About Writing

Welcoming 2016 With A Calendar And A List

I am very goal-oriented.  It's a trait I picked up in high school and college when I found that the only way to stay on top of term papers, exams, rehearsals, and performances was to set goal dates for completing every single task necessary to a given project.  It made me possibly not much fun to love with, but I graduated with high honors and made it through grad school, more or less, in one piece. It was when I started teaching that I began a love affair with calendars.  Those lovely black bound teacher planners were my salvation.  I owe them my sanity.  Sometime after becoming a mother, I began to cheat on Planners with Lists.  I started to wonder if my new flame would replace the old.  It didn't take long to realize I could be at my most productive by using both.  I introduced Lists to Planners and they got along splendidly.

Until this year.  That's when Reality kicked Planners in the privates and stole her lunch money.  I am here to tell you Reality can be a real (rhymes with) witch.  In 2015, I have completed far fewer projects than intended and felt time racing past me, like so many marathoners passing an injured tortoise at the side of the road.  Thank goodness for Lists.  Without her, I don't think I would even recall now, in the aftermath of a year run amok, what I had hoped to accomplish this time around the sun.  Luckily, Lists is still standing and able to remind me what my plans were and what I actually accomplished.  

Looking at my list of professional goals for 2015, I see that I did not achieve most of what I planned. I also see that I did accomplish a great deal.  In April, illustrations and editing for Escape From Pig Hill were completed.  This first book in The Ballad of Donny Granger was published in May. The poems and illustrations for GodSongs were completed in the early summer.  That collection was published in August. Earlier this month, illustrations for the third edition of Ermengarde The Expansive were completed and the book was published.  "Mothers Face In My Own Mirror," "Geriatric Bimbo," Nude Salutation," "If I Were Sara," "Ten Aspirations," "To An Old Bearded God," "Time Management," "It Wasn't For The Gold," "21st Century Sabine," "Rhea Silvia," and "May Day" are all poems completed in 2015.  "Basic Guided Meditation For Beginners" and "Meditation For A New Beginning" were completed in December.  

These are not insignificant accomplishments.  I find that I am actually pretty pleased with what was completed this year.  I also find that Lists is helpful in creating a plan for 2016.  I have always believed it is better to shoot high than to try to assure success by aiming low.  Idealistic as that sounds, I am aware that Reality is a powerful adversary and often has plans of her own.  So I present this goal list and time planner with a whole canister of salt.  

Steph's Professional Goals for 2016

  • Complete, illustrate and publish Ermengarde The Expansive And The Year of Long Light, a novella.  (Goal Date: May 1, 2016)
  • Complete, illustrate and publish The Road Home, next book in The Ballad of Donny Granger. (Goal Date: November 15, 2016)
  • Create 50 new poems.  (Goal Date: December 31, 2016)
  • Create 12 new Guided Meditations.  (Goal Date: December 15, 2016)
  • Create two new short stories, including "St. Francis' Feast," which is already begun.  (Goal Dates: January 15 and March 15, 2016)
  • Write a short drama about Guinevere, which is to be included in Out of The Frame, a play to be presented in 2016.    (Goal Date: June 15, 2016)
Remembering always that carving anything in stone just leads to hunting for a new rock, I think I am up to the professional challenges which lie ahead.  Happy New Year, one and All!

How I Created Ermengarde, The Princess For All Of Us

I have said a few times that seeing Ermengarde in print means a lot to me.  It is always a big deal for an author to see her own words out in the world doing their job.  What that job is may vary from story to story and author to author, but, my books' job is to change people by asking them to see the world in new ways. This mission is clearer with Ermengarde the Expansive than with many of my other writings.  

I started developing the title character back when I told stories to preschoolers at nap time.  That was during the time when we first started hearing that phrase that sends chills up the spines of moms and teachers everywhere, "Disney Princesses."  Before that, there were Disney Princesses of course, but they had their own identities.  Snow White was Snow White, not to be confused or associated with Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.  Then, along came Ariel and Belle and Jasmine.  That was when the princesses started to be assimilated.  For criminies sake, even Disney's Pocahontas and Disney's Mulan were cut from the same fabric as the others.  Other than slight variations of attire and skin tone, these gals were all representative of that impossible standard of 20th century feminine beauty, the Barbie doll.  

