Composing a Writer #10. A Manuscript is Not a Book

Let’s say pigs fly. You’ve written the thing you always wanted to write. It’s a miracle. It’s been in your mind since reading that first book that stole you away. It means you’ve sat by yourself for untold hours and managed to commit the words to the page. You’ve edited it to perfection with an obsessive-compulsive love disorder that includes nurturing the idea like a baby bird, watching it grow feather by feather, only to hack it to bits with a meat cleaver so it can rise from the flames …a phoenix. Ta-da. You have a completed manuscript.

I don’t know how this would feel to a fresh young mind, but I do know how it feels in the second half-century of life. Fist-pumping elation and a happy dance complete with the backside shimmy that’s best left undescribed. This is where the story ends in the movie version. The End scrolling over my… um, end.

Meanwhile back in real life, I notice that I don’t actually have a book. I have a file in my computer. It feels marginally better than having a stack of paper that my prairie wind would surely find a way to plaster along the south fence line.

I’m feeling a strange combination of gosh-it’s-no-big-thing humility and I-did-it-I-did-it! pride for a thing stuck inside my computer, when a stranger saunters into my thoughts. Someone with a swagger and she might be wearing a push-up bra. At first I guessed her name was Kills Kittens for Fun but no, it was Ambition. I could tell because the word was lettered in cursive across the chest of her sweater… a sweater that might have fit her back when she was a high school cheerleader. And worse, a couple of inches of her midriff was showing. She set down her suitcase, drained her can of beer, and burped. Just kill me.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]


This Week: We’re ten weeks in and writing is vying for equal time as your primary language. Words flow like a conversation with an old friend. You have as many words to write as you have to speak; you have paragraphs and chapters, you have a book, a trilogy, a tetralogy, a pentalogy and even a hexalogy. You are filthy stinky rich in nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Assignment: Write about the day after an accomplishment or graduation or the birth or death of something. Write about the thing after the thing. Write your feelings about ambition; how does it fit you? What do you think of ambitious women? Men? Is it okay to make money from your art? Or write the hardest thing of all –write something intentionally funny. You can tell it’s working if you chuckle while you type. Then share whatever you like on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Or comment on what others have written. Or, just know we are your herd, no excuses necessary. Wait and jump in when it’s right for you.


It was my last chance to slide the manuscript in a drawer, or bury it in my tax return file on the computer. But instead, I had an overwhelming need. Nothing prepared me for how much I wanted my manuscript published. I thought writing it would be enough but each step in the writing process edited me as a would-be author. I changed as much as the manuscript did but I’d been so busy writing and studying the publishing world, that I hadn’t noticed. But now I was overtaken with an uncomfortable ambition to get the story out in the world and I’d worked on it so completely that I thought Stable Relation was worthy of that. It was like waking up with a weird kind of amnesia: I knew exactly who I was but I had no history to prove it.

There is so much attitude in the writing world about the publishing question. Some will say submitting to traditional publishers are the only way to get that genuine stamp of acceptance. Publishers are the gatekeepers to a literary career. That any less means your writing has no value because self-published books are trash. So, you worship the rich history of suffering, related by examples of famous authors whose work got rejected time and again before they became famous. Because we all know the very best artists wear suffering like war medals on their chests. It’s the Big Five Publishers or die!

But the Big Five Publishers are more distant and élite than ever before. Some say they are all going down because they aren’t keeping up with changes in their industry. But to get a manuscript to the big boys, they say you must be someone famous or know someone famous. You’ll need an agent because the very idea of traditional publishing is running the other direction. So, you attend conferences and try to network. And worry that you’ll always be a groupie for famous authors while paying off your travel debt and remaining unpublished yourself.

Small presses are a possibility. Genre publishing is booming and it’s a door open to authors of romance or Christian or children’s books. Opportunities drop off fast if you aren’t in one of those genres. And Stable Relation was every publisher’s ugly stepchild –a memoir. Even with a popular genre, small presses won’t invest in an author unless she can prove she has readers waiting. If you manage to hook a small press, they will promote your book for sixty days but it takes them twice that time to let you know if they will even read your manuscript.

Or do you self-publish? Because technology has changed the publishing world. Because everyone knows a self-published book that broke the glass ceiling like Still Alice did. Because some published authors are now self-publishing after being dropped by publishers who won’t publish new books. Or do you find the statistic that says that only 10% of self-published books sell more than a hundred copies?

There’s no answer, so you spend a few thousand hours more, researching publishing and self-publishing online, and see that there is no more agreement than there was a month ago. You think no one wants your book. You think self-publishing could be a swamp filled with alligators, and one with particularly gnarly teeth could have yarns from a certain cheerleader sweater dangling like bloody floss.

(TBC)

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

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Composing a Writer #8. Editing the Editing

I was raised by a woman who chronically rearranged furniture. It was a nervous habit. Coming home late you had to look for a particular end-table that got put in odd places, usually just in front of your shin. Then a week later, in front of your other shin. I had spent my life trying to not-like-my-mother, but there I was shuffling chapters around like a veneer end-table, a green Naugahyde sofa, and an orange and brown zig-zag afghan. How the mighty had fallen.

