Wednesday, January 30, 2013

More Tools for Taking Stock

In the spirit of not reinventing the wheel, I point you today toward a couple of articles that ask good questions and can possibly help you answer them.

They're both on Write It Sideways: "writing advice from a fresh perspective." In the spirit of full disclosure, its founder and impresario, Suzannah Windsor Freeman, is Canadian with ties to Thunder Bay. (We met online. That counts, right?) Plus, they're about to launch a new literary magazine, Compose, which is pretty exciting and might call for further announcements here.

Back to their recent articles that are useful tools for taking stock.

This one asks whether a Writing Residency is right for you. We all long for that uninterrupted time away from it all to just write. Sometimes, that may indeed be exactly what you need. And sometimes...maybe not.

This article suggests that setting boundaries on  your goals may help make them more achievable -- and most helpfully (to me), reminds us all that we can control only what we do, not what someone else might do.

Nothing wrong with choosing to evaluate what you're doing all through the month of January, right? Right.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Successful Learning

While catching up on Macleans magazines, I ran across a profile of James Dyson by Jay Teitel. It's entertaining as well as illuminating -- well worth the read.

The paper version of the magazine used this as the pull quote on page 2 of the story:
The path to discovery is full of mistakes and false leads. You can’t do things if you’re afraid of making mistakes.

"Mistakes and false leads" might also be called "playing," and doing THAT requires me to transcend my parents' "focus on the goal" achievement-oriented upbringing.

But speaking of my parents, here's another Dyson quote -- and this one sounds even more familiar. 
You learn from failure. You don't learn from success.
My mother used to say this. I'd bring home the algebra test on which I'd scored 97%, and she'd ask, "What did you miss?" I'd deflate.

Of course, she wanted me to be humble. But mostly, she knew that to learn, you have to find out what you don't know. Demonstrating what you do know isn't learning -- it's showing off. Although as a grown-up, I'm also reminded that exercising one's competence is also a confidence-booster. 

Still, "learning from failure" is worth remembering about writing. When you get feedback -- whether it's specific "I don't understand the connection between this paragraph and your main point" or a generic "no" of rejection -- that's a chance to learn something. Dyson learned, and he invented a hand-dryer for public restrooms that actually dries your hands. Amazing!

N.B. My mother was often, infuriatingly, right. 
N.B. #2 If Dyson ever invented a vacuum that actually vacuums the room all by itself, I'd buy one regardless of cost.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Taking Stock

January is technically more than halfway over as of today, but since I haven't sent out the Christmas letter yet, I'm still going on the assumption that we can still call 2013 "the New Year."

Seriously, late December and early January are traditional times to take stock, though of course I feel the urge in September as well, when school starts. In any case, I've done that. I've updated my creative writing plan and set new goals for 2013 -- the first quarter, anyway.

And because it's a stock-taking time of year, others are considering the same topics. For example, here is an excellent essay by Jane Friedman, with the intriguing title, "How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published?"

So many excellent ideas, worth pondering. Here are a few:
* The value of reading: it gives you a good sense of what is (a) being published and (b) appealing to you.
* The value of questioning: questions can help you decide if it's time to change course.
* The value of interior goals: knowing what you want helps you get there.

My current favorite, though, is one of the questions to help you decide if it's time to change course: Are you getting bitter?

I'm not bitter now, but I have been -- yes, about creative writing, largely because finding success wasn't as easy as I had imagined, with all my blah blah blah years of experience in the writing world, working with editors, blah blah. The view from the edge of the trench is one thing; only when you get down into the trench do you see how deep the mud really is.

Bitterness is destructive, and not only to the person feeling it. It's like a disease or a burr -- the kind of sticker that gets in your socks, irritates your ankles like ants biting, and is just impossible to remove. You've probably been there: someone shares wonderful news, and a bitter person pokes a hole in it. It's impossible not to deflate a little in the presence of bitter.

One of the best antidotes to bitter: writing (something Friedman also suggests earlier in the article, when she asks if you're focusing on publishing instead of writing). On the days when I feel most like a fraud, I write. (I try to write every day, but that's another discussion.) No one can argue with the fact that I'm a writer when I write.