As a preschool teacher and storyteller, I was constantly answering requests for specific stories.  "Tell us the one about the giant bunny, Ms. Steph.  Tell us the one about the little blue train."  Somewhere along about 1989, I started receiving constant requests for stories from Disney's collection of girl royalty.  Day in and day out, I fielded demands for Jasmine and Ariel, Cinderella and Belle.  I also watched my charges role playing those Disney fairy tales and it bothered me.  

The lessons my children were learning, both the boys and the girls, but especially the girls, were troublesome.  They were buying into the idea that a girl's whole purpose in life is to find and marry a fabulous man.  The characters they emulated were fabulous but only in relationship to the men in their stories.  Otherwise, they were misfits and doormats.  The children were also learning very, very young that beauty is clearly defined as tall, thin, light-skinned, long-haired, and completely symmetrical in every aspect.  Need I point out that both Pocahontas and Mulan looked like white girls with slight tans?  

I have always been a large woman.  It really bugged me that none of the women my charges were learning to admire and respect looked like me.  It bothered me even more that none of the princesses looked like my charges, who came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  The self loathing that is one possible result of girls being acclimated to these bizarrely impossible archetypes of femininity frightened me.  The fact that the boys were learning what to expect of women from these stories bothered me as well.  

I had no intention of intervening when the children told or role played the stories on their own, but I was determined not to be their Disney dealer anymore.  I took all the Disney books out of my classroom and henceforth declined to tell those tales. 

I started creating fairy tales that fostered the idea that women are equal to men and that beauty comes in a far wider range than previously suspected.  There were stories about tricky gnomes and powerful queens.  I wove tales about pretty and smart and independent koala bears.  There were a couple of gay marriages between characters, though I was careful how I said so, and there was Ermengarde.  

I will admit that Ermengarde, the princess, was a fairy tale representation of myself.  Like me, she had Daddy issues, low self-esteem, and a determination to overcome all obstacles.  Like me, she married a weak man who had his own issues and who should never have subjected any woman (other than his devoted mommy) to helping him sort those issues out. (Husband number one, for anyone wondering.  Not my daughter's father.)  Ermengarde, the queen, is the woman I strive to be and the woman I hope my daughter and other young women take as a role model. Queen Ermengarde is generous, brave, daring, smart, determined, independent and self-reliant.  As princess and as queen, Ermengarde is a rare beauty.  She is also fat.  It takes her a while to come to terms with the reality of fatness but, once she gets there, she is fabulous.  

I hope you will buy a copy of Ermengarde The Expansive.  I hope you will share her with all the girls and women in your life.  I hope you will share her with the boys too.  There is a kindle version available, but the illustrations are better in the paperback.  Get the paperback so you can sit with a child at your side and share the legend of Ermengarde the Expansive.  

Writing To Deadline and Nanowrimo

I am surrounded by writers doing National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. I am not. My daughter is doing it for the second time. I have many, many friends committed to completing a novel in 31 days. I see writers at work on Nano books in coffee shops and talking about it online. There is even a huge support system for them in Second Life! They are everywhere! 

Truth be told, I have no clear understanding of what motivates someone to take on so Herculean a commitment as NaNoWriMo, especially one that comes with so little guaranteed pay-off. It's not like there is money at stake or, in most cases, the satisfaction of seeing your work in print. My guess is that many, if not most, novels completed during this annual self-torture fest aren't very good. I really don't understand why writers subject themselves to this exercise in pain and suffering. 

It's not the deadline that bothers me. I write to deadlines all the time. In fact, that is the only way I can get anything finished. Even self-imposed deadlines work for me. I am just Type A enough to be mortified by the thought of missing a deadline. This is not to say I never reset my own deadlines. I have done that when I have realized I was expecting way too much of myself in way too brief a time. What I can't bear to do is miss a deadline for a project in process. 

I don’t think this practice of self-flagellation for project tardiness is unique among authors, so maybe that explains why NaNoWriMo works for so many people. For me though, the Nano deadline is too arbitrary. I like my deadlines to be based on a knowledge of what the project will entail and realistic expectations. Maybe a novel in 31 days is reasonable for others, but it certainly is not for me. 

