Saturday, June 22, 2013

Writing Hurts...Literally

Summer is a time for relaxation, rejuvenation, and intense physical therapy!?  After a visit to the masseuse who referred me to the chiropractor who referred me to the back specialist, I'll be visiting a PT guru two to three times a week for a few months to beat two vertebrae back into line with the rest of my spine.  It's nothing dire, and summer offers me time to heal, but I have to admit I panicked when the thought of contorting like a pretzel rather than leisurely reading and writing all summer presented itself.  (Trust me, I'm getting to writing.  This isn't just a ranting session.)

My big question throughout the labyrinth of doctor visits and consultations was why.  Why had my spine decided to run zigzag?  Why were my shoulders permanently rolled forward?  Why did it hurt to hold onto a door frame and lean forward to stretch muscles that had decidedly clenched shut?

Simple.  I'm a writer. 

I hunch.  I lean.  I lurch.  My body is often curled fetal position style over my lovely laptop.  And when I'm editing, it's even worse.  I'll take a printed manuscript and lie on one side, crushing that shoulder, too involved in making red marks to consider comfort.  And this doesn't even address the reading, because inevitably writers are readers.  We crane our necks over the next best seller, often so lost in a new world that we don't necessarily stay in touch with our own bodies.  And this is all done in a sitting, sedentary position.

Each of the specialists peppered me with suggestions to improve my day to day physicality.  And at first I distinctly rolled my eyes.  Several times.  The advice ranged from a standing desk to reading nearly upside-down with arms extended backwards.  (Exactly who holds the book, then?)  And the lists grew.  At one point I started to tear up a little, because writing is supposed to be my absolute Zen space when I stop worrying about the rest of the world and focus solely on the story.  When did my achy body elbow into the equation?

And then I remembered something an incredibly wise friend mentioned.  He had been struggling with a phenomenal writing project but faced a multitude of rejections.  The author loved his antagonist and could not deal with changing him based on the same suggestion by critique partners and agents alike.  Until one day he snapped and came to the following conclusion.

"I was being an ass, when all I had to do was take a very deep breath, and fix the problem."

Long story short, I'm following the specialists' lists.  Across the board.  I am listening to my body as I write, and (gulp - swallowing the pride here), the writing is better.  So are my back and my neck, obviously.  If I don't feel well, inside and out, top to bottom, the writing is congested and not my best.  Duh!  

And I've taken a miserably long time to share a few useful tricks and tips to help keep the body as cozy as the mind while you're writing.  Pick and choose what makes sense, as long as you keep writing.  

*A standing desk!  (See my homemade ridiculous version below, since I can't actually build anything, but it works like a charm.)  When you write standing up there is a sense of urgency and purpose, and your tailbone is oh so happy to be up and wiggly.

*Yoga every thirty minutes.  NO MATTER WHAT.  Pick a simple, three-step routine but be consistent and focus on the areas of your body that tighten up during the writing process.

*Food every two hours.  Good foods, that is.  Your blood sugar stays regular, and it fights inflammation. 

*SLOWLY sip water every ten minutes.  It's not just hydrating, but it also forces the body and mind to shift for a second.  I've been infusing my own water, and it is so tasty.

*Put fresh flowers on your desk.  This isn't for physicality so much as a pleasant little jolt to the senses.  Good smells and good oxygen nearby.

*Meditate before and after writing.  Just for a minute or two to start you in the right direction and remember at the end where you've been.  This is also a nice time to notice if any part of your body feels out of whack.

*Write when your body is fresh.  All of you fellow mommies probably put work first (and even if you're a SAHM, you're still working!), then take care of the kids, and then finally write when your body has maybe two ounces of strength left.  One of the my critique buddies from SCBWI writes every morning from 5 to 7 no matter what, and she has three kids and a part-time job.  (And she's writing a ten billion word fantasy novel.  If she can do it, we can do it.) 

Take care of yourself as a writer.  Writing should feel good, body and soul.  If it doesn't, go back to the drawing board.  We may not all have the time or resources to go adventure with Natalie Goldberg on one of her writing retreats, but we can create a comfortable and inspiring spot for writing in our everyday lives.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Neil Gaiman Makes Insomnia Fun!

