects this, and we get more Game of Thrones, less The Tick. This despite the fact that the more grim and desperate reality becomes, the more we need to laugh, to lose ourselves in mirth.

Just today in a daily inspirational email that I receive, I read this on silliness: “We play yet we do not lose ourselves in play, and our imaginations are never truly given free rein because we regard the products of irrational creativity as being valueless.” Madisyn Taylor, Daily Om.

Irrational creativity. I love that. I had already been thinking about the value of silliness when I read it because I’d been planning to review the book, Space Opera, by Catherine M. Valente, so lucky me, it ties right in to the larger, all important theme of this blog. Yes, as the title suggests, Space Opera is pure and unapologetic space opera (Meaning Science Fiction that pays no attention whatsoever to physics or actual technology. Getting across the galaxy or even the universe might be as simple as pressing a button or hijacking a police call box). This book not only indulges in make-believe science, it revels in it. I appreciate that.  The book is sheer fun, sheer silliness, imagination run riot, and yet…

For a truly silly book to be memorable and not just a forgettable airplane read (which is of course valuable in its own right) a well-crafted silly book is anchored by moments of profundity. The thing about humor is there’s really no better way to set the reader up for a glimpse into the heart and soul of humanity. It’s Us laid bare, exposed, shown with all our warts and ill-fitting plaid jackets, but with compassion, kindness and a deep understanding of the silly kid locked inside of us all.

So that was quite the sentence. To break it down, I’ll quote Catherine Valente. “Life is beautiful. Life is stupid.”  That’s basically the theme of the book. We laugh, we tear our hair out, we cry, we sigh in wonder. A good silly book reminds us of all that.

Space Opera was inspired by an international music competition called Eurovision, where contestants are encouraged to be as outrageously fabulous as possible. I’m thinking Elton John on Acid at a Drag Queen fire sale with glitter explosions in the background (remember, this is the reality part). In the book, Humanity is called upon to prove itself sentient by performing a song of heartbreaking beauty and fabulousness in a musical competition on the other side of the universe.

Naturally, just telling the aliens that we’re sentient doesn’t work. Look at our history, at our now, at all the terrible things we’ve done and keep on doing. So what’s silly about that, you might ask (grimly, brow furrowed)? Nothing. What makes it silly is that we’re also capable of wonderful, fantastic things. The conflicted dichotomy of the human race is stunning. Paralyzing. Beautiful. Stupid. What can you do but laugh?

Valente has mastered the art of irrational creativity. Kudos. And her characters are intensely human, lovable, and relatable. My only nit with this book is that the ratio of narration to actual scenes is off, IMHO. I’d like to spend more time with the characters, and less time reading lengthy (although mostly hilarious) summaries. That aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, with silly and heartfelt both in good measure. In her afterward, she pays homage to Douglas Adams, as is right. I believe Adams, the grand master of silly, would approve.

Even if your current project isn’t silly in the least, it is healthy to allow irrational creativity to flow now and again, to laugh at yourself and your agonizingly constructed sentences, to play at the page. Maybe you’re writing a murder/horror mystery wherein everyone dies. If you don’t allow yourself to be silly while writing something like that, watch out. You will become grim and furrowed. And I suspect that a touch of silliness will make your characters more relatable, your tragedy more heartfelt. As writers, it’s not only the readers we have to think about, but ourselves. To keep ourselves fresh, motivated, happy in our art, we need to breathe, and the best way to get fresh air into our brains and our heart is to laugh.

Writing and Grieving While Gardening: A Lesson in What’s Important

60259631_10219183819888660_5888423291214888960_nBy Lisa Alber

I happened to be browsing my defunct blog and came across a three-year-old post that holds as true today as it did then. It’s really a post about writing, I realize now. And as I sit here a year after my mom’s death, I’m struck by how much gardening helped my grieving process in addition to my writing process. The garden is looking pretty fabulous this year because of all the work I did last year.

Have I grown since three years ago, since a year ago? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that time spent in my garden is still a balm to my soul. Writing my current novel is on the upswing again, and I’m grateful for that. I’m looking forward to hours and hours of writing in my backyard in the coming months.

Anyhow, without further ado, here’s the post with a few notes and things.

IMG_3882~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

However many years she lived, Mary always felt that she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow.
— Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

The other day I was talking to my writer buddy, A, about the usual thing: how behind I am on my work-in-progress (LISA NOTE: Gawd, some things don’t change!). I joked that with all the time spent in my garden since April, I could have had the novel completed, revised, and polished by now.

So what’s up with me and my garden? Yet another procrastination method or a requirement for mental equilibrium?