To be honest, I wonder if a book I wrote under Nano conditions could be a good book. I am pretty sure I would be so overwhelmed by the pressure of the 31 day deadline that the book would never be completed, but if I did manage to bear up under the time crunch, I am pretty sure the book would suck. I am not a slow writer. I turn out three or four thousand words on an average work day. Many of those words get edited out in future drafts. I also work several projects on any given day. Included in my 3000 or so words today there will be some poetry, some writing for my blog and some work in my next novel. That is a pretty normal day for me. I think this pace produces my best work and doubt I would be thrilled with what came out of a Nano type strategy. 

So, to all of you doing NaNoWriMo 2013, I offer my best wishes and moral support. Maybe you would like to tell me what motivates you to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I encourage you to send comments to StephanieMesler@gmail.com with the heading “Why I Nano.”

The Hardest One Is Done...I Think  12/2/2013
Took me a while to figure out how to deal with an illustration for one of the poems that will be included in Love Lines.  It was a conundrum because I really needed two nearly identical She's to appear in the image.  I am not the greatest artist, graphic or otherwise, so this was a huge challenge.  I even considered taking the coward's way out and just not illustrating the poem in question.  In the end though, light dawned and I figured out how to proceed.  It took precisely 54 attempts and I think it is worth it. The illustration posted here is the result of the penultimate attempt.  This one will NOT be the one that appears in the book, but it came close to meeting my requirements so I share it with you here.  I hope it wets your appetite.  

Four Things That Really Bug Me When I Am Trying To Work  8/14/2013

The Gods' Honest Truth is that if anything at all bugs me when I am working, it is a sign that work is not coming easily and, when it does not come easily, that is not a good sign that the work I do that day will be worth the virtual paper on which it is written.  When the muse is dancing, the stars are properly aligned, all my chakras keenly tuned, the words effortlessly flow. On a good day, it is actually hard to keep up with them, typing fast enough to get them all on paper before they disappear into ether.  Nothing can slow me down when I'm really fertile, creatively speaking.  But when the well has run dry and I am barren as the Mojave in March, there are several things that really get on my nerves and make it even harder for me to focus on getting words onto the blank page.  

  1. Dirty dishes.  (Laundry too if I am completely honest.)  Dirty dishes can completely crash my creative drive.  I'll be sitting in front of the keyboard, trying hard not to jump from the blank page I need to fill with poetry to Facebook or Scrabble when an image of my kitchen sink will flash into my mind.  I will try like hell to resist it but, invariably, it will win.  I will end up standing in the kitchen cleaning things.  We all know cleaning one thing leads to cleaning another thing and then another and then another.  Housework is insidious that way.  Washing one pan can cast a spell over me and, before I know it I've lost half a day's writing.  This is not entirely bad; I get a clean house out of the bargain, but a clean house does not get my name in print.   
  2. Anyone at all speaking to me.  I have told my partner and my daughter when my office door is closed, I do not want to hear their voices.  Sure it's ok to knock if someone has broken a bone or there is a fire.  Otherwise leave me the heck alone until the door opens, which it does at least hourly so that I can move my body once in a while and not have it meld to my swivel chair.  It is permissible to IM or email me when the door is closed.  I can ignore those messages until I come up for air, but an actual person speaking is pretty hard to ignore and can really bring my work to a halt in a hurry.  
  3. The mess on my desk.  Yes, I know, it's my own danged mess so I should just clean it up. Problem is, that mess builds up when work is going swimmingly and I barely even notice it until I am having a creatively slow day.  On a slow day, the mess is enough to distract me from work for an hour or more.  If I stop working to clean it up, it can end up being just like item number one on this list, the dirty dishes.  I try to take care of the mess once a month on my pre-planned and scheduled office cleaning day. (Yes, I really do have such a day each month.)  But it seems sometimes to slide into disarray before its time.  
  4. Running out of my favorite tea.  I like Luzianne iced tea.  Period.  Nothing else is the same. Without it, my work suffers.  What happens when I run out of tea is I leave my desk to add Luzianne tea to my shopping list.  That leads to adding more things to the shopping list. On a really bad day, making the shopping list can lead to making the next week's household menu.   I can easily lose an hour of work time this way.  

I know all writers have pet peeves.  Each and every one of us can have our groove completely whacked out by one niggling little something or other.  Are your work stoppers the same as mine?  Care to discuss your own?  

