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WiddecombTableSince my mother died nearly two years ago, Dad’s been sifting through their belongings. Even though they’d downsized twice before, they’d accumulated lots of stuff during their sixty-six year marriage. What was left were the important pieces: the handcrafted cherry bed, a velvet sofa, hundreds of objets, and the dining room set.

These are beloved pieces, each with its own story, but none appropriate for Dad’s new digs. He’s preparing to downsize from a spacious two-bedroom apartment, complete with dining room and kitchen, into a single room in a comfortable assisted-living home for seniors.

Every time I’ve visited my dad in recent months, I’ve helped him sort through his stuff – and decide what to save, what to divest. The kitchen is easy: he won’t need any pots or dishes at his new place, but the bigger pieces are harder. The dining room set, for instance, is by a fine, mid-century, furniture maker and includes what my mother always called a Break Front, (the cabinet where she stored her china, silver and linens), a table that extended eighteen feet, and chairs with leather seats.

If furniture could talk, this table would tell stories of the luncheons Mom prepared for each of our elementary school teachers back in the day when we walked home for lunch; stories of Friday night suppers that started with prayers, and birthday celebrations from one to eighty. It’s also a beautiful table, and it’s been maintained with exceptional care.

My dad wants someone in the family to take it, but his four middle-aged children all have furnished homes of their own. So we’ve made a deal.

We’ll put the table into storage, along with anything else no one is ready to claim. That way, these household goods will be available when his grandchildren graduate from shared apartments to furnished homes. Dad won’t have to give his furniture to strangers, but he also won’t have to cram everything into his living quarters as if it were a furniture warehouse.

I know that this technique of setting aside things you still love but can no longer use works. It’s a technique I use in my writing all the time. Whether it’s a paragraph or a chapter doesn’t matter: if it no longer serves the story, it just has to go.

Excising paragraphs can be painful, and pulling chapters and subplots hurts. But not everything that’s cut must go to the trash. Simply filing the pages filecabinetaway can ease the trauma of excision. I store what I no longer need in my novel in a folder labeled “Outtakes.” Filed, these pages can be rediscovered and repurposed later – without cluttering the story at hand.

The current draft of Ellen is a hefty four hundred pages. There are paragraphs I love: I remember writing them, and I still find the prose sings, but it’s no longer the right melody for the story. Into the Outtakes folder it goes.

Whether it’s household chattel or purple prose, what I’ve learned is that as hard as it is to let go of things – be they tables or paragraphs – once gone, they’re rarely missed.

Cutting deadwood works for essays, short stories, poems and novels. Originally, this post was over eight hundred words; now, it’s under five hundred fifty.

dll2013_124x186Over the years, Deborah Lee Luskin has cut millions of words from her work. Some she’s composted, others she’s burned, but the gems she’s put in storage for later use. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com

 

Have you ever had this type of conversation when trying to schedule a meeting or date?

“We need to get together soon to discuss the project.”

“I agree. When? My schedule is quite open.”

“How about next week?”

“Sounds good.”

“How about Tuesday for lunch?”

“Oh, oops, no, I already have plans then. How about Wednesday afternoon?

“Yes, I can do that. Two o’clock?”

“I was thinking more like 4:30.”

“Oh. No, that’s too late in the day. Let’s try for the following week.”

This type of conversation is common and seldom results in a date getting scheduled. It starts off with a vague notion and meanders down a path; always taking a while to narrow in on a date and time. It’s a time consuming way to set a meeting.

Lisa_lunch_meeting

Lunch meeting

To take the lead in the scheduling dance, it’s important to be specific. The conversation can go like this:

“Want to get together on Wednesday at 1 to start discussing the project?”

“I’m booked at 1, but could do 2:30.”

“2:30 works for me. Let’s meet in the middle at Brook’s Cafe.”

“See you then!”

Isn’t that a great way to save time with scheduling?

It’s a great start at valuing your own time and a way to be productive. This can work with business and personal meetings via personal conversation or email.

Agreeing on a location can take time (depending on the circumstances), but at least that part of the conversation happens much sooner once a date has been set.

The method can ease the pain when scheduling something with several people, too. Instead of the open-ended what dates and times work for you? stating one or two dates and times more often than not can do the trick.

