Thursday, February 22, 2018

Spring Cleaning

Part of the process of moving is opening drawers and lifting lids you may not have touched for years. Other activities may be preparing household plants and opening closet doors.

Although we have lived in this home for only six years and had moved from a large house into this much smaller apartment—which meant serious weeding out—the acquisition of books and artwork, furniture and clothing, memorabilia and notebooks, statements and documents has continued unabated.

Along with the required careful search through possessions, there is real satisfaction in the process of cleaning. When I was a young girl, one of the weekend chores was cleaning my room and helping my mother with the basic household duties of sweeping, scrubbing and dusting from the living room to the attic.

As a child, I did these chores with reluctance but, since my weekly allowance was partially based on completion of my household duties, I accomplished the tasks and postponed my weekend activities until Saturday afternoon. As a mother and homemaker, my job was care and feeding, tidying and cleaning, washing and ironing—I soon taught my children (and husband) the joy of ironing their own clothes.

Despite the aura of being dutifully house-proud, I have always found the effort of deep cleaning—as in “cotton-bud spotless”—nearly as rewarding as writing a well-crafted sentence or completing a novel. That feeling of a job well-done, good enough to pass the toughest inspection, accomplishment on the most fundamental level—whether the job was a sparkling porcelain sink or refreshed and repotted plants on a thoroughly scrubbed balcony.

Spring cleaning is also a satisfying displacement activity when the perfect sentence that will bring a story to its natural and hard-to-forget ending eludes every effort made. At least, the dust kittens are banished to the dust bin and the silver tea service gleams like new.

The similarities between deep cleaning and final editing are evident. If only we could approach our own writing with the same diligence and vigor that engages our enthusiasm for sparkling countertops! The difference, of course, is our personal investment in the object of our attention.

One of my writing mentors, Daniel J. Langton, an American poet of Irish descent, extolled the virtue of “killing your darlings.” We all write descriptions, sentences, whole chapters and books we believe to be stunning, perceptive, cunning. In the process of creation, we lose sight of our principle objective: to communicate a story we want others to hear. Dan Langton encouraged his students to write simply, with authenticity.

Another of my mentors, George Price, asked this of his students: “Why use a fancy multi-syllabic word, when an Anglo-Saxon word will do?”

I keep both of these suggestions in mind when I am making those troublesome final changes and cuts, as well as my own: “If this doesn’t advance the story, cut it out.” There is a fine line between clean prose and bare, just as there is a line between sparkling and rubbed raw.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentine's Day - A Few Random Thoughts

by Sandy Cody

First and most important, Happy Valentine’s Day. I hope all of you are fortunate enough to spend the day with someone you love. It doesn’t have to be a sweetheart. Most of us love a lot of people and we love them in a lot of different ways. However, tradition has made Valentine’s Day all about romantic love - the happily-ever-after kind of love we dream about when we’re young - and, truth be told, probably never stop dreaming about. And, somehow, a heart that looks nothing like our actual heart has become the symbol of love.

To celebrate, even the most practical among us send sentimental cards to someone special and hope to receive a token that assures us that our love is returned. Maybe red roses or chocolates will go along with that card. (By the way, I have it on good authority that Valentine chocolate contains no calories.) You and your someone special may go out for a romantic, candle-lit dinner at a restaurant you usually consider beyond your budget. It's a day when the usual rules don't apply.

As near as I can tell, these customs began sometime in the Middle Ages in England and may be linked to the fertility rites that took place in that restless season when winter is ending and spring beginning. Makes sense. Whatever the reason, love truly does seem to fill the air at that time of year. If you’re not in love when spring hits, you want to be.

Is it really true that all you need is love? Your answer to that may depend on your age. If you’re very young ... say 15 (that’s how old I was when I fell in love the first time) ... you’ll probably answer “yes” without hesitation. If you’re a little older, you’re likely to hesitate. A whole list of “needs” may occur to you. Most of us need a little something in addition to love - but not much. Our fifteen-year-old selves were not too far off the mark. If we have love, we may need something more - but not much.

A personal note about my all-time favorite Valentine: I've been married fifty-plus years, and have received close to that many Valentines (yes, he did forget a couple of times), but the one I treasure most came when we were well into those years. It said "Happy Valentine's Day to my best friend". It may not seem romantic to everyone, but it touched my heart.