I’ve owned my house for a year four years(!) now, and (still) much to my surprise I’ve become what I call “one of those crazy gardening ladies.” I suppose it’s better than being a crazy cat lady or a crazy-looking Botox lady, but still, I’m fascinated by this newly discovered side of myself. I hadn’t realized I would take to gardening to the extent of digging up bushes and transplanting established plants and sifting through the soil to dig out every, and I mean every, bluebell bulb I can find. (<–Yeah right, I don’t do that anymore–futility, thy name is bluebell.)

So what gives with that?

I (re-)realized as I was talking to A that I always need a project. You might think, But isn’t fiction your project?

No no, oh no — not any more, it isn’t. It’s my *work* now. A while back, writing fiction was my soul release, my labor of love. I pursued it just for me — writing is the way I connect and process — but once I started to get published, I was forced to think of it as a business. Which it is, definitely, and I don’t have a beef with that.

59620296_10219119851809498_7964259789431635968_nWith the advent of fiction writing moving over to “the dark side,” I was left with a void. A project void. I no longer had a creative outlet that was just for me in the spirit of Elizabeth Bennett …

… I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.    —Pride and Prejudice

Over the years I’ve tried out all kinds of creative activities in addition to writing: photography, painting, guitar, piano, pottery, drama, cooking (which may surprise people who know me well), crocheting, knitting, decoupage(!), printmaking, scrapbooking, and more I can’t remember.

Ultimately, fiction (with photography on the side) stuck, but now I need something to replace fiction. Looks like it’s gardening! And I’m content with this, more than content, actually. Gardening seems to be doing my poor, beleaguered, neurotic mind some good.

  • IMG_3901There’s a meditative thing that happens where I don’t think I’m thinking at all. (I must be, but you know what I mean.)
  • I lose time, which is signal enough that I’ve been 100% living in the moment.
  • I’m outside and physical and getting dirty—a nice opposition to the cerebral, clean world in front of my laptop.
  • Unlike writing, I can immediately see the result of my work. Instant gratification. While writing I can see my word count, but I can’t tell if what I’ve written is good or not. Whereas, a de-weeded flower bed? That’s nothing but good.
  • The excitement of seeing perennials pop up, watching buds grow fatter until one day the rose or the lily or the peony  pops open. That’s just good for the soul.
  • And, I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that mucking about in my garden enhances my creativity when I sit down to work. (TRUE! I need time to let my story thoughts ripen.)

So, I may joke with A about all the time “wasted” in the garden, but I know it’s time spent on what’s important rather than just on what’s urgent. Life needs to be more about the important than the urgent.

Do you have a just-for-you activity that ends up being therapeutic?

How to Get Rich Selling a Novel to a Major Publisher, 2000 vs. 2019

person woman tie hat

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Prologue: I wrote this as a joke among friends in January. This week, I posted the original version as a thread on Facebook. Sadly, it was taken seriously. I’ve been full-time freelance since 1990. I have had wonderful experiences with editors, agents, publishers, and other writers. I’ve also had horrible experiences that include having work stolen, pirated, and used in ways I did not authorize and from which I did not profit. Buy me a scotch at a conference, and I’ll tell you horror stories. However, I will also require you to listen to the glorious moments that I have been privileged to experience. I know of no profession or job that does not include both good and bad experiences. Writing, more than most jobs, is a lifestyle profession. Please don’t take this seriously. Little bits are true. Other bits feel true to some people. However, that little bit of truth and feeling are mixed with lies and myths to create the following.

How to Get Rich Selling a Novel to a Major Publisher, 2000 vs. 2019

by Eric Witchey

2000:

  1. Learn the Craft.
  2. Write a good book.
  3. Get an agent.
  4. Sell the book.
  5. Go to signings and parties.
  6. Write another good book.

2019:

  1. Be really lucky, or….
  2. Establish financial support and freedom to pursue craft: husband, wife, trust fund, inheritance, poverty lifestyle, Patreon, GoFundMe, hut on a third-world beach, a diamond heist, etc.
  3. Choose a currently very popular genre. Base the choice on what you like to watch on TV.
  4. Read a few popular books in that genre so you can pretend to have read a lot.
  5. Learn enough of the language of craft any way you can to sound like you understand it when you are interviewed for webcasts or by Oprah.
  6. Establish credentials that prove you learned the craft: A couple honorary internet Ph.Ds or a six-week, low-residency MFA are good enough. In a pinch, Microsoft Certifications can be used. You can also purchase reviews, purchase awards, and pay someone to campaign for awards for you.
  7. Spend a few thousand dollars attending a conference and buying people drinks where editors and agents can be met and slowly befriended while you repeat this exercise 20 times a year to demonstrates that you have number 2 firmly in hand and can travel the country and world promoting and hand-selling the books a publisher might buy.
  8. Establish platform: Build, buy, or steal a mailing list of over 50k people, create or hire out author sites on all social media systems. Don’t worry. You don’t have to use them. You just have to have them so the marketing team can nod sagely and say that you have platform.
  9. Establish more platform: Create or hire out a successful YouTube channel, generate endless self-promoted appearances, hire a click farm to manipulate search engine hits on your name to exceed 500k, participate in lots of blogs and vlogs talking about you and your life as a famous writer.
  10. Write, or hire someone to write in your name, a book or series of books that: can be compared to two, but no more than three, extremely successful books or series so that marketing people can begin to believe they won’t have to work if they allow your book to be purchased by the publisher. However, be careful that your book or series is just different enough so that they have to change the cover art, blurbs, and press releases they used for the books you compared yours to. You can’t be too careful with marketing people.
  11. Get a famous author with film industry connections, say George R. R. Martin, to pitch your book or series to Netflix, HBO, or the Syfy Channel.
  12. Get an offer.
  13. Show the unsigned film offer to a publisher.
  14. Get an offer.
  15. Show the unsigned book offer to an agent.
  16. Sign with the agent.
  17. Let the agent sell the book to the publisher, which will require a new contract that gives the agent a higher percentage of all derivative products.
  18. Agent says, ” It’s a good contract. You don’t want to be considered hard to work with. Don’t overthink. Just sign.”
  19. Let the agent’s film agent negotiate the contract for the film, which will require you to reduce your up-front and take points on net while the agent’s agent and the agent lock in a percentage of points on gross for themselves.
  20. Agents all say, ” It’s good. You don’t want to be considered hard to work with. Don’t overthink. Just sign.”
  21. Go online and vaguebook about what might happen soon.
  22. Read the marketing instructions the publisher publicist assigned to your book has sent you. Realize it will be expensive to fly to go to signings and interviews in places like the independent bookstore in Brillton, North Dakota, pop. 1700. Note that the marketeers have committed to nothing except sending you the list.
  23. Ask for money for promotion. Marketing people say, “This is standard for our first time writers.” Agent says, “The money will come. Stay focused.”
  24. Take out a loan against your advance.
  25. Remain upbeat and plucky. Dutifully start the prescribed prepromotion for the book, but carefully adhere to contractual constraints and only hint at the pub date and possible film. Wouldn’t want to sour the deal or be considered hard to work with.
  26. Continue prepromotion for one to five years before you can announce the pub date and the film deal.
  27. Finally announce a publication date range that is intended to match the film release.
  28. Come up with an idea about merchandising. Publisher loves it. Realize that all merchandising revenue is owned by the publisher. It’s a good contract. Don’t overthink it.
  29. Politics and infighting end the film production.
  30. Production company declares bankruptcy.
  31. Agent says they can’t help.
  32. Agent’s film agent won’t return calls or emails.
  33. Hire an entertainment lawyer.
  34. Receive bill from lawyer for lots of phone calls, prework on lawsuit, and the final meeting in which you are told you are a creditor and won’t get paid.
  35. Publisher blames the story. They drop you just after you have delivered the second book, which you wrote in hotel rooms, vans, back alleys, and bookstores while promoting the first book and film. They cancel publication and demand the advance back.
  36. Agent blames the story. The second book, which you personally fought to get back from the publisher, “isn’t right for them at this time.” They drop you and tell you that you have to pay the advance back but won’t get their percentage back because they did their job and get paid for the work they did.
  37. Bookstores remainders your first book. Your name is forever associated with losses on their computer ordering systems. Even if you had another book, they wouldn’t order it because your name is on the cover and the last one lost money. However, they got paid for the books they sold and didn’t have to pay a dime for the books they didn’t sell. There’s that.
  38. You realize that you are the only one who does not get paid for the work you did.
  39. But wait. A huge company bought the assets of the defunct production company. The project is resurrected. The film is made. Hooray!
  40. You celebrate with a banquet for your sister and both your patient, supportive friends. The brewpub has never had it so good.
  41. The film burns bright in pre-release focus viewings. A novelization of the film goes to your former publisher. It tops out the NYT Bestseller List. Everyone gets paid except you because you were only a creditor to the first production company.
  42. Your accountant sends you a bill and a P&L that shows your net profit for the entire process is: -250k.
  43. The lawyer puts a lien on your house.
  44. Return to 1.