How do you go about scheduling meetings in an efficient way? I’d love to know!

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She’s found that more often than not, when she proposes a time for a meeting, scheduling takes less than a minute. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook,  Google+, and LinkedIn.

To sleep, perchance to dream …

Image by @alijardine on Instagram

Image by @alijardine on Instagram

Do you ever wake from a dream and, for a moment, have trouble discerning which is more real – your nighttime vision or the four walls around your bed? I have always had vivid dreams. They play out on the darkened stage of my inner eye like movies, complete with soundtracks, dramatic camera angles, and sensible sequences of events. When I was a child, I would regale my mother with detailed retellings over the breakfast table. Most of the time, I think she was amused; but sometimes I am sure the nature of my reveries perplexed or even worried her.

I do not claim to have any special dream interpretation skills, but I do enjoy exploring my dreams with an eye for stories and themes. I am not alone in this pastime. Margaret Atwood, Stephen KingMaurice SendakMary ShelleyCharlotte Bronte, and even E.B. White have each found inspiration in their nighttime adventures. Sometimes the influence is direct as characters develop and stories unfold while the writer sleeps. Other times, the dream’s contribution to the creative process is more subtle – a deeply evocative feeling, a single image, a sharp yearning.

Although it is not easy to access, I believe that our subconscious holds worlds beyond our reckoning. When we dream, we slip into these alternate realities, submerging ourselves in another time and place, even another’s skin. For a few brief hours, we can journey into a netherworld where nothing is as it seems and anything can happen. Our imagination is free to play with the rules of the waking world, bending and breaking them at will, letting us explore an entirely different existence.

I have kept dream journals on and off since I was a child. I have found that when I am actively pursuing my dreams, snatching at their ghostly tails as I scribble in a bedside notebook, my nighttime garden flourishes. When I fail to give my dreams much attention, they wilt and fade. It seems that we have a symbiotic relationship – my attention feeds them and they feed my creativity.

Do you remember your dreams? Do they influence your stories or creative process? Have you ever kept a dream journal?

What I’m (thinking about) Writing:

Don't be scared of success.

Don’t be scared of success.

Dan Blank published a post yesterday titled, Preparing for Success (and finding more time to write). The post offers helpful and actionable advice to help writers set up the support systems and processes that they need to grow their writing businesses. I nodded my head in agreement as I read through his recommendations for getting help, optimizing systems, and integrating tools into the daily workflow. Even though I have not fully implemented such things in my own business, I see their value.

There is, however, another, more emotional side to preparing for success.

There are two things that keep a writer from pursuing her dreams: the fear of failure and the fear of success.

We all understand the fear of failure. That’s an easy one. You worry that your work won’t be good enough, won’t be recognized, won’t be accepted. You worry that all your long hours (and years!) of effort will turn out to be for naught. You worry that people will criticize you, or – worse – pity you.

But, what about the fear of success? That’s a strange one, right?

Most people don’t like change, even positive change. Success, though ostensibly a Good Thing, comes with a healthy serving of change. If we were to succeed, our routines would change, people’s expectations of us would change. We would be adrift in an unfamiliar set of circumstances. Though we would be making progress in the direction of our dreams, we would – in essence – also be starting all over again since we would suddenly have to grapple with all kinds of new obstacles and challenges. Our “lizard brain” (or, amygdala) doesn’t like the risk associated with change. It will try to “protect” us by maintaining the status quo and it will do so by using fear to dissuade us from trying anything new.

I don’t know the cure for this kind of thinking, but I have a couple ideas that might be helpful. First, be aware of what your lizard brain thinks about success. Pat it nicely on the head and let it know that you understand why it’s afraid, but – really – it’s all going to be okay. Second, try to find ways to experience success on a small scale. Prove to your lizard brain that success isn’t as scary as it might seem – one baby step at a time. Finally, take Dan’s advice and be proactive about setting yourself up for “success with success.” There’s immense power in taking the bull by the horns. Don’t feel like you have to let things happen to you. Instead, be prepared to make things happen for you.

Have you ever thought about the fact that you might be scared of success? What would success mean to you, your routine, your hopes and dreams? 

 

What How I’m Reading:

Knowing how the flower grows does not make it less beautiful.