After a whole year of typing away on my manuscript for Stable Relation in predawn hours, I’d lost perspective. I had 80,000 words but I had no idea if they made any sense. I’d tried so hard to write in a way that did not draw conclusions, that didn’t tell the reader what to think, that I couldn’t tell what I thought.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

I had an idea of how I wanted to tell the story when I started. I wanted the first chapters to feel rushed and a bit uncomfortable. Then that feeling would give way to an eventual sense of gratitude and ease. I wanted the writing style to reflect the story line as it progressed. I told the story in an episodic way, more than chronologically because I like stories that circle back on themselves. In hindsight, a more linear approach might have been easier but I wanted the story to unfold like we meet people; who they are gets defined by their experience but we only learn that over time, in bits and pieces.

My developmental edit hadn’t been what I expected …as if I’d written enough books to know. After the best rewrite (rearrange) I could do, I sent the manuscript to a second professional editor for line editing. It cost real money like the first editor, but my reasoning was that if I wasn’t willing to invest, why should a reader? I knew that a publisher would edit the book if they picked it up, but I wanted my version so tight that perhaps they’d let it be. I consulted the Editorial Freelancers Association and found three possible editors, interviewed, decided, and sent the manuscript off again.

My manuscript came back, digital this time, with red ink track changes in the margins. Who knew word tense was such a challenging thing? I made the same grammatical errors repeatedly but correcting them a few dozen times does drill the lesson. There were times the notes in the margin told me I was redundant and other times that I was preaching (no surprise). The edit was impersonal but at the same time, I felt she cared profoundly about my grammar and sentence structure. This edit was a lesson in how to write as well as a keen focus on the lumps and holes in the story. It transformed my ability to write a sentence, in this manuscript and going forward, and I joyously paid her fee. I had no idea if she liked the actual story; she was objective. Then near the last chapter, in a red track change, one word: [crying]. Through the editing, I had come to respect her abilities; I didn’t know until that last moment how much I wanted her to like Stable Relation.

I reworked the book with those edits but it was more like moving knick-knacks instead of entire sofas. Word by word, my confidence meandered back. I sharpened my points and got all my ideas on the same page; irony and humor returned. I said more with less and in the right tense. When the time was right, I sent the manuscript to a third editor for a final proofreading edit.

A few weeks later the manuscript came back, this time with fewer red track changes than ever, mostly grammatical, some capital letter mistakes with job titles. (The humans in my book had job titles; only the animals had names.) There were a few more word mistakes, like using one instead of on, one every other page or so, that my eyes had missed. In the process of making changes from the last edit, I had written new prose in a few places with imperfect skill. Editors are magnificent.

This Week: You’re a writer. You write. Words are your minions. They await your bidding with energy and a good ground covering gait. Miles of words pass through your fingers. After all the emotional and technical challenges of writing, you remember how much you love to tell a story.

Your assignment this week is to consider an old Akira Kurosawa movie called Rashomon. Tell the same scene from more than one perspective. Or write a story that tells something important in hindsight. Alter your voice in prose: Use sentence structure to help define the emotional aspects of your scene. Have a written plan for an essay and then stick to it; think fascinating introduction, the arc of the story with plot twists, and really stretch for an unexpected ending. Or for the fun of it, write a bit of nonsense with wrong words spelled correctly, in that one and on sort of way. Pick one of these ideas, or make one up that interests you, and just start.

And then let us know on our Writing Herd Facebook page. It doesn’t matter where you are in these assignments. Some new members have joined; say hello! If you are a founding member but have not shared your thoughts yet, chime in, whether it’s sharing a piece you’ve written or your thoughts about writing in general. We’d love to hear from you. Let us know how it’s going; let’s use each other for encouragement and talk about how we write and well as what we write. Most of all, Write on!

That final editor called me just before returning my digital manuscript. It was a Saturday morning and I was giving a riding lesson. I usually don’t answer my phone while teaching, but I will check caller ID to check if it’s a client. Seeing my editor’s name, I apologized to my rider and took the call. I listened as my editor said it was the best book she’d every edited. Then she said some other things. I forget what happened the rest of that day.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Composing a Writer #7. Criticism Wanted

I was fifty-nine years old and someone had scribbled “Why should I care?” in thick red ink on my hard-fought 300-page manuscript. Not just once but every few pages. Wait, it gets better. I sold a saddle to pay for this!

It started on Christmas Eve, my second least-favorite day of the year. I packed up the dogs, my laptop, and some snacks, and headed to a rented cabin in the mountains. Just finished with a thirty-day sprint of writing 1500 words a day, I was ready to begin writing my memoir.

For the following twelve months, I got up at 3:30 every morning and poured words into my Scrivener writing software; building, rearranging, editing, and editing some more. Every evening, I poured over the internet for information about professional editing, submitting manuscripts to publishers, self-publishing, and any other detail I could think of. I joined a few writer’s groups, attended a writer’s conference, and performed my elevator pitch to the horses while I mucked. I had a sentimental reason for starting this but at some point, the project overtook me.

So you could say this fury of red ink was my own fault. I hired three professional editors for Stable Relation, and the first was a developmental editor. His job was to go over the story for weakness including characters, plot lines, and writing style. In short, the whole book. He wanted it in hard copy, so I sent off the manuscript the old-fashioned way.