Putting It Together 8/7/13
Adventures and Confessions of a Fat Lady Who Sings, my next book, in the production phase.  Don't hurt your head trying to make the connection between these ballet garments and the making of my memoir.  It's all about the cover art.  What you see here is my costume for that cover being created.  Cover art will be created later this month.  

Well, actually...About Reading...Shakespeare 8/6/13

I have interviewed many writers about their work and process and I have read many, many author profiles and articles on writing written by writers.  When asked how they keep their creative fires stoked, most say that one thing they find they must do to keep writing is read.  I am not an exception to this generalization.  I read a lot and it is indeed necessary to my creative process.  Oddly though, I find it very difficult to read other people's writing when I am working on my own.  I tend to do most of my reading during my own barren spells.  

Currently, I am fertile and writing a great deal.  That means I am not reading much.  I get bored and distracted when I attempt reading.  It's no sign that the books I pick up are badly written; they just aren't as riveting as my own work in process.  I can manage listening to other people's words while I knit or clean the house and I can manage to read works by other poets if I read them out loud.  

This in mind, I have taken on a project that will have me performing some sonnets by Wm. Shakespeare later this month.  This is the first time I have taken a serious look at the collected Bardian sonnets.  I have read and seen most of the plays and read some of the poems in college.  Mostly, I read them with eye to my grade and took little notice of the art.  Now, I am falling in love with them.  Here, I share with you Sonnet 49.  

Why Do I Write What I Write?  7/20/13

Recently someone asked me why I write so many different forms.  I am a poet, a playwright, a story maker, a columnist, a novelist, a biographer.  I also write editorial and special interest news.  From time to time, I write and publish erotica. In the past, I have been an art reviewer and a reporter.  I was sort of thrown by the question of why I don't just pick one form and write that.  

The first response that came to mind was sort of cynical:  I'll write whatever someone will pay me to write.  (BTW, back when I made my living singing songs, that was my answer to the question of why I sang so many different kinds of songs. I'll sing what you'll pay me to sing.)  Although that off the cuff answer would have been accurate (I definitely will write whatever I am payed to write.), I realized immediately the question was a serious one deserving of a more in depth response.  

You might as well ask me why I write at all.  The answer to that is that I have no choice.  I started writing in second grade when a very good teacher assigned the class to write a Halloween story.  Doing that assignment was like opening an internal faucet that, once willingly opened, cannot again be closed.  Sometimes when there is a drought, the well goes dry and no water gushes forth from the spigot until rain comes again.  But once the rain does arrive, my faucet, always stuck in the open position, will indeed produce, sometimes at alarming rates.  At that point, I am compelled to gather the water in buckets and put it to good use or be flooded.  You might think that being overcome by words and flights of fancy wouldn't be so bad, but I am here to tell you it can make a person feel just as out of control as being overcome by actual water.  Writing is the only way to keep that at bay.  Lucky for me, I find the writing process extremely pleasing.  I know writers who do not, so their compulsion to write is not quite the gift mine seems.  

What I write comes to me in its various forms.  Usually, I know from the outset that a project is going to be a poem or a story or something else.  I am a poet because poems come to me to be written.  I am a columnist because ideas come to me to be shared in that form.  The work chooses its own form.  I am guessing that other writers get this, maybe artists of all types.  I am not at all sure it is a concept that can make easy sense to anyone who is not a creator of some sort. Luckily, most people are.  

Let's Talk About Social Media Marketing 7/12/13

I presume that many of my readers are writers and that many of those are Indie writers.  All of my readers are readers of Indie writers, at least of this Indie writer.  

In the last five years, the publishing world has changed dramatically. I think these changes have been good for authors and mostly good for readers.  For one thing, there is a lot more available to read online and in printed or ebook form now than there was a decade ago.  Sure some of what is available is schlock, but I am very much aware that one reader's schlock is another reader's treasure.  

As an author, I am thrilled to be able to get my work into print and on the market without the help of some big publishing house.  Yes, the major money is still to be had through traditional publishing venues but at 50+ years old I am done waiting for my "big break" when some junior editor at a major house pulls my lowly manuscript from the slush pile and deems me worthy of publication.  Sure, it could still happen, but I'm guessing it is no more likely now than it was 30 years ago.  Yes, I would love to have the support and representation of some giant publisher, but I would rather see my works out there making there way into readers' collections than languishing in the land of the unread hopefuls.  That is why I choose to publish Independently.

