The Art of Creative Frittering (and Creative Napping too)

By Lisa Alber

On July 1st, I began writing a brand-spanking hold-your-horses new first draft, and it was a little painful, to be honest. Wait, what, I need to use my right brain now? But I want to analyze my idea to death into foooorever … It takes me awhile to disengage from the left brain and just start. It’s like wandering off a cliff; we’d all resist that, wouldn’t we?

Luckily, I’ve walked off this cliff enough to know that I float rather than fall. Or maybe I fall a little, but I never do the Wiley Coyote kersplat. Writing first drafts ends up being a wild ride, that’s for sure, but I always survive.

I have to give myself a hard start date, whether I feel ready or not. Hence, July 1st. I’m calling the draft “The Shadow Maiden.” My goal is 1,000 words (about four pages) per day for July, and then I’ll pause to engage my left brain in a little analysis: Does the story have chops? What have I learned about the story, characters, their motivations, and so on? What adjustments should I make now so I can continue in a better-thought-out direction?

That will be fun, but right now, I’m Little Miss Right Brain with my brainstorming novel notebook and Kaizen creativity tiny steps and pints o’ beer to help lube the wheels. (Not every day, but, yes, sometimes.) I’ll revise the shit out of anything, and I’ll do it with focus for hours, but first-draft writing? Some days it goes smoothly; other days I spend all day to get my 1,000 words.

ALL DAY. I’m not sure why this is. To an outside observer, I probably look addled. Walking around. Sitting down at the laptop again to tap out a hundred words. Unloading half the dishwasher and wandering away. Staring into space while scratching my dog’s tummy. Spacey. Distracted. It’s not relaxing, per se, because I can feel my brain inside my head (like, literally, man), heavy with unconscious processing.

I call this creative frittering, and it has a different feel from generalized putzing or procrastinating or being lazy.

Summer is my best season for writing first drafts because gardening provides a perfect outlet on creative frittering days. In fact, I’m proud to say that Manolo, the man who helps me out a few hours a month (big yard), always comments on how good the yard looks, especially the weeds — or lack of them, I should say. Yep, that’s me on creative frittering days, doing his job for him. But the garden does look pretty darned good, if I do say so.

Is there an art to creative frittering? I think so. It’s waking with the intention to write that day, but then, oddly, giving yourself the time and space to “be” without striving for the end outcome. Most of us don’t have much time to spare, and that’s true for me too. Yet, my creative process orders me to allow space for creative frittering anyhow. Mind you, it’s not every day. Maybe once a week at most. Maybe my brain needs to fill up its well, I don’t know. And sometimes, nothing works, and I don’t get my 1,000 words in, and I have to be OK with that because I’m only human.

The art of creative frittering also includes the art of creative napping. Straight up, no joke, scout’s honor. TRUTH. Here’s a great example: Last Saturday, I was particularly restless, not knowing what to do with the current scene or with myself in my body. Even gardening didn’t work. Then I realized I might as well do the exact opposite, lie down. Weird realization: The reason I couldn’t sit still to write or do much of anything was because I actually did need to rest awhile. I was so relaxed on the couch with Fawn, my eight-pound little nugget pup, nestled against me, picturing the characters in the scene, dozing off … And then, A-HA! followed by a mad dash to find my novel notebook before I lost my brilliant idea.

See? Napping, the next best thing to frittering.

I hope you enjoy these pictures of my garden, the end result of last year’s creative frittering while writing PATH INTO DARKNESS (out in a month!) and this year’s.

What say you to creative frittering, or just frittering? Do you get impatient with yourself or go with the flow?

It was a Dark and Stormy Sunday Afternoon

by Christina Lay

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I’ve written about how I tend to be a fast writer, a “panster” who plunges ahead at a furious pace and sorts it all out in an excruciating second draft. On writing retreats, I often irritate the hell out of fellow writers with my ability to completely ignore craft and grammar in order to get the words down (little do they know half those words are adjectives). My first draft motto might be “Damn the plot, full speed ahead!” Fingers flying, I am in the zone and happy as a hack-writing clam, if clams had fingers.

However, in the grey of long Sundays spent with ass glued to chair, I too experience the inevitable quagmire of a story gone wrong. Then every word is like passing a gallstone and every scene is as flat and grey as Iowa in January.