Another antidote to bitter: reviewing successes. So you didn't get that piece into that publication -- you finished a draft. You have four new ideas in the pipeline. You got one nice note with your most recent rejection. Your writing group really liked part of your most recent submission. Look for successes; they're there -- if you're working at your craft. And if you're not seriously working at it, well, you now know what your next step can be.

So consider Friedman's suggestions -- and go forth into the new year with new goals and habits!
Thursday, January 10, 2013


It's early January. Normally at this time of year, the bay in front of our house is frozen solid, and the days are sunny and cold, with temperatures between -15C and -10C. Understand, I'm no meteorologist; I haven't actually researched what's "normal." I know only what has been "normal" weather for the past seven years or so, since I started living here year-round.

And I know that today's high, which was something like 6C (45F, give or take) was definitely abnormally warm.

Did I enjoy it? You bet. We were out and about, running errands. One of those errands was buying water from the city water pump in town. (I'm a bit of a princess about the way my drinking water tastes, and our well is temperamental in its own unique way. The well and I are both recovering from the holidays. I'm drinking more water; that's as close to a resolution I'll see in 2013. Plus, we're generally augmenting well water with town water, 20-liter jug by 20-liter jug, till it's full and has a chance to build a reserve.) I have to say, manhandling the pump and the water jugs was much more pleasant than it is when the weather is 20 Celsius degrees cooler!

But it's unsettling. It's a little impending-doom-ish. It's just wrong to see so much grass -- more grass than snow cover.

There's a lynx in the area nowadays. It came walking past this afternoon. I love the wildlife around here, even when the squirrels freak me out by getting into the basement and the bears freak me out by showing up when there are children around. In spite of "inconveniences" like not being able to feed birds (bears love bird feeders) or plant gardens (deer love all growing things), I love the daily reminders that we share the world. We humans aren't the only creatures that matter.

But I did wonder, this afternoon, if in another five years we'll see other creatures that I'm not used to seeing here. Armadillos, for example. Javelinas.

But I can't worry too much. The year is still new; it's easy to be optimistic. I have a work contract that will keep me steadily busy for the next few months. Thanks to my creative plan, I'm clear on the creative work on my plate. So feeling a little out of synch with the natural world is okay, for now.

Still, I'd like to see some snow. So would the well. It would keep us both from being so temperamental in the future. Plus, it's just nice to be in synch with the natural world.
Friday, January 4, 2013

Mouse View/Eagle View: Revision

Ah, a new year, a new calendar page!

In the past year, I've had the opportunity to edit fiction for a US publisher and provided feedback to other writers on their creative projects. And now I'm also in the throes of revising some creative writing projects of my own.

One of the more frustrating realities I live with is that I've worked, with some success, as a writer and an editor for years -- yet revising my own creative writing remains one of the most challenging parts of the writing process.

Good news: Revision is one context in which distinguishing between mouse and eagle view can be the most helpful. In fact, it's necessary.

When I work with a client, I have to know what kind of feedback they're looking for. Do they want me to be a mouse? If so, I'll standardize their use of punctuation and verb tense, correct errors in grammar and usage, and even check the bottom of every page to see if the last word is hyphenated.

Or do they want me to be an eagle? Do they want me to track the elapsed time in a novel, so that a trial doesn't inadvertently take place on a weekend, or a mention of "three weeks later" in March doesn't turn into September? I'll look at whether the protagonists actively create the events in the story, whether I'm willing to suspend my disbelief and take a trip with the characters.

When a publishing company is looking for a quick copy edit or a proofing job, they're not interested in hearing about problems in the plot (though sometimes I can't resist pointing them out). When a writer asks for substantive input, she doesn't want me to standardize how she uses commas.

Revising my own work is also easier when I'm explicit with myself ahead of time about what I think the piece needs. Although it's relatively easy to get enough time and distance for me to correct grammar or spelling, getting perspective on larger issues in a manuscript is tougher. Time helps, and that's eagle-view time: in December, I reworked a story that I hadn't looked at for a year. The story I start on tomorrow has been "resting" for nearly two years -- which is good, because I suspect it's going to need a major overhaul.

And of course I didn't invent this concept: "levels of edit" have been around, with various definitions, for decades. Quite the useful tool they are, too!

So that's three contexts in which I have used "mouse view/eagle view" recently: life balance, rejection, and revision. I wonder how many more I can find!

Happy 2013, everyone.