The major downside to Indie publishing is that it requires an author/poet to be her own PR agent.  I set up my own reading engagements and book signings, do my own press releases, make and purchase my own ads, and, until recently, did all of my own social media marketing.  

I have read several books on Indie publishing and have befriended several Indie authors with whom I discuss the how-to's of publishing.  The common wisdom is that social media marketing is a great tool for getting your work noticed and, hopefully, purchased.  

In order to be good at this part of my job, I have read several books on social media marketing and have recently hired a SM coordinator.  I have committed to this particular journey and have no plan to bail.  

But I wonder: how effective is social media marketing really?  I can tell you for sure it is a pesky, time-consuming, and tedious task.  I can also say for sure that increased use of social media like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Pinterest has driven lots of new traffic to this blog.  What I cannot say is that any of this has helped increase sales of my books.  Soooooooo.....

A Room Of One's Own 6/2/13

"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."  (Virginia Woolf)

I have heard the above quote off and on for most of my adult life.  I have read the essay in which Woolf made the statement.  She was not wrong.  In order to be creatively productive, writers need to feel financially secure, just like everyone else and we need comfortable places to write.  I am not up for discussing the financial peril involved in being a writer.  That might be a topic for a future column.  Today, I am thinking and writing about the space one needs to do the job.  For Woolf it was that fabled room of her own.  

I have heard several oft-published authors discuss their own writing spaces.  John Grisham wrote his first book on the El, while commuting to his law office in Chicago.  Randy Wayne White, he of Doc Ford fame, retreats to a room in his home and closes the door behind him.  Marilyn French wrote in a small cabin on her own land, likewise Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  Jodi Picoult writes in an attic, Wally Lamb in a basement.  Among my writing friends, there are several who have offices in their homes, one who writes on his apartment balcony, one who actually rents office space in a self-storage facility (I don't think the pun is lost on her), and a few who write in transit.  

I have a couple of places I write regularly: the den in my home and the coffee shop in a local bookstore.  The local library works pretty well too, but it has no cafe, so I only last there as long as I can last without tea.  I also enjoy writing in hotel rooms when traveling because there are no distractions (Which is really very odd I enjoy.  Read further to see what I mean.)  

When I choose to write at home, it is usually because I am in a phase of a project that requires some degree of privacy.  If I am editing and need to read aloud (part of my editing process), I try not to do that in public places.  It can annoy the neighbors.  If I am writing erotica, I try to do that at home because there are folks out there who have the nasty habit of reading over an author's shoulder.  It's rude and maybe they deserve to be shocked and appalled by what they read, but I feel better writing the juicier stuff in private.  

The lion's share of the words I have written though have been written in public places.  There is a long line of coffee and tea shops that have served as my "offices."  My current location of choice is the cafe in the Barnes and Noble Bookstore on Merritt Island.  Back in Columbus, there is a coffee house called Travonna in which I have composed more than a few poems.  My all-time favorite place to write was The Enclave, which used to exist in Columbus' Short North.  It is a sentimental favorite because I wrote my first full length play there and the first draft of Ermengarde the Expansive.  I loved that place because it was very intimate, had only five tables.  The owners knew all the regulars by name and I counted them as friends.  People brought their dogs.  The place sold old books and vintage clothing as well as organic treats and coffee, so it was a lot like writing in my own home except it wasn't so lonely.  

Here is why Woolf's room of one's own has never really appealed to me. Writing is lonely work.  Very rarely does one  write as part of a team.  Life as an author and poet can be very isolating.  I am sort of an introvert, so I like working alone, but I love being around people.  I don't much want to talk with them, especially strangers, least of all in large groups, but I like having people around when I am working.  There is something about the buzz of people talking at tables around me and the whir of coffee machines, the splutter of canned air systems and piped in music that energizes and inspires me.  

The other reason I write in public places is that, although there might be dirty dishes and laundry nearby, I feel no compulsion to do those tasks when they are someone else's tasks to do.  At home, the call of floors that need sweeping and sheets that need changing can drown out the call of my computer, forget the muse whose voice is barely audible when there is no competition for my attention at all.  