After a rough diagnosis from the chiropractor (nothing fatal, just a fair amount of PT ahead to get myself back to feeling right), I couldn't sleep.  At all.  My daughter has a cold and every cough jarred me.  The cool kids with REALLY loud cars kept whizzing down my street.  Even the AC switching on and off kept my brain churning, and not in the productive 'I can write' way.  Thankfully Amazon (aka my Santa) brought me The Ocean at the End of the Lane to make all the nighttime hours very worthwhile.

At first I planned to stay in bed and read until I drifted off except NOBODY drifts off when you're reading Gaiman.  Instead I moved from bed to desk to living room sofa back to desk with pen in hand.  I wanted to jot down a few inspiring quotations from the book, and then I had a not-so-startling revelation about his work.  While there are certainly notable lines, the man's story construct is masterful.  And I ended up giving myself a few reminders (that are most likely found in every writing book out there,) but when you see the rules in action, they set better in the brain.  Obviously I recommend reading his new book, but that's probably pretty evident at this point. :-)

At any rate, my simple notes from last night:

1) Find the moment that everything in your story hinges on and start exactly there. 

2) Don't embellish.  The fancy adjectives are nice, but an original metaphor is worth its weight in pretty words and will blow the reader away.  Every time. 

3) Make everything count.  Literally every detail ought to be purposeful.  Whether they find meaning in page one or one hundred, figure out their meaning.  (And I don't believe for one second that this just happens effortlessly or that you should sit and slave over every single page in the first draft stage.  Examine this after.)

4) Tap into universal feelings.  Your characters will be irresistible. 

I could go on, for pages, but these four facets of a powerful story showed up time and again throughout the narrative/myth/roller coaster ride.  Gaiman gets people.  He knows what terrifies us, what satisfies us, and he plays with those two things like a skilled puppeteer, fiddling with our strings until we're absolutely in love and can't put his books down.

I always have a 'Gaiman hangover' when I'm finished with his latest.  I'm jealous because I want to write that well, I'm exhausted because I've managed to block out the rest of the universe while reading, and I'm delighted that I get to read it again for an inevitably better ride the second time. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reach Out, Reach Out and Touch Someone

No, I am not advocating inappropriate touching.  But on the heels of a fabulous SCBWI writing conference, I'm reminded that writing in a vacuum - something I tend to do more often than not - is a dangerous and unproductive thing.  Sure, authors need a certain amount of solitude to execute the ten thousand ideas bouncing around in our heads, but without serious critiques, the stories just can't fly or at least we certainly can't become the best writers we can be.

I have a number of stellar author pals in my area, even a couple who are interested in swapping works, but the realities of daily house maintenance, a teaching job, a husband who travels, and two adorable little time leaches, makes connecting with others tricky.  Not to mention I certainly don't feel right handing off my own work when I have little time to offer back thoughtful critiques.

Enter the lovely Princeton SCBWI conference that forced me to sit down and give careful consideration to a few other delightful YA pieces while handing off my own baby for review.  And voila!  A serious issue I've been fighting in the first two chapters was solved.  Ok maybe not solved, but the lovely ladies in the group immediately identified a major problem that has helped me refocus and add much needed work.  The piece feels stronger already and will be in the hands of two agents by the end of June.  (And since I just typed the deadline into this blog, I am now held accountable to it.  Yikes!)

It takes a little push and pull to find the right folks, but with the internet and professional organizations who will speed date you through finding critique partners (and chocolate covered espresso beans to keep you up late enough to read all the goodness flying your way), there's really no excuse.  Step out of the vacuum and connect!

My personal plan is to hound my SCBWI critique group pals from time to time for more reading assistance while I work here in pretty old Central PA to build a network that suits me.  In that spirit, I included a few helpful links below in the hopes of inspiring you to do the same.  I've also just signed up for the Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Camp.  Happy writing. :-)

4 Ways to Make the Most of a Critique Group

Critique Groups: What's Right For You? 

How to Critique Writing