Knowing how the flower grows does not make it less beautiful.

Next week I’ll have three books to share with you, but while I wrap those up, I wanted to share a few thoughts about reading like a writer.

As writers, we can’t help but read with an eye on the author’s craft. Even when we’re caught up in the swoon of book lust, there is a part of our brain that is always analyzing, critiquing, and admiring the literary aspects of a piece of writing. Non-writers sometimes ask me if this detracts from my enjoyment of the story. I thought about it, and the answer is an emphatic no.

The risk, I suppose, is that the analysis might pull me out of the story … that my dissection of the craft behind the story might somehow steal the writing’s soul. It makes sense that this would be the case, but I have only felt this feeling when my analysis has uncovered deep flaws in the craft. In those cases, I usually abandon the book anyway, so the loss is minimal.

When the book is a good one, I am able to lose myself in the story even while appreciating the work that went into writing it. It’s almost like my brain is partitioned into two sides that are able to process different information simultaneously, like a computer running two programs at the same time. One half of my brain experiences the events in the story as if they were happening to me; the other half makes mental notes about things like structure, character development, foreshadowing, dialog, and any number of other creative and technical aspects of the story.

Personally, I think being able to see and appreciate what went into a story enhances my reading enjoyment. There is also no better way for a writer to learn about the craft. There is a world of difference between understanding a concept and seeing an example of that concept at work.

Do you analyze stories while you read them? Do you go back and analyze them after you’ve finished them? How does this help you learn about the craft of writing?

 

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin blessed weird people

Here’s to dreaming and believing and embracing the possibilities even when we don’t know what they are. Happy reading. Happy writing. See you on the other side! 

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Photo Credit – Scared Dog & Cat : linein via Compfight cc
Photo Credit – Flower Plate: MuseumWales via Compfight cc

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

This week’s question is part of a series based on 100th episode (“Ask The Readers Anything” ) of the UK-based podcast, The Readers. We thought it would be interesting (and fun!) to answer these questions from the perspective of writers who also (obviously) love to read. 

QUESTION: What, in your opinion, makes a book a good book? (Loaded question, we know, but let’s just dive right in, shall we?)

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson: For me, it’s when my attention is caught and held. When I’m immediately drawn into the story — it doesn’t matter if it’s the characters, setting, or plot, but as long as something draws me in and has me curious enough to read the next paragraph and the next and the next, then it’s a good book. I just read a book last weekend, Boiled Over, by Barbara Ross. Sadly I started it late at night and had to stop reading at some point to sleep, but I finished it first-thing the next morning. It’s a 300+ page cozy mystery, but I was drawn in by the setting (Maine seacoast) and the characters and I couldn’t stop turning the pages. It brought back great memories of my own Maine summer vacations on the beach. I loved it! You can read my review of it here, if you like. This is the 2nd in a series. I need to go back and read the first now!

I haven’t found a perfect description for a good book – and what I think is good you might not like because we have different preferences. So, this loaded question is only going to offer so much for answers!

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Susan Nye: The books that I love all have one thing in common, wonderful writing.

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Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: This is a tough question. The books I love are the books that stay with me–the ones I think about after I have finished them. Books that make me think about something in a different way, or recognize something I didn’t before. I think the story has to be great, but that doesn’t mean a lot has to happen. One of the books that comes to mind is Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham. I read it years ago but it’s still with me. The transformation of the main character is what really stayed with me, I think. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but it’s a book I had to force myself to keep reading in the beginning but became a book I couldn’t put down. Another favorite, I Know This Much is True, by Wally Lamb, is the same. I slogged through the beginning but I’m still thinking about it (and the main character) years later. That, to me, is the test that has to be passed to be a good book. (The Corrections just came to mind. Can’t say I loved the book but based on my reaction to it, it’s a great book–to me.)

 

headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace: This IS a loaded question and one that can only be answered in the context of defining personal preferences. I agree with Lisa that a good book has to grab you and refuse to let go. I also agree with Susan that it must have wonderful writing. That point may be debatable based on the legion fans of hugely successful books that aren’t that well written, but in those cases I would argue that it’s the story – not the writing – that deserves the credit. I also agree with Diane that a good book will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

But, if I’m going to get down to brass tacks and define what makes a book a good book for ME, I’ll repeat the random list of attributes that I originally shared in my Weekend Edition post on book lust:

  • An Element of Magical Realism Though my younger self was most interested in literary fantasy and quality SciFi, grown-up me has developed a taste for stories that are based in this world but have elements of the magical.
  • An Element of Mystery Though I don’t read many books in the mystery genre, I do love a bit of mystery. Many of my favorite stories include a puzzle that needs solving – an unidentified character, an unknown origin story, a mysterious artifact.
  • A Poetic Voice Though I know little of poetry proper, I love when a book includes poetic prose and/or unorthodox structure. Though some people dislike a disjointed flow, I love finding and falling into the rhythm of a unique narration style.
  • A Female Protagonist Though I have loved plenty of books with male protagonists as well, I am particularly smitten with stories that tell the tale of a girl or woman. I suppose this is because I can relate to the story more easily.
  • True Transformation Though I am not immune to the allure of action and comedy, my favorite stories are the ones about the evolution of a heart, a mind, or a soul. I’m a sucker for a good before and after.
  • A Satisfying but Open Ending While I like closure as much as the next reader, my favorite endings also leave me with a sense of what might come after the words “The End.” It’s not so much about hoping for a sequel as it is about feeling like the story and its characters live on beyond the pages I’ve read.

 

The Art of Life

I’m on vacation (in Seattle) and I’m not getting much writing done.

Every time I plan a family vacation, I tell myself I’ll get a lot of writing done. My husband will be around, I think, to entertain our son so I picture myself sitting in a café writing while they are off doing something totally fun together.

And I plan to write every evening: My son goes to bed early and we’re all in a hotel room together so I imagine myself writing into the night by the light of my computer screen.

But the reality is we’re up before dawn every morning (due to the alarm clock that is my son, who has never met a morning he didn’t like) and we’re busy all day and by the time my son is asleep I’m very nearly ready to go to sleep, too.

Plus we are visiting family and I don’t want to miss out on this precious time with loved ones we don’t often see.

It all adds up to a lot less writing than I ever imagined.

My expectations were totally unrealistic. I can see that now, halfway through the week. My first priority here in Seattle is not to write—it’s to drink great coffee! Just kidding, although the coffee here really is amazing. (Seattle’s Best Coffee is my favorite so far.) No, my first priority is to spend time with my family.

When I visited the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum. I saw the work of someone whose life is primarily about his art: Dale Chihuly. I am inspired by his art, his words, and his life.

Dale Chihuly has spent his life (so far) creating art, mostly in glass, and teaching his art and his techniques to others. Here’s what he had to say about the art of blowing glass:

The technology really hasn’t changed. We use the same tools today they used 2,000 years ago. The difference is that when I started, everyone wanted to control the blowing process. I just went with it. The natural elements of fire, movement, gravity and centrifugal force were always there, and are always with us. The difference was that I worked in this abstract way and could let the forces of nature have a bigger role in the ultimate shape.”

–Dale Chihuly

I love how he talks about the way he allowed the glass to flow. It sounds so natural, so organic.

When I think about my life as my art, I realize I’m letting my life flow in a natural way. I used to try to control the process of living, every little thing, but now I practice control by controlling my mind and reminding myself that I am the only one I can control. The result is more joy, more peace, and (at least most of the time) more writing.

I’m living my life, a life that includes writing, and letting it flow. It’s much more organic than it used to be when I tried to muscle everything into it’s proper place.

When my expectations don’t match my reality, I adjust my expectations. I don’t beat myself up, or try to cram everything in to the point of exhaustion, but I also don’t avoid writing because “I don’t have enough time.”

And now I have the image of Dale Chihuly in my mind, reminding me with his gorgeous glass art how beautiful life can be when we go with the flow.

Is your writing part of the flow of your life?

News from Diane MacKinnon: I‘ve planned a writing retreat for the fall. It’s a one-day event, September 20, and I’m so excited about it! If you are local, I hope you’ll join me. You can find out more about my one day writing retreat by clicking here.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, circle practitioner, mother, stepmother, and family physician. I’m so grateful for  the long summer days to enjoy with my family and friends, including my books and my journal.