I am thinking about this today because my work has been humming along lately.  I am very pleased with the routine I have developed and the resultant productivity.  As I thank my lucky stars for my current happy state as creative dynamo, I have to ask why it is working so well and guard against anything that might bring my work to a screeching halt.  It pays to know what works in order to make hanging onto it a priority.  

In two weeks, there will be a couple of major disruptions to my routine.  I am heading out of town on a longish road trip and my daughter is coming to be with me for a while.  Both are wonderful occurrences that I welcome.  Even welcome events can affect an artist's rhythm and I think it will pay to have evaluated the situation in advance and plan for keeping my routine.  

So as I think about my own routine, my own writer's "office," I  realize that it is totally within my power to guard my productivity, to make sure my rhythm is maintained and nurtured.  To that end, I will be visiting coffee shops all over the eastern US in coming weeks.  Maybe I will find a few that make it to my list of favorites.  If I do, I will tell you about them.  

Dealing With Works In Progress 4/18/2012

Some of my writings will always be works in progress, never reaching the status of completed works.  As of today, I have 12 incomplete poems, four incomplete short stries, two novels, and a play in my files of works in progress.  I have found over the years there are some practices that help keep the number of incomplete pieces to a minimum. 

1. If one work has a deadline that demands it push your other work out of the way, try working on both projects at once, even if the project without a deadline can only be given a few minutes per day.  Better some contact with a project than none.  Nothing thrives on complete neglect.  

2.  If that's not possible, return to the original work within 24 hours of completing the high priority assignment.  In the case of writing, absence does not make the heart grow finder.  

3.  Whenever a project is completed, before starting something new, take a look at your incomplete works.  I seem always to have several of them filed and waiting for attention.  I never look at them when working on something that is perking along healthily.  But DO return to them whenever there is a lull in your creative force.  Often, I find that the breather I have given a project pays off with new-found focus some time later.  

4.  When a writer hits the proverbial wall with something, meaning that the work was compelling right up to the point where the author realized she had no idea where she was headed, don't be too quick to consign the file to the annals of your incomplete work.  Sit with it a while.  Literally.  My job as a writer is to keep the page open even as it defies me to write another word.  Sometimes I find that if I show my fidelity to an assignment by staying with it even as it mocks me, something in the silence clicks and I am able to move forward.  

5.  Read your work in progress out loud.  Often, for me, that is the way back to the core of a plot and the hearts of my characters.  Hearing my characters speak reminds me of who they are and where they are going.  

6.  When I am really desperate to see an undertaken composition progress and none of the above techniques are working, I bring in outsiders.  I have to be really desperate to do this because I am not usually very receptive to the artistic input of others.  I am not ashamed to admit that, where my own work is concerned,  I am convinced that I know best.  But, once in a great while, it has really paid off to hear what others think I might do with a piece.  For the record, it is very rare that I hand over a copy of a manuscript to someone else to read in my absence.  If I resort to seeking outside help, I take the work to a writers' workshop of some sort and share it there.  That way I hear several opinions in a short period of time and no one person can see herself as my work's fixer.  

6.  If I find I just cannot make a story move or a poem sing, I accept that for the moment and put the work aside.  It does not mean I will never return to the piece, only that I have given it all I have to give and need a break from it.  Think of this as trial separation, not as divorce. 

And now, having given y'all the pep talk I needed myself, I return today to one of my own works in progress.   Wish me luck!  

To Outline or Not To Outline, 3/19/2012

Generally speaking, organizing my words on paper is not problematic.  Sometimes, I make a few notes, especially when I am writing nonfiction that needs to be factually accurate in a way that fiction does not.  Other than writing a note that will remind me of an idea I have had, a starting point usually, I never plan poetry or short stories.  They pretty much write themselves.   Even my plays have not required much by way of a grand plan.  This is probably because each scene in my dramatic works stands on its own.  My previous plays have been vignettes linked together by a common theme but having no connective plot or characters.  

The novel I am currently writing is the first piece I have done that is long enough to need a master plan.  I started without one and found that there were just too many details to keep track, from character descriptions to minor plot twists. Letting the muse flow as I usually do was not working.  

Over the years, I have read a lot about writers and writing.  I have taken many writing classes and attended several writers’ workshops.  I have actually taught English Lit and Creative Writing.  Teaching techniques for writing is a great way to learn them!  I can safely say I know a thing or two about how one can organize one’s work.   When I started this novel, I was sure I had all the skills it might take to get the job done.  I am still sure of that (proof is in the progress) but am amazed at how easily I have become tangled in plot line.  