Three weeks later, the manuscript returned looking black and white and red all over. The editor didn’t like the first chapter. He didn’t like the title. Some of the chapters were flat or obscure. “Why should I care?” he wrote in my blood. Parts were long-winded and others poorly explained. He particularly didn’t like a chapter about ducks.  “Why should I care?” he wrote in duck blood. My writing was good, he said, but the storyline didn’t flow. My word tense was out of control. Some chapters were repetitive. He suggested I write a different book from a chapter he did like. He suggested I put my manuscript in a drawer for a year and gave me a list of memoirs to read.

Ouch! I’d wanted the truth; I didn’t hire him to coddle me. But I also wasn’t putting it in a drawer.

Breathe. First, I had been a self-employed artist for decades and used to people judging my work. Second, I’d shown horses. Surviving embarrassment and humiliation is part of the ride. You get back up.

The trick is to not take it personally. That manuscript was a stack of paper, even as intimate as it was. It was not me. Not that I’m some insipid PollyAnna; his red ink cut deep. But if I hadn’t found a way to keep my heart safe, I would have never survived childhood. I’d invested a year of writing and I wasn’t about to get bucked off now. Besides, I sold a saddle to pay for this and I’m a frugal person. I had to get my money’s worth out of his red ink.

I set my jaw and went to work; I cut chapters out, re-wrote other chapters, and changed the order of chapters. Each time I saw red ink, I took it to heart and wrote better reasons to care. Even about ducks.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

This week: You still write. High and wide, you write. When you aren’t writing, you’re thinking of how you’ll write. And then you write. Syllable by syllable, the words are starting to see it your way.

And you have discovered that the word “edit” has as many meanings as there are stray commas. During a first edit, I run my work through several word processors. I like WordPress, but I also use my Word program, and then sometimes I run it through Scriveners or Google Docs, too. Besides that, I use the free Grammarly app. None of them catch everything. You don’t have to hire a pro, but eventually, someone has to edit your work and there will be corrections. Try to find a way to embrace it.

For the Writing Herd: It remains your choice where the line between safety and challenge rests for you in this group. If it’s your choice to journal privately, push on. If you’re sharing your writing with the group, please continue. If you would like constructive criticism on shared work, please note that when you share the link on our page. (To be clear, if you want criticism, post “criticism welcome.” Otherwise, comment as before.) In riding lessons, I ask that each rider/judge say three good things and one thing to consider working on. It might be a good start here, too.

Your assignment is to read critically. Not being mean, but to have discernment about how words are used, as well as what they say. Whether you publicly comment or not, think like an editor this week. See their side and then share that experience.

If you’d like a writing topic this week, write something about criticism or taking things personally. Or write yourself the most caustic review imaginable and get it out-of-the-way. Or ponder the idea of criticism and friendship. Or relate a time you welcomed criticism.

My worst competitive dressage ride was on a brilliant young horse. But at least there was a big crowd watching. My horse and I entered the arena with my friend who would read our test (call out the movements to be ridden.) She and I shared our goals before each show, read for each other’s tests, and afterward, we made a point to say something complimentary on the way out of the arena. It was a tradition.

My horse and I started the test and things came apart quickly. Straight lines became serpentines. He spooked at a letter and whiplashed sideways five meters. There were spontaneous gait changes, along with an unplanned gallop. Eventually, we landed a crooked halt near “X” and saluted the judge, who had to be relieved we finished.

My horse and I turned to leave the arena, and as disappointed as I was, my curiosity teased a smile. What could my friend possibly compliment about this ride? I almost felt sorry for her. What comment could she make that would even have a shred of truth and still be positive? Her mind must be racing! We caught up with her at the out-gate, but she kept her head low. Then she looked up at me with a sly grin. “Nice job of staying on,” she said.

Riding and writing have much in common.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

 

Composing a Writer #6. Writing for Readers

It’s a moment of exquisite anxiety. The kind of anxiety that’s prickly and blunt at the same time, and you can’t see around it. One word at a time, it’s been an act of faith that you’ve come this far. You retreat, change a word here, and alter some punctuation there. You’ve lost count of the number of edits. You’ve edited the edits. To kill some more time, you read it aloud one last time because it’s easier than worrying about what people will think.

Who gave you the right, anyway? In a world of real authors who have valuable things to say, and the schooling and creativity to say them well, why do you even try? Who do you think you are?

Silence. Then you hear a tiny voice that cracks and wobbles. It’s you, saying something that sounds awkward and defensive, even to you. Breathing is shallow as your hand moves to your mouse. You stare as your cursor moves across your computer screen. It pauses, hovers, and goes still. You’ve been here before. It’s hang-time …then a conscious choice. Click. Publish.

In lieu of a fist pump and victory dance, you stare sullenly at the screen, considering another edit.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

This is our sixth week writing together. I hope new habits are gaining strength and your writing is pulling you in. Writing isn’t mystical or romantic; it’s a choice. This week let’s check in, and recalculate our position, and ask ourselves if we’re headed where we want to go.

Do you want to write for yourself or for others?

Maybe some of us gave it a chance and discovered writing isn’t what we thought it would be. If you can lay down the dream with no regrets, consider that knowledge a win.

