Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Twenty Great Ways to Avoid Writing

by Kelley Lindberg

Looking for reasons to avoid writing right now? These are some of the ones that have worked for me just this week. You’re welcome. Happy to help.
  1. Household chores. That laundry isn’t going to do itself.
  2. Balance (or at least try to balance) your checking account and credit card bills.
  3. Read a good book, then beat yourself up because you’ll never write anything that good.
  4. Read a bad book, then open a <insert one: bottle of wine, bag of chips, box of chocolates> to celebrate because you’ll never write anything that bad.
  5. Drive your son/daughter to their game/recital/party/playdate, then back again, and swing by the grocery store and the gas station while you’re out.
  6. Clean off your desk.
  7. Call someone to commiserate with about not having time to get any writing done.
  8. Read some blogs about writing.
  9. Catch up on Facebook, and call it “gathering material for my characters.”
  10. Research something. Anything. Like, say, the life cycle of a vanilla bean. It’s actually kind of fascinating.
  11. Update some software, then spend several hours of quality time with your favorite tech support dudes in India to try to fix the “update.” (You get bonus points if your computer is in worse shape when you finish than when you began the update.)
  12. Volunteer for something.
  13. Re-read what you’ve already written, change a word or two, and call it a day.
  14. Go through last week’s email, and answer the ones you put off answering but now feel guilty about.
  15. Watch the latest episode of your favorite show that you recorded last night.
  16. Update your playlist. You know, for inspiration.
  17. Blog, podcast, tweet, pin, or otherwise post something funny, angry, inspirational, or even writing-related.
  18. Blame your muse for skipping town.
  19. Do your real job (the one someone pays you for). Okay, this one’s legit.
  20. Brainstorm your top twenty ways to avoid writing.
So… what are YOUR favorite ways to avoid writing?


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why Does Writing Look Effortless?

by Kelley Lindberg

Of all the arts, why is writing the only one that looks effortless? Why is the struggle of learning to write so invisible to the outside world? Can they not see the blood, sweat, late nights, and myriad revisions?

No one wakes up in the morning and decides to be a concert pianist by lunchtime.

No one picks up a paintbrush for the first time and figures they’ll just paint a masterpiece to kill some time before bed, and then sell it to Sotheby’s in the morning.

No one loses a job and tells their spouse, “No problem. I’ll just carve some marble sculptures and send them to a famous New York art gallery to make ends meet for a month or two until I find a new job.”

But over and over, I’ve heard people say, “I got laid off. I think I’ll write that novel now because I need some money.” Or, “I don’t need to hire a writer—my secretary can type.” Or, “Writing exercises? Why do I have to practice writing? You either know how to write or you don’t, right?”

If owning a guitar doesn’t automatically make you a great guitarist, why would owning a keyboard make you a great writer? And yet, and yet… That seems to be the pervasive attitude.

Art, unfortunately, does not spring forth fully formed, Aphrodite-like. It takes years of practice. Yes, years. Yes, practice. And just like any other artist, we can never achieve perfection. There is always more to learn, more to master, more to aspire to.

So we writers practice. We do writing exercises, whether we call them that or not. We write throw-away stories to see what we can do with our words and our ideas. We hammer out a scene, then we go back and tweak. Or slash and burn. Or begin again.

The guitarist practices chords and plays scales—the same ones over and over to strengthen the fingers, yes, but new ones, too; always new ones to find new patterns, new melodies, new rhythms. Every scale and chord is an effort to commit that technique to muscle-memory, to lay in a supply of building blocks, to free the mind to write music unfettered, to create new architecture that gives those building blocks purpose.

The woodcarver begins with a piece of wood and a knife. But he doesn’t carve an eagle in flight on his first try. He starts simply, maybe just sharpening his wood block to a point (a toothpick, even). He’s learning the feel of the knife and how the blade pulls along the grain of the wood. He carves a small wooden dog, perhaps. Then a cat—the ears give him trouble, but he tries again. Each time he learns something new about wood, about grain, about hardness and strength and knots and flaws, and their interaction with steel and imagination. He creates mostly sawdust and bloodied shavings at first. But eventually, after years of patient practice, a wooden eagle takes to the wing.

The painter sketches a dancer a dozen times, each time exploring something new—the weight of line, the play of light, the emotion of color and tint and shade. The painter calls them studies; a series of studies shows how the artist’s thought process—and skill—builds to the final work, how she endlessly explores the curve of a hand, the drape of a skirt, the angle of a leg at the barre. She practices the small techniques singly until she can apply them all together into a masterwork that comes close to capturing her vision.