So, again, Happy Valentine’s Day. Tell the people you love how much they mean to you. Cry over your mushy card. Smell your roses. Enjoy your calorie-free chocolates. Savor this day set aside just for love.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Watching the Winter Olympics

I’m a sports fan and a particular fan of the Olympics – winter and summer. And right now – it’s on!

For years I’ve watched as much TV coverage as possible of the various sports, but I’ve been thrilled that streaming online allows me to see much more of the events I watch.

The networks have traditionally only had a few hours each evening to cover many events, so you only got to see the highlights.  That’s still true of much of the prime-time coverage. While watching the highlights can be great, but you can lose comprehension of just how outstanding most of the performances are without anything to compare them to.

Most people realize that getting to the Olympics is a peak experience for almost all the athletes participating. You don’t get there without training hard and long for much of your life. Reaching the top of your sport requires more than just enthusiasm and talent—although you won’t make it without those, success demands the kind of persistence, dedication, and sacrifice most of us can’t even imagine.

Those who get to the Olympics are the best of the best from around the world. Only a very few qualify to begin with, but even so a few of that select group will rise to the top of each sport or event.

Watching can be hard sometimes. Many of the things these athletes attempt are dangerous and have small margins for error.  It can be heartbreaking to see someone who has spent practically every moment of their lives preparing for the few moments of their run, jump, race, or performance come up just short or fail spectacularly.

But then there are moments like what happened yesterday, when a 17-year-old slope-style snowboarder who’d had two miserable runs that put him in last place, put it all together on his third and last attempt, and ripped off a dazzlingly perfect run that won him a gold medal.

And because I’m an author, I have to bring that around to writing. But it’s not hard to see the parallels. In fact, they’re rather obvious. If you want to be at the top of the writing game, you’ve got to have talent, but then you’ve got work, work, work at it. That means keep writing…and writing…and writing some more.

So for me, its back to writing. And then I get to watch more Olympics.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Accountability - An Indispensable Tool

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

There are those who say writers must write X number of words every single day, including Christmas and their birthday. There are others who say that to rigidly schedule your writing is to kill creativity, and writers should write only when their Muse whispers in their ear. We all know several of each kind.

I kind of agree that doing exactly X number of words every day can easily start producing lifeless and mechanical prose, but waiting until your Muse cooperates can be a lengthy and unpredictable experience. Neither one is a real asset to a professional writer.

My solution is far from perfect - is there really a perfect one? - but it works for me. When I start a new book I have a rough idea (within 5K) of how long it is going to be - though that can and sometimes does change. I always have a deadline, even when I'm self-publishing. Then it's a matter of simple math to figure out how many words I want to write each day... or each week. Even though I record my totals daily I find weekly goals are more flexible, because life does happen. An emergency trip to the vet because the dog ate something unwise. Plumbing disasters. A 24 hour bug slaps you down. Family obligations. Sometimes it does seem the world conspires to keep us from writing, doesn't it?

Years ago I made an Excel spreadsheet with all the data on the book on top (title, start and end dates, genre, target length, etc.) , then below columns for Day (of the project), Date, Word Count Finish, Total Words Done, Daily Projected, Daily +/-, Projected Goal, Projected Goal +/-. In a different spot I also have a chart for chapter number and start and end pages. I made a blank master file and whenever I start a new book I copy it into the new file for the new book (you do keep a new file for each new book, don't you?) and fill out the pertinent information - dates, targets, etc. It takes me less than an hour and it's pretty much set for the duration of the book.

It sounds cumbersome, and I'm sure to many it might be, but it keeps me on track. Every day line is filled out, even if I have to do several together after an extended hiatus. This isn't an exercise to shame myself or make me feel bad about myself - there are some things that can't be helped, after all - but it is to keep me accountable. Am I writing? Am I staying near my goal? If not, why? Sometimes I put notes in the blank area to the right - Meemaw hospital, for example, or Grandpa here. Once in a great while I have to put something like Goofed off, or Family picnic. Remember, this is not a feel-good thing so I can see I'm 6K ahead of my projected goal, either. This is an exercise in accountability.

So whether I'm ahead of my goal or behind it, this is a record. Not a brag, not a punishment. Am I writing? Am I meeting my daily/weekly goal? No one ever sees this sheet but me (and the cat who loves to sit on my shoulder while I work, but she won't tell anyone) and it is I for whom I do it. It makes me accountable about my writing.

And we all know that if we're going to be a writer we must write, don't we?