The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Funny turtle flying on hang-gliderPhoto Source: Be_Low, iStockPhoto

The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Eric Witchey

In memory of Maj. R. David Witchey, who fell from the sky and forgot to get up.

We have all done something that worked really well then discovered that the next time we tried it, we failed miserably.

As a child growing up in a small town, I dreamed of learning to hang glide. Once I was out of the house, I bought myself lessons. At the time, I lived in Idaho. Hang gliding was everything I hoped it would be. The instructor was sharp, and I knew I was in good hands. We flew tandem until he felt I had a handle on the “kite.” Then, I had to go through a sequence of practice and validation under supervision until I could be certified to fly solo. That process started on a short hill that allowed me to just get my feet off the ground but not go high enough to be dangerous. I demonstrated straight flight and landings before I graduated to a higher hill. On that hill, I had to show I could manage a launch, a left turn, a right turn, and return to center and a landing. Check. The next hill was higher and dropped off a lot faster. I don’t remember what I was supposed to learn there, but it was the last stop before I could take a kite out unsupervised.

The first day on that hill was glorious. Idaho clear blue skies, a stiff breeze but not a wind. The breeze came in toward the hill and hit the wall and rose in an updraft. I was about to feel my first lift into a soaring situation.

I launched. The updraft took me up like a dandelion puff blown by a child. I was a bird! God, it was wonderful! Ah. I remember now. I was supposed to show I could turn and follow the ridge line, turn away and follow it again, then make my way to the landing zone. So, I did. I pulled the control bar in a bit to bring my nose down and get some speed to make my turn. I followed the ridge a little, turned away, the followed it again. I had to keep pulling the bar in to keep from being swept upward, and part of me wanted to just let the kite go higher to feel the sheer joy of it. Since I was being trained, I followed the program. I landed safely. It was one of the more triumphant moments of my life up to that moment. Hey, I was only 19.

A week later, I returned to the same hill. The weather was a bit different, but not much. The kite was the same. The program was the same. If I did the flight successfully two more times, I’d be on my own.

So, I strapped in, lifted the kite, and launched.

For some reason, I started to sink immediately. Instinct made me push the bar out to lift the nose and gain altitude. Instead, I stalled. The kite twisted on its center and did a wing over. I plummeted toward the hill face.

The keel, the point, of the hang glider hit hard rock. The kite crumpled. My harness yanked at my chest. My helmet hit something and bounced off. Then, silence. Dead silence. Not even the sound of a breeze in the grass, and at that moment I understood what I had done wrong. The weather was a little different. I expected the updraft. No breeze. No updraft. When I started to sink, I pushed for altitude that my mind and body told me should be there.

Physics is a bitch. Gravity always wins.

My instructor clambered down the slope to me at great personal risk. I climbed out of the wreckage. He grabbed my shoulders and yelled, “Are you all right? Are you all right?”

I looked at the mess I had made and said, “I broke the kite.”

He said, “Fuck the kite! Are you all right?”

Did I say that I had a good instructor? I had just destroyed his training rig and split his helmet almost in two. Remember the helmet bounce? Completely destroyed the helmet. His concern was for my well being. I did not have to pay a dime for his equipment. Good man. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he was a lineman for the phone company in Idaho. In case the universe ever brings him to these words, THANK YOU!

Now, here’s the thing. I had a powerful, good experience. The emotional impact was huge. The joy was very high. I wanted that experience again. I wanted it a lot. My mind and body remembered every detail of that experience and did everything right to have that experience again. However, conditions had changed. Failure was inevitable.

The cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience works like this. We seek a result. Let’s say we send a hundred stories out to magazines and one of them wins an award and pulls a big cash prize. Three more sell. The rest garner rejections.

It’s only natural to look very closely at the one that won the prize and money to see what we did that we should do again. We would probably look at the other two as well.

Suppose we discover that each story had an unrequited love element, a female protagonist with red hair, and a mountain resort.

So, we write more stories with unrequited love, female redheads, and mountain resorts because we think, “Yeah. We’ve got it dialed in.”

So, we send out a hundred stories, but we only sell one.

Well, that one should have the best details for allowing us to sell more since we already did the love, femred, and mountain bit. The analysis shows that the story didn’t just happen on a mountain resort. It happened during ski season at the mountain resort.

So, now we write stories that have love, femreds, winter ski resorts.

And we don’t sell any.

In the same way that physics is a bitch, underlying principles of story are a bitch. Trial-and-error is biased in favor of the cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience. In the same way making all the same moves in the hang glider resulted in a crash, isolating the apparent patterns of success from successive successful stories will result in a crash.

Unless…

We are very clear that the analysis and subsequent attempts to create results must include expansive experimentation based on principles rather than emotional impressions of success or failure. I call that playful experimentation (a.k.a., practice).

Playful Experimentation Based on Principles

One of my favorite quotes about success comes from the German flying ace Manfred Von Richthofen. “Success flourishes only in perseverance — ceaseless, restless perseverance.” For me, the perseverance part is not so difficult. I’m more-or-less built for it. Adding the ceaseless, restless part is the important bit to me. The ceaseless, restless bit means that I must constantly test my world and my boundaries. I suppose that’s why I have never really settled into a genre. Instead, I have bent genres and searched for how one informs another. I have assumed, sometimes incorrectly, that each genre has its own tricks and techniques to teach me. I have assumed that experimentation across genres would bring me insights and techniques that could not be had as long as I returned to the same hill where I had success and attempted to fly in exactly the same way as when I had that success.

To beat the fallacy of cyclic deteriorating personal experience, apply the principle of unsupervised play.

In fact, to keep writing from getting stale, I recommend many of the techniques used by children. In another essay, I describe the parallel play process, which in turn came from the restless, ceaseless experimentation with words and tales and forms and processes.

Playful experimentation requires several things adults are often in short supply of. First, it requires the ability to completely divorce oneself from any sense of risk. That is, the story a writer is playing with must not be under deadline. It must not be part of an expectation of material or pride success. It must not be for this magazine, that anthology, to that publisher. Playful experimentation requires the worry-free mindset of a child exploring a newly discovered, vacant field. The writer must be able dash there, and there, and over there while also pausing to pick up a stick to slash at weeds or turn into the spear of Ajax or into a rifle or crutch.

Second, it requires a sense of whimsy combined with a desire to understand. To approach writing as a thing of rigid process is not playful. To get to a space of discovery, the writer must be willing to do things that seem stupid in the moment but then, unexpectedly, force the subconscious to step in to create a pattern that becomes the discovery.

Third, it requires an idea of what can be done. Forcing the hang glider to go up without an updraft does not work. The principles of aerodynamics and gravity do not allow it. So, seeking out the principles that govern the reader’s internalization of experiences triggered by the words on the page is critical to creating combinations of playfulness that reveal new ideas and effects.

For example, most writers know that stories generally create emotional changes in characters by stressing those characters through conflict. It is a universal principle of stories. Some writers I know argue that without it, the text is not a story and falls to the category of mere personal essay or memoir. I would argue that few personal essays or memoirs are not stories. I would also argue that most, if not all, powerful personal essays and memoirs revolve around some core conflict.

I digress. Taking the underlying principle of conflict, one approach to ceaseless, restless experimentation is to employ the principle in an experiment of randomness. Pick a handful of silly things and try to employ the principle of conflict while connecting the silly things.

Personally, I often pick a principle, roll a set of ten-sided dice several times to come up with three or more random, four-digit numbers, then find those numbers on a long list of observations, objects, insights, and thoughts that I keep. I put those randomly selected elements at the top of a page then write as fast as I can in an effort to execute the principle. The randomness of the objects forces the subconscious to attempt to create a pattern connection between the objects. The chosen principle forces a construct that will either succeed or break. Either way, something is gained from the effort. Sometimes, seeing a failure unfold reveals new patterns, new methods of allowing the reader to see or feel the moment on the page. Sometimes, seeing the experiment succeed within the structure of the principle results in new understanding and skill in the execution of the principle.

Worst case for the above experiment is that the writer has fun and the brain is given a set of patterns (principles) to which it becomes tuned and to which it begins to, or continues to, adapt.

The important piece from the above is not the process. The important piece is that principle combined with play is a type of practice that keeps writing fresh and keeps the writer on a path of discovery that deadline-driven work, paid-for work, pride-driven work cannot provide. Mindfulness of underlying principles combined with playful experimentation results in discovery.

Had I considered the principle of aerodynamics and approached the day with a less rigid focus on succeeding with the defined exercise, I might have had more fun and been more inclined to discover what I could do on that day and in the days to come.

A week later, I did go back and fly again. I did it because I had decided to quit flying because I could not trust my ADHD brain to focus on all the conditions that allow a person to fly safely. Going back one more time was my way of proving to myself I was not quitting out of fear. Rather, I wanted to quit to stay alive.

-End-

A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

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A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

Eric Witchey

Over the 29 years I have made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant, I have experienced many different writing communities. I’ve worked among supportive and professional technical writers, and I have worked among corporate liars and thieves. I have seen students make it onto the NYT best-seller lists, and I have seen amazing, powerful fiction writers driven to their knees by the grinding, marketing-driven publishing industry. I have seen egoists in positions of power destroy the momentum of career paths, and I have seen agents steal from writers. Most important, I have been lucky to know some amazing, accomplished writers who give generously of themselves and constantly remind me that the lifestyle of a writer is a path of exploration, self-discovery, heart, mind, and imagination. That path is not the same thing as the business that is writing.

The single most destructive phenomenon to community among writers that I see is comparison. Whether it is comparison of self to other or other to self, the result is an implied false competition between people who could, and should, find common ground for cooperation.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not saying that hard work and dedication are not important. I’m not saying we should give endlessly to one another without setting personal boundaries. I’m saying that the vision of success one person has should be different than the vision of success anyone else has.

In our culture, if you use the word success in casual company, visions of being high in the hierarchy of a discipline come to mind. Often, that hierarchy is defined by position, by power, by financial wealth, and by material acquisition.

For some people, material things are part of their vision of success for themselves. That’s not a problem unless they judge others based on what they have or don’t have. For example, I have one life-loving friend who gets excited when she buys something for herself with money earned by writing. It has always been fun to see her excitement and amazement that in her life she is able to do that. For her, that is success. Her success isn’t measured by more than others or volume. It is measured by a bill paid or a television purchased using money she earned with her imagination and skill.

Another friend of mine considers it amazing when he adds a rejection slip to his “collection.” Certainly, he wants more financial freedom for his writing, but I never get the sense that financial freedom means more money or freedom than others or respect for him based on the money he earns. For him, money is always about being able to write more stories.

I draw inspiration from people like these two. I look at my own place in the neurodiversity of the world of writers, and I think in terms of what I can do with what I have. Today, I wrote a new short story. That’s my success. Forty years ago, I couldn’t have remained focused long enough to do that.

Often, when I teach, I discover that the people I work with have diverse definitions of success, but they talk about success as if it is the same for everyone. Writers come into classes or meet with other writers, and they talk about how many stories are in the mail, how many sales they have, where they are with review numbers, where they are on various lists, or what awards they have won. Some talk about numbers of stories sold. Hell, I have a standardized script I recite when people ask me questions about what I write. However, success is rarely about the things that writers talk about or use as metrics for comparison. Success, that feeling of personal satisfaction, comes from a deeper, more personal place.

Here’s an example of how casually we writers can treat each other poorly. About fifteen years ago, I had won some awards and published a number of stories in various genres. While attending a seminar taught by my friend Bruce Holland Rogers, I partnered with a young woman for an exercise. We collaborated on a short piece. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. You get the idea.

She wrote about flowers and pastoral settings. I introduced bees, a horse, and a wounded rider. We went back and forth. Eventually, she said, “Why do you do that?”

“What?” I seriously didn’t know what she was asking.

“Make the scene ugly.”

Confused, I went back over what we had written, and I realized that I had been attempting to bring conflict onto the page quickly because we had so little room to work. She had been attempting to create a pastoral, poetic moment of beautiful language.

Was I wrong? Of course not.

Was she wrong? Of course not.

“I’m introducing conflict,” I said.

“What kind of fiction do you write?”

Now, any writer who has been a writer for any length of time knows that this question is always hammer-locked, round-chambered, loaded. So, I recited my script, “I have sold science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary, romance….” People who know me know this patter. In the moment, it was preemptive self defense.

When I was done, she said, “Oh. You’re only a commercial writer.”

That word, “only,” is a short blade to the gut.

I pulled out my broadsword. “Yes. I sell what I write.”

Ha! Take that!

Okay, now how sad is that whole exchange?

Both of us were only looking for respect for what we spend so much of our lives doing. Both of us managed to put the other one down. Neither of us got the respect that would have satisfied some aspect of our criteria for personal success. She looked down her nose at me because I’m “only” a commercial writer, despite my literary sales. I shot back just as much venom in my barbed, “Yes, I sell…” We didn’t succeed in building a story, nor did we succeed on any other front.

We could have. She could have talked to me about what I was trying to do. I could have talked to her about what she was trying to do. We could have learned technique from one another. We could have shared hopes and plans. I might have known an editor who would like what she wrote. She might have known a reader who might like what I wrote.

Instead, we tried to impose our visions of success on one another. We tried to force respect rather than develop understanding.