And now the writer. The writer loves stories. He’s grown up hearing them all his life. He loves them, reads them, loses himself in them. Then one day he decides to try creating his own. How hard can it be? As hard as it must have been to become Van Gogh, although he doesn’t know it yet, because a writer has to build the skills and knowledge like any other artist. So he picks up an idea—his block of wood. He imagines the eagle within it, but there are a lot of shavings and sawdust to make first.

He learns the basic tools of his art: words, then sentences, then paragraphs. He practices until he can write a pretty good sentence—and the painter gets to where she can draw a pretty good oval.

The writer tries his hand at description, and learns a hundred ways to show how a broken heart feels. The painter tries a hundred ways to use shadow and light to give an impression of tears.

The writer studies dialogue, and mostly learns how easy it is to make all his characters sound the same, flat, boring, pretentious. The artist spends a hundred hours on just the eyes, painting over them every time because she can’t quite get them to say what she knows she could if she can just get a little better.

The writer writes a hundred possible variations of apology from son to father, each time getting just a little closer to the version he hopes will wrench open hearts and ring true. The painter tries a hundred shades of color, mixing and blending and bleeding them onto the canvas, knowing she’s almost found the exact color of shame. Almost.

And then finally, it’s there. A story that comes close. It’s not perfect, of course, but it took the writer somewhere he wanted to go (or maybe didn’t want to go, but he’s there now, and that matters more than anything).

Then as he closes his book, he realizes, perhaps with a touch of fear, that there is something new he wants to say. And a thousand unexplored ways to say it, each of which is more than he thinks he can handle. But each of which he knows he will try and learn from, until he feels his abilities finally grow to fit his need.

So he picks up his pen and turns to a new page. And begins again.

Effortless? No, of course not. Worth the effort, the repetition, the exercises, and the revisions?

All art is.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Creative Energy Meets Unsuspecting Computer

by Kelley Lindberg

Last year, on January 11, my computer died. I spent a couple of days trying in vain to revive it, then another couple of days buying a new one, and several more days getting everything reinstalled and restored.

This year, on January 11, my computer’s USB and SD card ports all died. I spent a couple of days talking to a variety of tech support folks (in a dizzying array of time zones) in a vain attempt to revive my computer’s ability to talk to any of its nice little storage and input devices. I’m still trying options, but we’re down to the wipe-it-all-out-and-start-over stage, so I am verifying my backups and trying to steel my nerves for the next few painful days.

What are the odds that my new computer would die on the same day as my old computer? (Wait, wait… I can do this math… um… One in 365?)

Anyway, I’ve always had strange issues with computers. When I worked in the software industry, my computers would frequently lose their little electronic minds and commit random acts of self-mutilation. The engineers and IT guys would walk in my office and shake their heads. “What did you do now?” they’d ask. Here’s the thing: I would do NOTHING. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had the best luck at staying out of trouble if I never touched anything even remotely resembling a button, setting, or option. I install as little as possible. I back up fanatically. I use defaults religiously. I move nothing. I reset nothing. I barely breathe.

And poof – there would go another computer anyway. I became legendary in my office for being the woman whose computers would just spontaneously wig out.

I have a theory about this.

I think my creative energy interferes with my computers.

Scientists tell us we’re a bundle of electrical impulses. Ghost hunters claim we cheat death by living on as roving, mischief-loving little clouds of energy. Dr. Frankenstein would be awfully impressed with our heart defibrillators that jolt us back to life with a quick burst of electricity.

We are, they tell us, energy personified.

Somehow I just seemed to have gotten more than my share of that energy. Or maybe I got loaded up with an experimental variety of energy that proved so volatile that they stopped making it. So I’m pretty sure that my problem with my computers is my creative energy. I’m just too darned creative for my computer’s own good.

Of course, my husband says the correct terminology isn’t “creative energy.” He insists it’s “static.”


I suppose one answer would be to abandon my computer and go old-school with a notepad and paper.

Yeah, right. Not in this lifetime.

I know some writers love writing long-hand. More power to them. (Ha! Energy pun. Sorry.) Those writers claim they feel a stronger connection to their stories if the ink flows through a pen in their hand. I don’t. I get frustrated because I’m much faster with two hands on a keyboard than I could ever be with one hand on paper – and even then I can’t always keep up with my thoughts. I’ll write long-hand if I must, but my creativity happens in my brain, not my hand, so I will always choose the faster output method if there’s a choice.