Maybe writing is something you enjoy doing for your own purposes. Does writing clarify your thoughts and tell your story? Keeping a journal is a time-honored art form used for self-discovery and creating a legacy for your loved ones. Maybe journaling is perfect for you. Let it be.

Perhaps your writing isn’t as clear as you’d like, so you’ve been “googling” writer’s blogs and even checking out writer’s conferences. There’s information available to writers –like daily prompts and articles about improving your technical skill and word choice. In the beginning, my ideas out-ran my skill set, pronouns got confused and when I read my writing aloud, even I couldn’t tell what I meant. There’s no spell-check for confusion and run-on sentences. Maybe you’re honest to say you want to linger and improve your writing skills before you move on. Wonderful investment!

While I continued to study the art of writing, listened to authors speak every chance I got, and most of all, let myself be inspired by the writing of others, I still wanted more. It was time to start making friends with readers. In other words, time to get verbally naked in public.

My first published piece started out as a bittersweet joke in 2010. I was pouting about my good horse’s forced retirement. As a dressage competitor, I received the United States Dressage Federation’s monthly magazine, where the back page was devoted to stories from readers. I noticed that there was always a small photo of the author with the byline. I submitted a story that barely mentioned my horse, it was accepted, and when they asked for a photo, I sent one with my gelding lurking over my shoulder. That was the win; his photo in a national dressage magazine.

There was a book lurking over my shoulder as well, but I knew I wasn’t ready so I started a blog. I gave myself deadlines that I never missed –twice a week for the last seven years. I kept a list of possible topics, but beyond that, each post was a writing assignment to describe something hard to describe or to write something humorous or poignant. I took my writing seriously. I practiced.

It took all my courage to ask my friends to follow my blog and for a couple of years there were just a handful of readers. I posted on blog sharing sites, like Barnmice, and finally got brave enough to share it in board daylight on Facebook. I knew no one wanted to read my words because who did I think I was. I shared anyway.

This week: Congratulate yourself on the writing you’ve done. If it’s time to let go, celebrate your discovery and take guiltless flight to your next adventure. If your writing is gifting you with understanding and self-esteem, then journal it out! Let your words lead you on.

If your writing practice has inspired you to want more, consider going public and start making friends with readers. Write an article. Start a public blog with a deadline schedule. Begin an outline for your book. If you’re uncertain about your next step, choose the scary thing. This week make up your own writing assignment.

And then let us know on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Celebrate the dream and tell us how you’ll start cutting it into bite-sized pieces. Write on!

When I talk to writers, lots pooh-pooh blogs as the ugly step-child to real writing. I counter that if readers won’t read your words for free, why would they ever buy a book?

With gratitude, I owe everything to my blog readers. They encouraged me in the beginning while I found my words. As my writing gradually improved more readers discovered me. The blog growth gave me the confidence to start my book, Stable Relation. In turn, when the book writing got sticky, the positive comments on my blog lifted me up. There was a snowball effect; the more I wrote, the more I wrote. It was an unexpected and empowering gratitude cycle …and once that baby starts rolling, anything is possible.

I don’t know if there’s an avalanche of good writing in your future, but I do know this: It’s your choice.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

 

Composing a Writer #5. Write Long, Write Short

Edit Mad dog

As soon as I escaped, I started writing poems. I was barely eighteen and living four states away from my complicated family. I struggled with depression and love poems were out of my range of experience. I was all teen angst: Walking at night, soaking in self-loathing, and alone in a city. When I did speak, my words cut to the bone with truth and rage. I wasn’t much fun to be around.

Luckily, I’m an introvert, so I wrote it out for hours at a time. My words built a cage for my monsters. In a while, I felt safe enough to sleep through the night with the help of a few good dogs.

Writing is therapy and some of us need it more than others. I was fine with that. Somewhere in the process of distilling an experience into words, I found a bit of sanity for a few hours. And poetry forced me to whittle huge thoughts into mere paragraphs and then dissect to the heart of that.

Poetry is editing in the extreme. 

Of course, I knew poetry was as foolish as wearing underwear-hats. Too self-absorbed, too elite, too obscure.

My self-doubt created a literary character who had a habit of publicly reading her embarrassingly lame poetry, to the chagrin of her friends. I bite my tongue for her to this day. The character out-lived that book outline and she’s still here, poking me to write poems while heckling me for being a dolt. Have I mentioned that I think too much?

I attended a book talk given by author Michael Ondaatje a while back. He won the Booker Prize for The English Patient, but has published numerous fiction, non-fiction, and poetry books. His autograph table in the lobby looked like an entire library. When asked about that genre range, he said that prose opened the door to poetry and then, in turn, poetry informed his prose. He continued to answer questions eloquently while my brain stalled, grasping at the idea. What if all my words worked together instead of being contained in separate categories that name-called each other? It seemed obvious in hindsight.

So with absolutely no acknowledgment, for fear someone would notice, I started posting blogs where I edited 800-900 words out. The other word for that is poetry.

[A reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made, with writing exercises included. It isn’t that I think I’m an expert or that my book sales have bought me a second home. Or even a second bathroom in this home. I’ve just had such a great time and sharing it serves as a thank you. Friend me on Facebook if you’d like to be part of the online group. We work on the honor system; participate as you like. Writing is common sense; you’ll get about as much out of it as you put in.]