I seem to handle character development well and I am having no trouble writing individual sections, scenes in the book, especially when they can be handled as short stories themselves.  However, I don’t want this book to feel like a short story collection.  I want it to have clear and believable narrative that flows from one section to the next without feeling like each chapter is a new start.  

Years ago, I read a collection of short stories by a southern author who will remain nameless.  I loved this author’s short stories.  Each one spoke to me, so when this nameless author released her first novel, I rushed out and bought it in hard cover even.  Boy, was I disappointed!  It turned out this “new novel” was really the short stories linked together.  There were a couple of chapters that had not appeared previously as short stories, but essentially I was rereading what the author had previously published as short fiction.   Each chapter of this novel, including the two new ones, read like short stories.  The voice was consistent but the resulting narrative was disjointed.  I have never purchased another work by this author.  

I want to avoid short story syndrome in the writing of my novel.  I figured knowing the potential hazard would be enough.  And, for a while, it was.  I wrote 20,000 words or so of smooth and logical narrative.  My characters grew as their story told itself.  Then one day I realized I had no specific idea where the story was headed.  I had a general notion of how things would turn out for my main character, but really not a single clue as to how he would get there. I sensed that if I kept working as I had been, sort of freestyle fiction, the plot lines were going to tangle.  I was going to need a plan.  

I loathe outlines.  LOATHE is almost not a strong enough word.  I have taught outlining to many students over the years.  I see it as an annoying but useful tool.  For other authors. I believed I could make myself get organized, but not by using an outline.  

I started by making note cards with a plot point written on each.  (I also had a set of note cards for character descriptions and another for back story.)  The note cards for plot development were nice in that they could be put in any order I wanted.  Just because I wrote the card mentioning my main character’s shooting lesson first did not mean that had to be the first event in the book.  I could move that note card wherever I wanted in the stack of cards, thereby reordering events in the novel any way I wanted.  That was a very handy tool indeed.  

The problem I had not anticipated was that even having the cards, essentially a list of significant plot points I wanted to include in my novel, did not assure that they would connect smoothly.  I found myself writing what were really individual stories, exactly what i did not want to do.  

I decided I would have to outline after all.  So I did, hating every minute of it.  I felt like I was prepping for the GRE not telling a story.  I love telling stories, but detest test prep work, so this was not a fun process for me.  Still, I did it, sort of like taking medicine I knew would gag going down.  Now, on a single sheet of paper, I could see all my planned plot twists.  Yay me.

I went about the business then of writing from the outline.  Individual chapters were working but linkage between them was still shaky.  I was flunking narrative continuity and I knew it.  Not sure how to proceed, I put the story aside for a couple weeks.  I worked on some other pieces, generally giving myself a chance to decompress from the pressure of work that one senses is not going as well as one would like.  

Then, one day, the light dawned.  More than an outline, I needed a timeline, but I needed it to be flexible so that I could follow the story where it lead me.  I tried a number of approaches to creating a timeline, first attempting to do it in a word processing file, then putting it on notebook pages.  I found by trial and error that visual cues offered by the timeline were very important to my process.  The more of the time line I can see at once, the better it works.  

The timeline that works best for me combines my earlier note card method with the traditional outline.  I rewrote what was on the note cards, the individual plot points, on post-it notes.  I posted them on a wall in a possible order for events as they appear in the book.  Following is a picture of my timeline as it stands today.  

I say as it stands today because some of the points have been reordered several times already and because there will be more plot developments added as they become necessary to getting my characters from point A (West Virginia in the year 2000)  to Point B (Florida in 2010).  I will be adding some developments in the middle section of the timeline, The Road, and adding some to the very end, once I settle  on a resolution for this first book in what will be a trilogy.  I also allow for the fact I may reorder what has already been written and will no doubt deep six entire sections as it becomes clear they don’t work or are superfluous.  

My answer to this column’s title question, To Outline or Not To Outine, is yes and no.  There is no one right way to write anything.  For me, when it comes to novels, it seems a sort of outline works well.  What is your process?  What works?  What does not?  Please share your comments below.  

The Daily Commitment, 3/15/2012

Process varies from writer to writer, but there is one fact that seems universal:  if a writer wants to be a writer, a productive author who turns out a significant body of work, he or she has to actually write.  Obvious as that may sound, it is not always easy.  In my own writing life, which stretches back over four decades, there have been productive times, which I have referred to as fertile periods, and times when my well has not just been dry but completely absent, not even appearing as an occasional mirage to goad me on, teasing me out of a slump.  Most writers experience such dry spells, some lasting longer than others.  (My longest was about 12 years.)  If we are to survive as authors, we find ways to get out and stay out of the darkness that is not just writer’s block but a complete lack of energy for writing.  Creative inertia must be avoided if one is to be a productive writer.  

Last weekend, I had the privilege of hearing Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford series of books set mostly in Florida,  speak at the library in Cocoa Beach.  White is an extremely prolific and skilled writer, one of the pantheon of successful Florida novelists that include the likes of John D, McDonald, Elmore Leonard, Tim Dorsey and Carl Hiassen.  He talked about his own creative process, saying that there is only one way to get the job done and that is to do it.  White told those gathered, a handful of whom admitted to being aspiring novelists, that he writes every day, no matter what else is going on in his life.  He shuts himself in a room, closes the door, shuts off the Internet and the phone, ignores anyone and anything else demanding his attention.   He told us this is how he gets the job done over and over again.  

Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep, put it succinctly.  “The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at the least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything but write.”  (Source:  Timothy Hallinan)  My own experience has born this out.  For me, it’s not just the amount of time I devote to writing that matters, though that is important if I want to complete anything.  It’s also the routine of when and how I write that makes a difference.  Isaac Newton said that a body in motion tends to stay in motion until something stops its progress and that a body at rest will stay at rest until something makes it move.  This is Newton’s first law, the law of motion and inertia.  

Inertia is this writer’s greatest enemy and, as I have heard from many, many other writers, it is theirs too.  The periods of my writing life that have been most productive have been times when I was willing and able (sometimes required) to write every day or close to it.  These were times when I was in school, so writing was a part of my “job,” or when I had not much of a social life or when, as now, I have been able to write full-time.  I will admit to all of you that I have never been able to maintain family, friendships, writing and an outside day job simultaneously.  There are many who do.  We have all heard the tales of how John Grisham wrote The Firm, the novel that made him famous, while commuting by train to and from his job in Chicago and how J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter while working in an eatery.  I am impressed by these people, even a little awed by them, but I will never be one of them.  I am someone who needs sleep and a limited number of priorities in my life.  I do have some health problems that may make my case different from theirs, but I think we all have a thousand reasons not to write.  We have lots of commitments, reams of distractions.  The trick is finding the way to not let distractions take us away from our work.  For me, the only way to get the words on the page is to put them there and that means I have to take the time to do it.  The only way to be sure that will happen frequently enough that I might produce something of worth is to make sure I write a great deal.  

The Daily Commitment, 3/15/2012

At least two thirds of what I write is crap.  I may not know it as I am writing, though often I do, or even when I am done writing, though often I do.  But in order to get to the one third that is not crap, I have to plow through the first two.  This takes time and a commitment to showing up each day to face the words written the day before and the blank pages that lay ahead of me.  For me, it really does seem to take writing every. single. day. no matter what else is going on.  If I miss even one day at my keyboard, I lose sight of my creative well and it can take a long time to find it again.  I do not believe I am alone in this.  Establishing and maintaining routine is as important to authors as having pen and paper or keyboard and electricity at the ready.  

These last two years have been transitional ones for me.  I have written about that in A Poet’s Diary on this blog.  Now, I am in a stable position, possibly the most stable of my lifetime.  As a result, I have produced a great deal of verbage and seen some publishing success in the last 12 months.  Still, I struggle with routine, with keeping the well from running dry.  

Recently, I have made the commitment to do exactly as Randy Wayne White and Raymond Chandler insist writers must:  I will write every single day, no matter what.  I am finding this easier than I thought it might be, possibly because I have been getting closer and closer to this place over the last two years, not that two years ago I had even the slightest idea where I was headed, literally or figuratively.  For whatever reason, I am finding it very easy to fall into a routine that results in my writing roughly four and a half hours per day.  

I invite other writers here to discuss their own writing habits.  What works for you and what doesn’t?  Who inspires you and how do you stay on track?  Please post your comments below.