So for now, that means I will make all the appropriate sacrifices to the computer deities, and hope that when I finally get it all up and working again, they’ll be satisfied for at least another year.

And next year, I’m going to leave my computer turned off and I will curl up with a good book on January 11. Seems like a good day to give my creative energy the day off.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Article-Writing Anxiety

by Kelley Lindberg

Today I’m dipping into the ol’ email-bag, and coming up with the following question from a reader: “What did you do to get over the anxiety relating to your first task as a writer?”

I assume tackling your first writing assignment is much like parachuting for the first time (although I doubt there will ever be a first time parachuting for me, barring the odd airplane disaster) – at some point you simply grit your teeth and jump.

After I’d been writing software books for years, I decided to step off the software train and start writing for general interest magazines instead. One of my first “real” articles was on home theater systems. This was years ago, when home theaters were new and primarily the domain of rich folks. The magazine editor (who was a college buddy of mine I’d just reconnected with) said, “I’d love to have you write for us. I need an article on home theaters. Can you do it?”

I said yes, then panicked. I realized I’d be writing about something I had no knowledge of. But the editor had a particular vendor in mind to interview, so I screwed up my courage and called the guy. He invited me to his showroom, gave me a tour and a bunch of information, and I was off and running.

If you have to interview someone for a story or article, and you’re nervous about it, remember this:

          Everyone loves to talk about their passion. Everyone.

Also, it helps to admit you’re not an expert in the topic you’re writing about (unless you are, of course). If you pretend you know more about your topic than you do, you’ll make more mistakes and look like a fool when you realize you can’t write the piece adequately, and you’ll have to embarrass yourself by calling the person back and admitting you didn’t know as much as you though you did. (Calling back for clarification or new information is different – that’s definitely okay and not embarrassing – but calling back to admit you screwed up is bad.)

So I told the home theater designer up front I didn’t know anything about movie theaters. Then I reminded him (and myself) that neither did my audience, so I had to make all this information clear to the average Joe. He was more than happy to start at the beginning and lead me through step-by-step, knowing that he wasn’t just talking to me, he was talking to his target customers.

This “okay to be a novice” approach has always worked for me. No one is ever mad that I’m a novice in their field. They are used to novices – novices are their audience and their customers. So they are happy to teach me. (And after I wrote about home theaters, the same editor asked me to write about home automation – also an embryonic field – so I must have done okay with the home theater story. And I resold the home automation story to a magazine in Colorado, so again… I must have done okay.)

Writing for a magazine audience is not that much different from speaking to a single friend, when it comes to sharing information. Here’s why:
  • You only tell a friend a story if it’s really interesting. (And you can make almost any story interesting, right?)
  • You always start your story with a statement that gets their attention (the “hook”): “Dude, did you hear our favorite pizza joint burned down last night?"
  • After the hook, you fill in the details: “Yeah, I heard one of the cooks was smoking cigarettes out back and tossed one into a pile of greasy pizza boxes, and the whole thing just blew up! I guess there were three fire trucks there, but it turns out no one got hurt, so that’s good. Sad about all those pizzas, though.”
You do this every day, all day long, don’t you? At work, at school, at lunch, at home, on the phone, on Facebook…If you’re human, wherever you are, you’re sharing stories. It’s what we do.

If you keep reminding yourself that you’re just telling some new friends this awesome story about this new thing you just learned about, it will become easier to put the story into words. You may still be a little nervous now and again, but more importantly – you’ll also be published.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year’s Resolutions

by Kelley Lindberg

The start of the new year is, of course, a great time to set new goals for our writing progress. I find that my goals almost never change from year to year… I think that means I’m really good at selecting excellent goals. It has nothing to do with being incapable of meeting them, of course.

So here are my goals for the coming year. If you haven’t set yours yet, feel free to steal mine! And let me know if you complete any of them so I can check them off MY list.

1. Finish revising my novel.

2. Read some really good books, then suffer from self-esteem deflation.

3. Read some really bad books, then pick them apart so I feel better about myself again.

4. Stop putting bill-paying and laundry ahead of writing on my priority list.

5. Write in a different genre than I’m used to.

6. Read at least one classic novel, one play, and a book of poetry.

7. Clean off my desk. But don’t use that as an excuse to avoid writing.

8. Attend at least one writing conference this year as an attendee instead of as a speaker.

9. Continue volunteering with the local chapter of SCBWI.

10. Read a new book on writing craft to stir up that creative energy.

11. Give myself the luxury and joy of writing each and every day.
Happy New Year!