This week: The assignment that never changes… write. Write like the wind, write like thunder, write like the desert. Write because writing improves the quality of ordinary thought and we become more interesting to own ourselves.

There are general guidelines on word count for most genres. Books should be about 80,000 words, give or take. A plot should run tight and hot. Longer manuscripts are frowned on by the book industry. The assumption being it’s badly edited; that it rambles or has superfluous characters. The generally accepted length of a blog is around 600-800 words to rank well in the search engines, and not over 2500 words. Blogs are considered short form writing and should be crafted to stay on topic and hold the reader’s attention. Briefly.

Look at both word count and word choice. If it isn’t important, edit it out. If it’s a good turn of phrase, save it for later writing, but hack away now. Be strict. Be heartless. Train yourself to only use your very best words. Then edit most of those out. Shorten redundant sentences and leave something for the reader to be interested in following. Then remember the only difference between editing a blog and a book is that you relentlessly chop and hack for thousands of words longer.

The best reason to exercise your edit skills is that there’s a secret task up ahead. The very hardest part of writing a book isn’t the first 80,000 words. It ends up that’s the easy part. After that you need a blurb. The damned blurb. You’ll need one that’s 500 words and another at 250 words. Then, almost impossibly, one about 100 words long. Finally, you’ll need the hardest piece of writing in the world: A blurb for the back cover; a precious few life-or-death words to entice a reader to cross the line and read it. My blurbs have taken me weeks and weeks to write and I’m not alone. Start flexing those editing muscles now. I could write a book… The Angst of Reduction.

This week’s assignment is to write long and then write short. Begin a reduction. [Wiki: In cooking, a reduction is the process of thickening and intensifying the flavor of a liquid mixture such as a soup, sauce, wine, or juice by simmering or boiling.] Write a longer piece and then edit it in half. Then boil that down to a sentence or a poem. Twenty words or so.

Then post on the Writing Herd FB page. Share this assignment or your feelings about this assignment, or anything else you’d like. We’re your readers.

So… in this series about writing, I try to give an example of what I mean in each post. Here goes:

I write about life, using horses are a parable. There are three books now, several hundred blogs, and lately, I try to sum it up in even fewer words.

Go the distance.
Do it with grace or do it ugly,
because some days
that’s what your best looks like.

It only matters
that you go the full heart distance.
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #4. Why Words Matter

 

She’s been my friend for decades. That was me at her daughter’s birthday party, singing and tap dancing in a rented Big Bird costume. She came to all my weddings. We’re chosen family but we almost had to hate each other in the beginning.

I met her husband first; I was a goldsmith and he was a diamond dealer, capable of witty banter. Business calls collapsed into lightning fast quip-fests and I fell in love with his words. He told each of us about the other and we’d exchanged cautious greetings on the phone. We set our first meeting; he’d bring her to an art opening I was having, promising her on the way that she could have any piece of mine that she wanted. We were in our mid-twenties and feigning maturity. But it was an art opening and I already felt awkward and socially intimidated and fearful about my work. In other words, I was desperately feigning.

My best friendships have all started with love at first sight. Yes, I saw her across a crowded room. We were physical opposites. She was petite and golden, with rich olive skin, glossy dark hair, and sparkling eyes. She wore a bold yellow sundress and strappy rainbow-colored shoes. I probably stared. As her husband introduced us, my throat got tight with all the things that mattered.

“Nice shoes,” I blurted out. I might have sounded sarcastic. 

[A reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made, with writing exercises included. It isn’t that I think I’m an expert or that my book sales have bought me a second home. Or even a second bathroom in this home. I’ve just had such a great time and sharing it serves as a thank you. Friend me on Facebook if you’d like to be part of the online group. We work on the honor system; participate as you like. Writing is common sense; you’ll get about as much out of it as you put in.]

It’s trite to say words matter –especially to writers. We know that words hang in the air forever. We even hope some of those words are ours.

When we first began reading, it was a storybook before bed or a Dick and Jane primer in first grade. We sounded out words in syllables, puzzling words into sentences until a story formed with the help of clues –pictures of dogs and bicycles and school houses. It was a big deal to graduate to “books with all words.”

Learning to write is a lot like learning to read. In the beginning, we’re a bit stilted. Writing is a puzzle and we’re still sounding out words. If things seem too complicated to describe, we might over-simplify in an effort to be understood. We don’t quite trust the reader. It’s easier to just tell them what to think rather than write in a way that invites them to come to their own conclusions. It’s complicated enough to make you nostalgic for a time when things were black and white. The other word for that is boring and flat.

Writers are hoping to hook the reader with confident prose, while we hide behind the words, teetering in a flop-sweat about our personal literary issues. We want it to sound so casual, so normal, knowing we only have a sentence, or at most a paragraph, before the reader will move on to something more interesting. Ouch.

On a good day, we try to see that word/time/challenge as an opportunity. Storytelling is an art that we practice. There’s the way we write now and the way we hope to write eventually. We’ll need to collaborate with readers to get there.