Is my material vision of success a new car? No. My car is 27 years old. I love it. I’ll cry when it dies. My material vision of success does, however, include the newish computer and monitor I’m using to write these words. Is my heart’s vision of success the NYT list? No. I get much more excited about a fan letter or my sister calling me up to tell me about the deep-heart crying one of my stories caused. Is my success about how high I can go in the imaginary pantheon of the gods of writing? No. My personal vision is more about how far I’ve come from the day my high school guidance counselor told me I had good eye-hand coordination and would make a good factory worker but shouldn’t bother with college applications. My success is about years of therapy, diagnostics, and learning to live in my own skin in order to begin to be able to tap the emotions that let me tell a story that people will read. I get excited about my distance from my starting point much more than I get excited about the apparent altitude others perceive.

In a room full of 100 writers, I know one thing. Not even one of them is neurotypical in terms of how our culture measures such things. They all sit alone in back rooms and coffee shops and basements putting little black squiggles in a row until they feel right, and they all hope that someone will pick up those little black squiggles and use them to trigger an imagined experience that is rich, powerful, and meaningful.

I’m sorry to tell you this if you are a writer, but that’s just not normal.

However, it is glorious. It is worthy of respect and honor. It is necessary to the culture and the future.

Your success may be one sentence a day—today. It might be calming down enough to sit at the table or adding an extra hundred words to your daily word count. Your success might be buying a microwave with writing money, or it might be to free up enough time this year to finish a novel. Your success might be hitting the Times list, but equally powerful and important to the individual, it might be getting out of a town that expects you to make tail pipes for the rest of your life when your deepest heart knows you were meant to tell stories.

Whatever your vision of your success, I salute it. May the new year, and every day of it, bring you close to your success. May the people around you respect you for your vision of your success. Most of all, may all the writers who believe community is possible remember that we are not a murder of writers. We are a community of diverse hearts, minds, and imaginations—a writing community.

-End-

Surprise and The Ah-Ha Moment

Surprise and The Ah-Ha Moment

Eric Witchey

An article I once read described one of the major categories of procrastination as “threshold procrastination.” Translating that concept into writer speak, a writer has to have a deadline and get close enough to it that adrenaline (fear) drives them beyond a certain threshold before they can perform. Since I juggle multiple kinds of writing, one way or another I’m pretty much always near or on the wrong side of one deadline or another. Worrying is a state of being. Adrenaline is a pain in the ass. Still, it works for me.

However, another experience I suspect is closely related is the clarity that comes from sudden, short-term notice of a new project.

A long time ago, I had a great uncle who was known to be “a little psychic.” The family stories I heard about him had me curious as hell. He was old when I was 16, but he still worked at his tool and die company in Wauconda, Ill. My mother had taken me to dinner at his house. Another relative, a sort of uncle from that same generation, was an administrator at a hospital in Chicago. Keep in mind that his was in the early 70s, and miniaturization in medical equipment was happening in real time. Personal computers were about to be invented for the first time. Phones still lived on little tables in hallways.

Uncle Red, the administrator, had been helping out at Uncle George’s house while his wife and George’s wife, Ruth, fixed a pot roast. Red had been mowing the lawn in a small orchard behind the house. The little riding lawn tractor hit a rabbit rut and jarred him pretty hard. A while later, he realized he had lost a hearing aid out in the lawn somewhere.

It wouldn’t be a big deal now. You’d just order a new one on the internet, take it to a tech for tuning, and Bob’s your uncle. Except Red and George were my uncles, and Red had a miniaturized prototype hearing aid that was worth 10k in 1974 dollars.

We, meaning myself, my Mom, Red, Ruth, and Red’s wife, whose name I can’t remember but who may have been Betty and will be so named hereinafter, spent over an hour on hands and knees searching the orchard for that irreplaceable hearing aid.

We didn’t find it.

Ruth decided we should all clean up for dinner. She said, and I will never forget how strange it sounded to me at the time, “When George gets home, I’ll ask him to find it.”

To my surprise, everyone seemed just fine with that.

Maybe a half hour later, George did come home. Ruth met him at the door. Here’s another bit of nostalgia for folks my age. Back then, there were still “business men” who carried umbrellas, wore long coats, and sported actual fedoras. They were a dying breed, but George was one of them. To make what seems now to be both cliché and a perpetuation of patriarchy worse, Ruth took his hat, his coat, and his bumbershoot. Then, she kissed him on the cheek, got right in his face, locked eyes, and said, “Red lost his hearing aid out back. Can you find it?”

George reared back a bit in surprise, but he recovered quickly, glanced at the back of the house, paused like a man trying to peer through fog, then replied, “Yes.”

Okay, this sounds nuts, but I swear this is exactly what happened.

George then walked through the house, into the back yard, into the orchard. A few minutes later—very few minutes later—he came back in and handed Uncle Red the hearing aid.

All the adults present thanked him. Otherwise, they treated it like the most normal thing in the world. Dinner was served. We are talking left hand in the lap formal family protestant-folks dinner, too. Afterward, Mom, Ruth, and Betty “cleaned up.” Red left to do some hospital thing he had to do, and I found myself alone with George in, and I kid you not, “the library.” And yes, the library was actually what you are imagining. It was a personal library. The walls were books. The furniture was leather. The liquor cabinet wasn’t inside a globe of the ancient world, but such a thing would have been quite happy in that room.

So, young upstart me is sitting there with the scotch-in-hand spooky uncle trying to figure out how to ask him about what happened, and he up and says, “I have to be surprised.”

I say, “If you can do that, you could make a lot of money.”

He chuckles and sips scotch.

“Can you do that any time you want?”

Again, he says, “I have to be surprised.”

“Can you bend spoons?” It was a thing then.

He says, “Ruth knows me. She knows I can’t think about it or it doesn’t work. She surprised me with the question. I saw the spot in the yard.”

Now, I did ask him a lot of other stupid 16 year-old questions. He was kind. He was patient. He answered them all. None of the answers fit my worldview, so I left that experience pretty sure it had been an elaborate conspiracy among relatives I barely knew to convince the kid of secret powers.

Except it never came up again. I wasn’t the butt of any jokes. There was no follow-through—no payoff. Nothing.

Years went by. I went to college. I went to grad school. I went to life. Other strange things happened here and there, but I let it all slide over me. It’s all good. Right?

Except that sometimes I’m reminded of that dinner party and the hearing aide in the strangest ways.

As always, I seek patterns in the creation of story. I seek patterns in the stories and in the process of creating them. I look for ways to describe the patterns of process and form so that other people can shorten their learning curves, reduce the amount of personal trial and error. I’ve had some success serving the writing the community in this way. Most of the time, that involves rigorous application of experimentation and application of linguistic knowledge and personal experience.

Then, I’m surprised.

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out how to further shorten the development curve for writers who are struggling to put scenes together. The dramatic scene is, after all, the building block of all stories. I won’t explain that here. I’ll just say that building a solid, functional scene requires the writer to keep a lot of balls in the air. Normally, I teach people how many balls, the patterns in the air, the colors of the balls, and how to add a running chainsaw.

Okay, metaphorically speaking.

This week, Willamette Writers emailed me and asked me if I could take on a presentation slot in their calendar next week. The original speaker couldn’t make it. I said yes. I hung up the phone–the cell phone. With perfect clarity, I suddenly saw the path to the result I wanted.

An Uncle George psychic surprise? Mere Jungian synchronicity? Perhaps a deadline whose threshold for adrenaline had already passed?

I don’t know.

I do know that several teaching and writing techniques suddenly resolved into a seminar I’ll be teaching at Old Church in Portland, Oregon the evening of October 2nd. If the path is true and the hearing aide is where I have seen it, we’ll delve into character psychology and connect to setting and scene structure in a counter-intuitive way that will make writing and learning to write scenes faster and easier for most people. It will also allow revision that increases the emotional punch of the scenes. The talk will be called, “Because, Because and the Six-Layered Scene.”

Thank you, Uncle George. I may not be psychic, but, because of my experiences with you, I am open to those magical moments when a catalyst triggers the subconscious to deliver a result.

For more information on the event at Old Church, here’s the link:

https://willamettewriters.org/event/portland-monthly-meeting/2018-10-02/ 

Here’s the description:

Because, Because and The Power of Six-Layered Scenes

Join us on October 2nd, doors open at 6:30PM, at the Old Church in downtown Portland. to hear speaker and award-winning author Eric Witchey. Witchey will present this short adaptation of material from his Fiction Fluency Seminars. The evening will include an interactive demonstration of use of the “because, because” technique to uncover character psychology and emotional states before writing a scene. Discovered character attributes will then support creation of a six-layered scene that includes three simultaneous levels of conflict and three emotion-supporting layers of setting. Participants will walk away with a step-by-step understanding of the techniques demonstrated. Once understood, these techniques can be used for analysis and revision of existing scenes or for creation of new scenes.

About Eric Witchey

Eric Witchey is a writer, seminar teacher, course developer, process analyst, communication consultant, and conference speaker. He has made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant for over a quarter century. In addition to many contracted and ghost non-fiction titles, he has sold a number of novels and more than 140 stories. His stories have appeared in 12 genres and on five continents. He has received awards or recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer’s Digest, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award Program, Short Story America, the Irish Aeon Awards, and other organizations. His How-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines.

See you at this month’s Willamette Writer’s Portland meeting!