Beta Readers

Networking–aka, hanging out with other writers–is one of my favorite things. My writerly friends are smart, funny, open-minded folk spread all over central Colorado. Yesterday I went to Boulder in the morning to talk about climate-change fiction, at noon to Arvada for lunch with five poetically oriented friends, and later that day to Denver to meet three other writers in our beta reading group.

As beta readers, we don’t write together or read to each other. Typically one of the four has shared a significant chunk of work well ahead of the meeting time. Our genres vary:  crime fiction, memoir, speculative fiction and history-as-memoir. (Yes, I think I just made up that genre.) The basics of good writing apply in all cases, but what one of us sees as a headlong read another sees as needing more action. Someone else questions the writer’s motivation, and we struggle to say what sets us on the long road to writing a book.

The payoffs are the wine, the iced tea, the talk and the grand feeling that someone else is paying attention to our work. And we learn from each other. One is a formidable researcher, another can plot, a third is funny and courageous about personal history. One of us has a cache of writing tricks up her sleeve. (Including advice not to use a cliché like “tricks up her sleeve.”) Our process is akin to true beta readers, who are, I suppose, less attached to the writer than to the manuscript. Inevitably though, we have formed attachments that make it dicey to say anything negative about the text in question, but gentle honesty (e.g. not attacking personality or life style), sticking to principles and a dab hand at language allow us to help each other. Always, always, the writer remains in charge of the work. None of us can write another’s story, nor should we try.

Walking While Writing

Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop has scored again. They have created a project called Write Denver. (Details at Write Denver.) Yesterday at Friday 500 Dan Manzanares and Yanara Friedland rolled out the concept for us, including the process: walk to connect, set your own pace, pay attention to departure and arrival, include memory/reflection, attend to details. We walked on Race Street and wrote in a spattering of rain for just ten minutes, returned to the house and read, without preamble or commentary, what we had written, what Yanara calls the collective story. I loved it.

Walking while writing includes concepts like place making (if we write it we help create it), awareness of movement through space and across boundaries. Place-based writing works well with some constraints: attending to departure and arrival, reflection/memory, and capturing detail. To witness and record our place in the world, to let rain fall on the page, the earth receive our footsteps.

This idea matters in the grand scheme of poetry making. Memorable poems do not exist in a geography of the mind but of the world, specific places like McDuffy’s farm in Minnesota (James Wright), foggy old London (T.S. Eliot), museums and forests, bedrooms and hospital rooms. And isn’t that our assignment as writers?  To bear witness to truth as it appears before us, wherever we are. I live life in motion, place to place. I write to fine tune my internal GPS. I think universal, I write local. The world is not my oyster. I am the oyster and the world I build is my shell. Tough old oysters enlarge their shells. May it be so.

Here’s my poem Crossings. It was originally published in The Cafe Review:

CROSSINGS

Again this year and this year and this,

small birds scatter up

from northern fields and cross

the equator. If I follow them

I will not stop myself

from making one slow wing beat

to mark there from here, a new sphere

entered, the world’s waist unbelted.

No, I’ll stay put and mind the wind

that grinds the corners of the house,

and try not to be afraid when

I can’t see the lines I cross, but know

that each degree of latitude has

its danger. Time the pilgrims

make their visit south. And now

all flight is in two places, the body

always slipping whole over the line

as the flock wheels with one mind,

one creature with a thousand heads

who knows without knowing where

to go and need no mention of its passing.

Runaway Words, Lost in Time

Last week I blogged about the writer’s checklist and posted a short form of what might keep an otherwise disorganized writing project on track. That was such a good idea. Too bad I didn’t take my own advice. As some of my friends know, I’m working on a sequel to Accidental Child, and I’ve been energized and relieved to know that a minimum of 500 words a day is a reasonable goal for me. The trouble is that I tend to write scenes as they occur to me, and some file names were tentatively numbered chapters, some were label with the names of the characters in the scene. Some were melded together as Part I and Part II. Soon I had a mess on my hands. There was text stored on a USB stick, on Dropbox and in print. Add to this my decision to use three main characters and to develop scenes that could be interleaved. Chronology had become a Paleolithic concept.

Truth: not knowing in what order the three should eventually march and losing track of the timeline of one if I wandered off to write about another, my words were all runaways, the manuscript playing digital hide and seek, a naughty day-care crowd of characters not mature enough for me to look away. One of them would scamper away while I chased another. They refused to line up at naptime. I have no one to blame but myself.

Consequence: I lost several days of writing new material in order to make order of this mess. I’ve erased the very concept of chapters in favor of descriptive slug lines in the header on every page. I filed the paper versions chronologically in a binder, sectioned for each of the three main POVs, and backed up the new files on both Dropbox and the USB stick. Whew! I still have to review the manuscript as it now stands and see where I need to add material to make a story worth reading. That will still happen in daily chunks but with more attention to where each chunk gets filed. Spontaneity has been reined in. Onward!

The Slothful Writer

220px-Bradypus

 

Yesterday my pen was on fire. I dashed off sentences like I knew what I was doing. I went to a workshop and delivered on the exercises. It felt wonderful. Today there’s a sloth in my house and it’s me. I had to drag myself by the hair over here to the desk, which is a nice desk in front of a window, pleasant breeze, sunshine, musical gong announcing something or other. See on a better day, a non-sloth day, that gong would have meaning. Today? Meh, it’s a pleasant sound, not a call to greatness.

I can’t plead illness and call in sick, even though I’m my own supervisor, because, truth, I feel fine. I’ve done laundry, tidied the house, walked the dogs, read another solid chunk of Gary Snyder’s poems–usually inspiring. I finished, having savored it and doled it out like bits of expensive chocolate, Marge Piercy and Ira Wood’s book, So You Want to Write. And yes, of course, I do want to write. I almost always want to write. Except today. Today my writer’s brain is comatose. But I might know why.

No, it’s not a simple as needing a third cup of coffee. I think it’s that wonderful day I had yesterday. I’m not sure I can duplicate it. No, I’m sure I cannot duplicate it. The writing I did yesterday was a rare confluence of experience, attention, atmosphere, the right prompts and right intention. My job now is not to pale in the face of success, but to savor the gift and keep going. I know that sort of day will rarely come again, but in the meantime, my job, my promise to myself, is to write through the sloth and find balance, not flame throwing, not whining and dallying, just putting one word after the other.

So, Friends, I’ll drink my coffee, dig out the drafts that sprang almost fully formed from Zeus’s head and tuck them into their niches. Please do the same. Don’t let the sloths win.

If It Works for Gawande

Recently I caught a TED talk by one of my favorite authors, Atul Gawande. He spoke about the positive effects of having OR teams use a checklist before starting a procedure. He had gone to airline pilots to help him and his team design the list. Flyers have long used pre-flight checklists. The surgical results were dramatic in terms of harm reduction. One of the important factors was for the surgical team to function as a team, rather than as the supporting cast for a star surgeon. The culture of the individual was subsumed by the need for a system. The checklist promoted this concept and focused attention on the process.

Well, I wondered, if a checklist works in the OR, might it also work for writers, who are, as we know, stars in their own minds, used to hitting the page with guns blazing, the sacred ground of creativity well defended. Dare I introduce the concept of planning ahead? Not an outline of the text like Ms. Grundy demanded in high school, no, the content still deserves the freedom to develop as it will. But what about a checklist that helps me to honor process and anticipate the practical aspects of a writing project? Yes, there are practicalities in my work. And I don’t have elves to come in the night and make new stories. It’s all on me. Here’s what I propose.

WRITER’S PROJECT SAFETY LIST

Courtesy of KVDbooks

1) Capture inciting event/idea/image __

2) Enter intention: genre/audience/basic conflict __

3) Prepare materials: note taking/safe storage/text creation __

4) Record tentative/assigned deadline __

5) Label drafts: title/version/location

6) PAUSE POINT FOR INCUBATION __

7) Reviews: author/beta readers/editor

8) Revise: content/copy editing

9) Submit for publication: guidelines/ms preparation (formatting, backup)/record date, venue, response __

10) SELF PUBLICATION REQUIRES A NEW CHECKLIST

Please feel free to copy, use and distribute this thing, but I’d like to get credit for it, please. And thanks Dr. Gawande. The patient is alive and well on her way to recovery. All sewed up.

Woman on the Move

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The Maine Coast

I’ve wrapped up many of the things on my to-do list and on Wednesday I fly east for three weeks. My luggage is packed with the usual things–clothes, books, a couple of writing projects. What will be left behind in Colorado? My Colorado family and friends, my dog, computer, car, reading chair and favorite coffee cup. Important things that spell home, although I still say that going back to Maine is going home. I am, as I’ve always been, a woman on the move.

What goes with me as I travel are my five senses, my ability to move through space, my voice and my attention to language. I travel with the habit of writing every morning to clear away dead leaves and try to see clearly to the watery bottom of my mind. As I write I travel down the page, an early stroll from sleep to awareness. To noticing what I notice, as Ginsberg put it.

I’ll notice people in airports, on buses, on the sidewalks of Portland. I’ll pay close attention to my son, my daughter-in-law, grand dogs, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. I’ll inhale the sweet smell of horses and I’ll taste the best seafood in the world right next to the water it comes from. My ears will relish the accents of New England and hope we never lose them. If I seem distant from this blog, it will be that I’m recharging that awareness, rebuilding myself from the roots up. I’ll certainly be back here in July. Until then, be safe, be well, know joy.

Envy, Jealousy & Covetousness

Okay, this is, sort of, the blog I posted by mistake earlier in the week. I pushed publish when I meant save. The piece had not yet been sauced and seasoned, not yet ready for consumption. Once it had left my hands, I saw no option but to discard the whole thing. So I’m trying to have history repeat itself. Here’s the thing: I read Maeve Binchy’s biography by Pers Dudgeon and came up for air feeling that I had failed as a writer in comparison to the huge success Binchy had. I too started early but did not devote myself to writing the way Maeve did. Bummer! She wrote, traveled, said what she meant and meant what she said. For too long I tiptoed around life, afraid to offend, afraid to expose my work to scrutiny, and I regret those lost years and opportunities. So what was I doing all that time?

Well, if I try to be objective, instead of coveting Binchy’s life, I’ve done plenty. I was an officer in the USAF, I raised two excellent children, I completed grad school twice, taught writing and literature, learned to ride a horse when I should have kept my feet safely on the ground, worked hard and well as a mental health nurse and now I have a small but mostly satisfying list of publications. Not so bad after all. But I do envy Binchy’s accomplishments. The only solution at this point is to keep writing. One thing that helps is flash memoir. I blogged about it recently, but I’m not sure I was yet clear in my own head about its value. When I write about my life, I see what it’s been worth so far. These memories may never see publication beyond the memoir group I work with, but I need to see them, to tell myself that I haven’t been sitting in a corner, sucking my thumb. I’ve been living the life I’m given.