This Week: Continue writing every day. Let your words flow without judgment. Let your words be so abundant that you throw them about wantonly, littering the entire page. Be fluent in choice and quantity and imagination. This week write something out on thin ice. Tell a story and let the reader know more than you do. Describe something hard to describe. Let a scene have an emotional runaway. Write something with images and no dialog. Write something with dialog and no images. Write in a way that the abstract is as plain as furniture. Write about vulnerability and let your vulnerability show. Challenge yourself to be clear and still trust your reader to connect the dots.  This is an open assignment; latch onto any of these ideas and follow it to other ideas. Be surprised where you land.

Then post on the Writing Herd FB page and share something you’ve written or your feelings about this assignment, or anything else you’d like to share. We’re your readers.

As for my friend, we’ve shared our lives that way women do. We bore witness for each other with humor and love and tears. There are words that will hang in the air, and stay in our hearts, because we survived that first awkward collision and kept on trying. Nice shoes, indeed.

 

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #3. Comfortable Creativity

The first time you saw him, he was hurrying down the street, hat brim pulled low, and his cape flying out behind him like a crow’s wings. He glanced sideways and stopped on the spot. He said, “I’ve found you. Finally.” His face had a feminine quality.

At first, there were long walks as he described your thoughts in illuminated detail and then tied the pieces together with insight and compassion. The world was curious with no time to cook. You nibbled apples and cheese with a glass of red. Sometimes you cried from the sheer beauty of the turn of a phrase. It was the glory of being truly known. Understood. You had to fall in love.

But he changed. He became fickle and moody. Sometimes he came home after you were asleep at night or left before you woke up in the morning. He trashed the bathroom, ate all the cookies, and then told your friends you needed to lose weight. Worst of all, he became impatient with your words, tapping his foot and checking his watch. He was all drama and no rent money.

 Does your creativity behave like a bad boyfriend? 

[A reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made, with writing exercises included. It isn’t that I think I’m an expert or that my book sales have bought me a second home. Or even a second bathroom in this home. I’ve just had such a great time and sharing it serves as a thank you. Friend me on Facebook and ask if you’d like to be part of the online group. We work on the honor system; participate as you like. Writing is common sense; you’ll get about as much out of it as you put in.] 

Do you really want him back? Wasn’t he a bit over-dressed to begin with? I’m going to suggest something decidedly un-romantic. Consider replacing your dysfunctional creative drama with the proper use of a small spiral notebook. And if that’s too old school, there’s an app for that.

At twenty-years-old, I started a career as a self-employed artist. What seemed like a wildly romantic adventure (showing in New York at twenty-five) was just exactly like a job. I kept hours and paid bills. I had the usual foibles in the beginning as I learned to trust myself but it was people apologizing for their lack of artistic skill that did the most to foster my confidence. But not like you’d expect…

Friends constantly told me they had absolutely no creative skill. Yet some announced their politics by paying wild attention to their appearance. Some cooked beautiful feasts, while others approached their jobs with unique enthusiasm. I saw art in sciences like medicine and space travel. Even my car mechanic seemed like a renaissance man.

So, I took a breath and got comfortable. If art was brain science and cooking dinner, then it followed that life was a creative endeavor by design. Art is our birth language; it comes with our bones and skin. Our only choice is what to do with it.

What if it’s as easy as teaching ourselves to say yes?

If creativity could be seen as a big fat chicken, the last thing I’d want to do is grab him by the throat and squeeze him past squawking, till his eyes popped out. In other words, kindly give yourself a break. Creativity isn’t a timed test. Sitting in front of the computer, squint-eyed, coffee-soaked and knuckle-cracked while waiting for inspiration is too much drama. Besides, it makes the dog nervous.

That brings me back to the small spiral notebook. I always carry one. My best thoughts come to me while I’m mildly distracted and mucking is the perfect time for brainstorming. I move slowly through the pens, letting physical muscles warm up the mental ones. As muck cart fills, I jot down passing thoughts, and all the while, get encouragement from those who help my creative process along by pooping out the hay that I worked to buy and then asking if it’s time for lunch yet. In the meantime, blog topics and plot solutions blossom in the fertile environment. It’s a creative circle if you tilt your head like a Corgi.

This week: Continue your daily stream of consciousness writing but ask yourself some questions about creativity. What do you believe? How do you experience creativity in others? In yourself? Can you write an analogy about creativity, like the beginning of this post? Lay an egg of creativity; let yourself get uncomfortable and then delve into emotions, discover secrets, or just let out a rant! As usual, give yourself a few days and then share either your writing, or your experience as a result of your writing, on our Writing Herd FB page. Or just say hey; we like having you along.

The bottom line is simple but sometimes a challenge to remember. We are each a work of art; individually made of star-dust and desire. You don’t have to write or paint or fly on wings to prove that. Art is the past-tense of breathing; the by-product of curating a life well-lived. Kind of redefines muck, when you look at it that way.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Composing a Writer #2. Just Write

We’re big talkers. We debate and dream and create. There are issues that good people should agree about on but it gets complicated by reality. A cure for cancer or missile defense? Big business or the environment? Recycle or a one-size-fits-all trashcan? And everyone knows a rescue pet is the right choice, as long as they’re healthy young purebreds with no bad habits.

We all live at the intersection of big talk and inconvenient reality, trying to define our personal integrity. In other words, is it more important to write or clean the bathroom?