I’m fighting with a story now. Or actually, I’ve just finished fighting with a story, which is why I can glibly write this post and tell you all of my profound writerly epiphany, hard won in the trenches of poorly planned story crafting.

Like any writer, I fight with my craft and doubt my abilities. I slog, I wail, I gnash my teeth. But I keep writing. It’s a compulsion I’ve learned to live with and it works out in the end. Recently, I made the decision to stop working on a novel in progress in order to finish a novella with a rapidly approaching deadline. I would take a break, I told myself, whip out 40K words in two months, and then return to the novel and wrap it up in my usual take no prisoners fashion. No problem, right?

Wrong. Upon returning to the neglected story, I found myself sitting and staring at the page as precious minutes, hours and weekends ticked away with very little activity in the finger area. The characters had stopped speaking to me. The plot was a mysterious shambles. What had I been thinking? I couldn’t remember. My notes gave me no clear direction. It was agonizing. Life piled up, the house fell into disarray, but I had to spend every “free” moment slogging through this mess of a book.

It got so bad at one point I briefly told myself I could just walk away. Finish it later. Maybe it’s too broken. Maybe I should cut my losses and run.

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I haven’t had this pernicious thought in years. I have come to recognize it as the voice of doom. I shrugged it off, but it got me to thinking. Like any writer, I have a veritable library of unfinished first drafts. I even have unfinished third and fourth drafts. Some deserved to be abandoned, others not so much. The one thing they all have in common is that when the going got rough, I set them aside to work on something new and shiny.

I have quite a few decent starts, and I’ve gone back to try to finish them, and it just doesn’t work. The juice, the fire, the whatever-made-it-exciting-in-the-first-place, has fled. And that is why getting restarted on this current project was so damn hard. I shut off the flow (for good reason, purely innocent and all) and nearly killed the story. This was at three-fourths of the way through, over 50,000 words. In olden times, I might have quit. But now I’m what you might call a professional writer and I know my editor is waiting for this book. So I pushed on. Toiled. Had nightmares. Sank into a depression. Wondered if the ability to write had finally petered out. All of it. But I didn’t quit and today I am looking at the downhill slide toward the end. One more chapter and I will get to begin the hellacious rewrite. What joy. What rapture.

So my epiphany is “don’t quit”. Hmmph, you might say. Not terribly profound. But think back on all the unfinished projects. Are there good reasons they remain unfinished, or is it because the going got too damn hard? Be honest. Be tough. If you really do have to take a break, because you’re say, giving birth or have been accepted into NASA’s space program, make sure you leave yourself good notes, and try to stop in the midst of some thrilling action, to make it easier to jump start the flow when you get back.

I know so many good writers, really good writers, who never seem to finish anything. There is always the bright and shiny, the exciting, the better, the not-so-damn-hard, calling to us. There is even the dreaded siren call of maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer. But if you truly want to finish a book, or story, or poem, you’ve got to do the slog and wrestle the demons of doubt to the ground.

And then you write. Slow, fast. Doesn’t matter. Just don’t quit.

Five Ways National Novel Writing Month is Improving my Writing, by Pamela Jean Herber

For those of you who are not familiar with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it is an annual event scheduled for the month of November, which is hosted by nanowrimo.org. Hundreds of thousands of people across the globe accept the personal challenge to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in 30 days. This year I succeeded for the eighth time in ten attempts. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about how to work toward quantity and quality simultaneously. These are the first five that come to mind.

1. Maintain Mad Typing Skills

It’s only obvious that typing speed and accuracy will help in pounding out those 50,000 words. However, my ultimate goal is to write a story of value to myself and others. So, I maintain a skill level that renders typing to the instinctual level, where I’m not thrown out of the land of story to search for a key or fix a typo.

2. Exile the Censor

Even with mad typing skills, the words can come haltingly. This is where I tell myself that no one ever has to see anything I write. Even then, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to come face to face with my own raw thoughts and feelings. Allowing my imagination to flow freely through my fingers has taken practice. Writing as fast as possible has proved to be the most effective way for me to get over myself. The benefits are great here, not only in word count but in connecting more fully to my inner storyteller.

3. Set the Timer

Timed writings serve multiple purposes. First, by starting out with short sprints and increasing them, you can build stamina, get your brain into writing shape. Then by setting the timer to the same length for multiple sessions and then switching to another, you will develop a sense of the relationship between word count and speed. Also, by maintaining a habit of timed writings your words will gradually take on shapes that fit the time lengths.