A large part of this blog is sharing what it is that writers actually do (when we are not communing with spiders.) If you’ve been following this blog then you know I have recently finished a manuscript and have sent it out to some literary agents. While I have gotten a few nibbles, most of them, like the proverbial big one, have gotten away (although it is still being evaluated by one agent and I have a slew of others to still try)

No one loves me, I thought, I think I’ll go eat worms. Then I got a reply from an acquiring editor for a publisher – she liked my e-proposal. She liked my presentation. She invited me to send a full hard-copy proposal.

I need to prepare what is, essentially, a “board meeting quality” presentation on my book including:
• Letter of introduction – who referred me, qualifications
• Book description – one paragraph (elevator pitch)
• Why this book is needed and who the audience will be
• Current competitors
• Platform and credentials
• Table of contents
• Length, general appearance, photographic and illustrative requirements
• Previously published writing samples
• 50 pages of manuscript

Because I have a ton of online marketing experience, I’m also going to add a section on:
• Marketing plan

And because I’m pretty good friends with a number of people in my field (chickens), I’m also going to add:
• Endorsements/blurbs

I thought I could get all of this done during this week but, although I know where most of this information is, it’s important that I don’t just throw everything together. I need to present a polished and finished package that will wow the socks off of everyone. You can bet that this puppy will have a title page, TOC, and will be housed in a protective binder.

It will take a dedicated few days to get it all done, and that’s what I’ll be doing this coming weekend.

Keep this information in mind when you get to the point of querying your project. There’s more than one route to publication. Everyone has their own way of doing things and, because this is an acquisition editor and not a literary agent, the submission requirements are vastly different.

Not better, not worse, just not the same.

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

I bet you'll be grinning like me if you watch the video.

I bet you’ll be grinning like me if you watch the video.

Sometimes being a writer can make you crazy. I mean, it’s bad enough that we hear voices in our heads, but when we start arguing with those voices, we know we’re in trouble.

Last week I had the delightful pleasure of seeing Livingston Taylor perform at Rockport’s beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center. Though a longtime fan of Liv’s brother, James Taylor, I knew little about Liv or his music and wasn’t sure what to expect. The show unfolded on an intimate stage with the Atlantic ocean (viewed through, as one of Liv’s guest performers put it, “the cleanest windows I’ve ever seen”) as a backdrop. Despite the dramatic setting, the stunning view was forgotten once the performers began weaving their tales with music and humor.

Joining Taylor onstage were two of his students from the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he teaches a two-part course called Stage Performance . Matt Cusson is an immensely talented pianist/songwriter/singer who opened the show and later joined Taylor for additional numbers. And then there was the lovely Megan Hilty who, among other numbers, performed a beautifully impromptu version of “Over the Rainbow” with Taylor. The sweet authenticity of the performance in all its imperfect perfection brought tears to my eyes.

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with writing, I’m getting there.

Throughout the performance, Taylor shared personal anecdotes about how he wrote various songs. From how he “borrowed” melodies or chord transitions from other composers to how one song started out as one idea and became something entirely different to how another song began as an apology for a botched Valentine’s Day, Taylor gave his audience an peek at his creative process. Though our mediums – music and literature – might be different, I found many of his stories rang as true for my kind of art as for his.

But more on that in another post.

One of my favorite performances of the evening was a folksong called “Railroad Bill.” I laughed all the way through and kept thinking, “Yes. Yes! That totally happens!” If you’ve ever had a character sass you, you’ll love this. So here, without further ado, the “traditional” folksong, “Railroad Bill:”

Wasn’t that great?!?

Like I said, it’s good to be the writer.

Liv Taylor and me. Awwwww.... :)

Liv Taylor and me. Awwwww…. :)

After the show, I picked up a copy of Taylor’s book, Stage Performance (more on that in a future post). I also lingered (along with my beau, daughter, and parents) with the handful of fans who stayed to get autographs and photos. After some cajoling, I managed to overcome my shyness and ask for a photo. Taylor took this “double selfie” with my daughter’s iPod (her camera is way better than the one on my aged iPhone). I felt like a goof, but – as you can see – I was also grinning like an idiot. Clearly, I was having a good time.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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