Is worry about integrity overstating it? Not for me. It’s a holdover from growing up in a family where actions rarely matched words. My self-esteem got all beat up and I didn’t trust my own species. After all, if you can’t depend on your own mother…

Wait! That’s a plotline for a book!

Come to think of it, most romantic comedies revolve around a dishonest moment dressed up as an amusing misunderstanding. Murder mysteries depend on things not being as they seem and the reader joins the search for the killer… an attractive genre for people raised like me.

Dishonesty, hidden agendas, and unknown resources all become creative license for a writer. We plot the word-to-action disconnect and get to weave in the questions we want to ponder along the way to the ending we choose. We’re all gods in our writing.

There’s just one problem. If you don’t actually sit down in the chair, technically speaking, then you never get to create the character who saves the world. Apparently, deceiving yourself isn’t the same as tricking a reader. Good intentions and reasonable excuses don’t get words on the paper.

Let’s start with an assumption: We all have busy lives. We all work. We all have families, friends, and commitments. And most of all, we all have excuses. Some of them are real and some are not, but we’ve all heard or uttered an endless number of good reasons to not write. Yet, here we are.

Plain truth: Writers write. 

None of those excuses is the real excuse, by the way. I think laundry and work and sleep are fake excuses, covering up the biggest challenge to writing …self-judgement. We’re critical of each word before it hits the paper. We hem and haw. We say that we write for our private pleasure, but then spank each word as a failed Great American Novel. We let our words get too precious. Add guilt and regret into the mix. Then worst of all, we censor ourselves.

Writing is easy. It’s the self-criticism that takes time.

Snap out of it. Get over yourself and your artistic tantrums. Like any other skill, practice is the key to fluency. Criticism is the key to self-loathing. What if you let it be as simple as a choice?

When I was getting ready to begin writing Stable Relation, a writer/friend suggested that I get in shape by writing 1500 words a day for a month. It felt like a ridiculously impossible feat but I have step-kids so I started there. Then I wrote about every dog I ever loved, and politics I aspire to, and funny things I remembered. The words I rattled off gave me understanding because writing is always therapy. My words got common and ordinary, so they did what I asked. I wrote about everything except what my book was about; this exercise is less about result and more about creating a habit. Somewhere a couple of weeks in, I found a confidence I didn’t expect and a list of other book ideas that surfaced in during my word rants. After 30 days, it would have been the hardest thing to stop the river of words. And my real book was dying to be started. I felt like a Thoroughbred in the starting gate.

This week: The assignment is simple: Just write. It’s the same if you’re a dreamer or published author. Don’t worry about genre or format or “voice”; it’s all equal between you and your words. Write stream-of-consciousness words with no editing or spell check. No whining, no judging. Do you work full time like I do? Then get up early. Just start; open the floodgate and let the words run where they may. Do it every single day. Let the words be silly or stilted, empty or filled with emotion; think word count above word content. Write words so prolifically that you throw them away. Trust your words to come when they’re called and then let yourself love them without constraint. Not less than 500 words, but know that it only takes about an hour to pound out 1500 words. You set your word goal and your time schedule. Make a 7-day commitment to start, but a month is better. Remember to thank yourself every day.

Then in a week, post a comment or a blog about your experience on our private Facebook page and let us know how it’s going. (If you want to join us there, “friend” me and I’ll add you.) If you prefer staying silent, we do understand. We’re all introverts here. Who else would sit alone with keyboard for hours? But stay with us.

We’re writers. We write.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Composing a Writer. #1 Tools of the Trade

Everybody has a list of wishes, some more idle than others. Early retirement is an idle wish if you aren’t saving for it. If you don’t have a passport, walking along the Seine in Paris isn’t in your near future. And the desire to write will lounge on your bookshelf next to Gone With the Wind as long as you like.

Idle wishes serve a valuable purpose. They are a way of playing dress-up with the future. What would the garden look like if I didn’t work at my job? What does it smell like in Paris? Fiction or nonfiction? Curiosity and creative exercise are crucial in keeping our brains healthy, so no guilt. Daydreaming is a fine art and wishes serve a purpose even if they go no further than the couch.

I have a confession: I love my writing. I’m probably supposed to lament writer’s block and be a tragic soul about a dozen literary things, but in my previous thirty years as a professional artist, I never threatened to cut an ear off either. What if the imagination/creativity thing was easier than we think?

I’ve decided to do some writing about writing; a road map of the paths and stopovers that I made. There will be weekly posts with writing exercises included. It isn’t that I think I’m an expert or that my book sales have bought me a second home. Or even a second bathroom in this home. I’ve just had such a great time on this adventure and sharing it serves as a thank you.

I notice saying thank you does more good than artistic angst every single day.

So, do you want to come along? Writing doesn’t require a savings account and you can travel so much farther than Paris using your own words. Is it finally time for you to start writing?

This is the part where you lay out your tools. If you feel that the only really artistic method of writing is banging away on an old Underwood typewriter, good for you, but there is some technology out there that really makes writing easier.