4. Write to Constraints

This is where the fun part begins. By now you are able to write with such velocity that you can dial it back to focus on story. Start by giving yourself random prompts to write to, either to a specific time length, or simply allow the words to determine the length. This is not easy for me. I’m still strengthening my ability to take multiple elements such as character and setting and place, and insert them into the story place in my mind. But it’s getting easier. Once you’ve achieved competence at impromptu story writing, you will be on your way to writing to an outline.

5. Transition from Time Chunks to Story Chunks

Here we are at number five, where the previous four come together. I like to think of this as the place where I inhabit the time-word count-story continuum. Now, instead of focusing on timed writings, write to story chunks. These can be scenes, chapters, whatever. The chunks might be loosely defined or highly specified. They might come directly from the outline to your novel. The timer isn’t off limits here, but may not be necessary.

Use these five practices to remove obstacles to putting words on the page, and to tune your imagination to your inner storyteller. Then go out, or stay in, and write the best shitty first draft of a novel you can.

Trust the Path

By Cynthia Ray

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“As I looked back at the mountains and forest that had just held me in their jaws I realized I’d been given a gift with that phrase, Trust the Path, and I pass it on to you. It means that when you are lost and confused, you can trust the journey that you have chosen, or that has chosen you. It means others have been on the journey before you, the writer’s journey, the storyteller’s journey. You’re not the first; you’re not the last. Your experience of it is unique, your viewpoint has value, but you’re also part of something, a long tradition that stretches back to the very beginnings of our race. The journey has its own wisdom, the story know the way. Trust the journey. Trust the story.   Trust the Path.” Christopher Vogel from the Writers Journey

Vogels story begins with a hike that goes terribly wrong.  He becomes lost and as dusk descends, he panics.  At the point where he was ready to give up, exhausted, hungry and shivering, a voice whispered to him, “Trust the Path.” He looked around, seeking that path, but found nothing. He questioned that voice, but he looked down and noticed a line of ants moving in the grass. He followed the ants path, which eventually led to a narrow deer path, which, in turn, led to another, wider logging trail, which led to a road which led to the highway.

If he had dismissed the voice as foolish, not logical or unrealistic, he would have remained lost in the woods, and possibly died there. How often do we dismiss our own still, small voice of guidance? It whispers, or shouts, or nudges, but we have to be willing to trust ourselves.

The good news is, that no matter how deaf we may have been, or how dismissive in the past, the voice keeps whispering and once we start tuning in to it, it rewards us with even more wisdom. It is a beautiful gift that every single person has access to, if we will only trust it.

Trusting ourselves and listening to that voice, leads to surprising places that we would have never found with our logical, analytic minds. It can be the scariest thing in the world, but it is the only thing that can save us–it leads us out of the mire, or to the heart of our story, or at least to the next step of the journey, one small step at a time.

Trust the Path. Trust YOUR Path.

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Pain and Productivity

by Christina Lay

I’ve been trying to write about this subject for a long time, but it’s one of those topics that has always been little too personal, a little too close to the bone, to get any objectivity on. I start writing and I get defensive. But tonight as I sit down to write a post due tomorrow, and another due the day after tomorrow, grim reality hits home once again.

Damn, I say. And then I wonder, is there anything helpful to be gained by shining a bit of light on this back-riding monkey of mine? Well, let’s take a look at where I was when I first tried to write about it, nearly two years ago:

I’m here because the voices in my head have driven me write this blog. These are not the ordinary writerly voices of characters whispering dialogue and plot suggestions to my fevered imagination. These are the voices of The Committee. You know, the raging discussions about shoulds, wants, have-to’s and why-the-hell-nots. Some of the voices come from bottles: pill bottles to be exact.

No, I’m not an addict, but I could be. Sometimes painkillers (legally obtained, mind you, NSA internet scanning friends of democracy) are my best friends. At other times, they lurk in the kitchen cabinet like an evil troll under the bridge, luring me to my doom.

The conversation goes somewhat like this:

Me: Damn, my back/neck/hip hurts, but I need to write.

Cyclobenzaprine: If you want to get any sleep tonight, you’d better take me now.

Fairy of Good Intentions: But if you do that you won’t be able to concentrate long enough to finish that novella/blog post/chapter/submission.

Tramadol: Or you can take me and not give a shit.

Troll of Unworthiness: Suck it up, loser! Only the weak and worthless let a little back pain interfere with the relentless pursuit of their dreams! Not only should you not medicate, but you should stay up really late!

Coffee: I’m up for that.

Fairy of Good Intentions: If you’d listened to me, you would’ve finished yesterday instead of watching Veronica Mars on Netflix.

Me: Okay, Cyclob you win, but I’m going to stay up late and write gibberish thanks to you.

Troll: Well, as long as you suffer for your art.

I’ve often wondered how much more productive I’d be without this chronic back pain of mine, but let’s face it, I might not even be a writer if I didn’t have the physical limitations that I do. I might be a ballerina or one of those annoying Globe Trekker people. I might be a different person, in other words, so it’s useless to speculate or write stupid blogs about.

Frieda Kahlo is one of my inspirations. Not because I’m a huge fan of her work but because she overcame great physical challenges to create it. I know my problems pale in comparison, but I’ve set her up as a challenge to myself when the pain and the painkillers conspire to distract me from my goals. And the goal is always to get something done. There is always the next something. The next story. To stand still, to medicate, is to let the story die.

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Whoa. Melodramatic and bit sad. I’m happy to say that overall the intensity of my chronic pain has lessened and I don’t face these kind of nights nearly as often. And with a little perspective, I can now see that what is sad is not that I am tragically afflicted with a bent spine, but that I am so damn hard on myself.  The only thing that dies when I fail to write is my sense of humor.

I’m not sure where I got this fear of stopping. Maybe I was a shark in a previous life. But there, now I’ve done it, I’ve pushed through the pain to write about pain and ask, how important is productivity? How important is making deadlines? We can only face one hurdle at a time and answer the question anew every time, but the important thing to remember is to be easy on ourselves, no matter what we decide to do or not do.

I know I’m not the only one who feels driven to ignore the body’s warnings in order to keep moving, to achieve, push, strive and continue on when really I should just lie down with an ice pack on my neck. The world will not end if my ShadowSpinners post is a day late. The story will not die. The words might be different tomorrow, as I might be different. Less grumpy, more refreshed and ready to write, ready to play in the garden of my imagination.

Is a Sentence a Story?

Is a Sentence a Story?
By Cynthia Ray

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It is said that Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and called it his best work.

There are contests and websites dedicated to the one sentence “story”. Is one sentence a story? A haiku perhaps, an engaging thought or intriguing question, but is it a bona-fide story?

There are anthologies of 55 word stories, and books of 500-word fiction. They are interesting, artistic and sometimes haunting and beautiful, but when I  settle in on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a good book, I turn to longer, in depth, even rambling books, trilogies and Russian novels.

Is the one sentence story a sign that our attention span as readers has shortened, or have we simply added and expanded to the craft, playing with words in new and fun ways?

In my writing group, I got feedback on the length of my stories, and it reminded me of the fable of the three bears. Some were toooo long, some were tooooo short, and a few were just right, and it made me ask, “Is there a perfect length for a story?”

Some short stories were perfect in their 500-word essence. Others required 10,000 words just to get started. It made me think of the creative process; when I start a story, I don’t know how long it will be. I’ve started out to write a novel and ended up with a 3000-word short story, and I’ve started with a short story that turned into a much longer project.

In the end, word count is just another aspect of story telling, to be considered along with tone, theme, conflict, plot, characters and everything else. It is not that important to focus on, except when we don’t get it right. A story that is too long or short can leave your reader feeling bored, or unsatisfied, without knowing why.

As Neil Gaman said:

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Time Management*: Bullet Points, Mole Skins and the Rabbit Hole of Doom

by Christina Lay

*Warning to those with no time to waste- this post will not help you manage your time.

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A while back I wrote a terribly entertaining (never published) post about how intimidated I was by the Stop Time button on my stove. How I wish I had that button now. I’m sure the proper combination of hoodoo, ritual and wishful thinking would summon the dark powers of GE and put the brakes on summer. Maybe then I could finish the next novel, promote the old ones, make ends meet at the EDJs (evil day jobs) and have Time left over to get a tan and a semblance of a life. Actually what I’d really like is one of those dimmer switches, with which to merely slow the relentless march of time on days when I have four posts to write, and speed it up on Mondays during financial audits at work.

I’m not the only one with this problem. Recently on one of my author list serves, this question was broached: What’s your favorite planner?  Over 100 back and forth responses over the course of two days ended with a heated Moleskine vs. Leuchtturm debate, complete with youtube videos on bulleting and color-coding. Nothing ironic about that at all.

I’m not an organizer. I’m not a planner. But I should be. My desk is a tsunami of notes, half-filled legal pads, random important looking envelopes, novel-specific journals, journals with no purpose other than to mock me, and calendars stuck open on March, 2014. Trust me, whatever was supposed to happen in March 2014 probably didn’t. Usually I’m okay with this. Panic is a natural phenomena like headaches on Mondays and margarita-cravings on Fridays. Right now it’s panic time, and normally I’m good with that. The problem arises when I dare to think that, just maybe, things could be better, which usually follows an incautious glance at the calendar (the one on the wall that’s opened to the current year and month).

Holy Cow, summer is over tomorrow. In spring I resigned myself to the fact that no money plus no time equaled no vacation. Life and panic attacks would continue as normal. But after a couple weeks of 90+ weather and blue skies, I could no longer deny Summer was happening, and happening without me. I had to do something. Outside. Not involving a keyboard.

Naturally at the last minute before a blistering hot weekend every hotel room in driving distance to cooler climes was booked up by people who plan. People who highlighted August in yellow and drew smiley faces over their blocked out vacation days way back in February. Or possibly just a week ago. Whatever.

A search for dog-friendly cabins led me to yurts in state campgrounds. They weren’t any of those available either. But there were campsites. Very few, which fueled my anxiety. And so I impulsively reserved a spot over on the coast, a mere hour away. It’ll be fun, I said. The dog will like it, I thought. I’ll go swimming and have a day-long summer. Never mind that I hadn’t been camping in over 20 years. Never mind that the campground in question was a Known Refuge for ATV Riding Clan Hoards of Fifth Wheel Ravagers. Nah. Being a single fretful female with an old toothless dog drove me to embrace the idea of a crowded campground.

And now we get to the part where I reveal the secret of Stopping Time. What you do is:

  1. Believe the weather forecast that says it will be nice on the Oregon coast in August; an occurrence more rare than unicorns in your backyard.
  2. Set up a tent in a filled to capacity nightmare inducing outdoor nuthouse otherwise known as a state campground.
  3. Stay.

I’d given myself the option of bailing if it was too awful. It wasn’t too awful. After all, I’d wasted so much of my precious reservoir of time digging out the camping equipment and shopping for survival essentials like flashlights and jumbo bags of chips. I decided a campfire might help get me in the mood. Who doesn’t have fond memories of acidic clouds of smoke blowing into your eyeballs every three minutes? When the rain started I rationalized that it might help quiet things down. Surely the roar of the sand dune destroying ATVs nearby would diminish at sunset, along with whatever paltry warmth remained?

It did and this is when I realized I’d wandered into a fresh-air style Bedlam, as the stalwart sports people and their requisite 15 kids returned and began…whatever the hell it is they do. Mostly yell and scream and ride bikes past my not quite in the road but almost campsite.

The dog and I crawled into our tent and I read by the glow of blessed technology into the wee hours, assuming that at some point the tumult might calm to the point where sleep was possible. And calm it did. Slowly, layer by layer, the hoard settled, thereby allowing the most singularly loud and persistent campers to pierce the night with their befuddled drunken cursing, their hysterical laughter, and their buzzsaw snores. I did eventually doze to the lulling crescendo of the flush toilets about 50 feet from my campsite. And then the magic happened. Time stopped.

Surely this night will end, I thought? Surely the sun will rise like it always does? It didn’t. If only I’d had my laptop, I could have finished the next novel, marketed the old ones, written posts for the next year of ShadowSpinners and possibly knitted my dog a blanket, because he was freezing.

Be warned; The benefits of Stopping Time are very situationally based and it pays to be prepared. However, if you’re like me, this will never happen. No matter how poorly you plan and how long you ignore your basic happy-life needs, time will randomly stop when you least it expect it. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a post idea out of it.

So, Moleskine or Leuchtturm? Bulleting or strikethrough?

Let the trip down the rabbit hole begin.

Lazlo at the beach

Lazlo – once again proving the journey is more important than where your half-deflated air mattress ends up.