If you want to play along at home, start here: When is a blog not a blog? When we re-task it to suit our journaling needs. Think of a blog as a word processing program that also has a search feature and comes in a tidy, attractive package. You can categorize your thoughts/posts in a more organized way than a spiral notebook. A blog can be as private as a diary, shared selectively, or used to bring the world to your desk. Rather than having word docs attached to emails, drifting around the internet, and loitering in other computers, your words are contained and shared by a simple link. And, blogs are free. You can have a whole stable full of blogs for different purposes.

This week: Look around and find a blog home. I tried a few blog sites back when I started and I like WordPress best, for its scope as well as its bits and parts. The online community there is supportive and I’ve made some good friends there. It’s fairly friendly to use, but suit yourself. Then trick out your blog like a hideout. Give it a name that matters to you. Pick themes and colors you like. Get familiar with its quirks.

Blogs have pages, like a website, and there is usually an “about” page. If you want an example, take a look at my author site. Keep in mind that mine is a public blog, so I’m “dressed up” in a literary way. Your first blog is fun meant just for you, so lighten up. Flip-flops are fine.

Then write an introduction. Introduce yourself in seven words. (An exercise in brevity.) Or introduce yourself as your best friend or your dog would. (An exercise in using another voice… and speaking more kindly about yourself than you might, left to your own words.) Or introduce yourself to your greatest literary superhero. (An exercise to connect you personally with published authors, even if it’s just in your own mind.) Or do all three exercises… just for the sheer fun of it.

We work on the honor system here. There’s no submission requirement. Just like real life, you’ll get about as much out of this journey as you put in.

And just one more thought from me. Words matter so very much. They are powerful; how we speak of ourselves and our dreams are the creative spark that lights the future. At 62, I’m so aware of how precious that light is and how important our diverse voices are to the collective conversation. Too many of us hold our tongues, thinking we’re being polite when the world needs our truth. Writing is the art of molding our voices to say just the exact thing we mean, with honesty and vulnerability, and hopefully a little humor.

Please join us. Take your writing seriously. Whether the world ever reads us or not, it’s past time that we give our own words the respect they deserve.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Now What? (and Other News)

hurry-spring

Now is the winter of my discontent

Okay, maybe I’m being Shakespeare-dramatic. Monochromatic seasons can bring that out in me. Here on the prairie, the only visual break from tan grass stretching to the horizon is when it turns white for a while. I’m grumbling, but the truth is that I can use a break from my hectic pace, every ten months or so, to cozy-in at my farm.

But this winter, I mourned some excruciating good-byes. If you are a woman of a certain age who thinks too much, the changes can add up. Not that it’s good or bad; just that I noticed and needed time to acclimate. I think there’s some rule of diminishing returns that says that with each day I grow older, the world becomes more precious. The beauty in ordinary things has become nearly debilitating. But then, I think too much. No apologies.

I’ve been prodded into action after reading that there is legislative action to make it legal to shoot hibernating bears, along with their cubs. It seems to follow that the dogs and I could be mistaken; we’ve been doing a decent bear impression. Besides, the weather is having mood swings and I’m counting days till the time change. Hurry spring.

BOOK NEWS: My books are now available on two new online sites. Check out the Equine Network Store for a great collection of equine literature, and for international readers, Lavender and White publishers, based in the UK, now carry all three books.

COMING EVENTS: I’ll be at the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo March 10-12 in the Author Corner. (Discount tickets here.) I’ll be signing books and meeting new friends. *** I’ll be at my favorite indie bookstore, Covered Treasures, in Monument, CO, on March 18th, 3-5 pm, signing books. Please come by. *** Who’s going to the World Cup in Omaha? Look for my books in the Equine Network Booth and I’ll be there, too. Let me know if you want to meet-up.

I’ll be presenting at the Region 10 PATH conference May 7th. This isn’t open to the public but it’s a reminder that I am available for public speaking engagements, on topics on horse advocacy and training, women’s experience, and writing. Please contact me if you’re interested in having me speak to your group or clinic at your barn. Join with groups in Washington, California, Virginia, and Illinois-Indiana.

NOW WHAT? Well, I have a stack of ideas; I’m investigating doing something on the topic of responsibility and care of therapy horses. *** One of my readers encourages me to consider a children’s book, with Arthur, the goat, as the main character. She found a great illustrator, too. *** Others are encouraging me to compile a book of quotes from my blogs. *** Still others are asking about a book of photos and poems. *** And I have a few book outlines including a sequel to Stable Relation and another book about Love, Men, and Dogs. What do you think?

THEN THIS: I always thought I’d write something, but it wasn’t easy. At first, it was nothing but masochistic. I’d read a fresh paragraph aloud and I’d tried so hard to be clever that I was nearly unintelligible. Adverbs were lost in verbiage. There were runaway pronouns. But I stuck to my keyboard, hoping an intention in my mind would somehow intersect with the right group of words. Then I edited liked a mad dog with a chainsaw.

babybird-3Do you feel the pull to write? If there’s interest, I’m thinking about starting an online group to encourage those of us who are certain there’s a book (or blog or story) in us but we’re having a time squeezing it out. Like an egg. That will hatch into something real. Like a fat-lipped baby bird.

Want to write with us? (Email me at anna@annablake.com)

Again, for those of you who have left reviews for Barn Dance, or the other books, thank you so much. It breathes life into search engines and that is gold for indies like me. I appreciate every single review on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Goodreads.

HURRY SPRING.

….

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro