Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Writing From the Blank Page

I was having lunch with a friend and fellow writer the other day when she expressed her frustration at facing yet another revision of her novel.  "Some days I feel like tossing it in the trash!" she cried. "Begone!" Then she caught herself and reflected.  "Writing is hard work.  Work is hard.  Why should writing be any different?"

Why, indeed?  This business of crafting a story from the blank page takes dedication and commitment.  Yet the work is often as necessary to survival as the air we breathe.

Many of the women who come to the Circle have noted that writing is a groundwire.  They can unleash their deepest (and sometimes darkest) thoughts and put them on paper, thereby studying them in the light and taking away much of their power.  If nothing else, writing is a way to grasp our problems and search for solutions.

Writing from the blank page is a session I will teach at our upcoming Mastering Writing Workshop on October 8 and 9.  I stare at my own blank page almost every morning  as I work on my new memoir.  Sometimes writing prompts help, sometimes inspiration comes from looking out the window and watching the rain fall on the maple tree, which is beginning its slow transformation from green to radiant orange.  Nothing stays the same, yet there is comfort in the ever-repeating cycles of the seasons.

Sometimes, it is deciding whether this morning you are writing for your eyes alone, or an audience.  Even though you think people may never care to read your story, write it anyway.  Who knows?  A theme might emerge; something funny or ironic that can be expanded later.  Many times people suggest "fastwrites" which is merely writing at will and letting the pen dump on the page.  From there a story might surface, for it is true that we write about that which most interests us, or has captured our attention.

So while writing is hard work, it is also a touchstone to moving from the blank page to a story.  All I can say to my friend, to myself and to anyone who is writing, do not ever give up on a story that you believe is worth telling.  Have faith in your own story's surprising journey.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Case for Editing

Authors talking up their books at a book sale.
I recently visited a bookstore and spoke to the manager. We discussed how an author might get her book in the store. "I always advise people, make sure you hire an editor." She pointed to a table brimming with books. "This is what you are up against."

The case for hiring a professional editor cannot be overstated, not just for self-published authors, but writers going the traditional publishing route.  I work with writers.  Unfortunately, some believe they can cut corners when it comes to editing.  This is a huge mistake. 

Their reasoning goes something like this:  I will have friends read it and then decide if I need an editor.  Or - I know someone in the publishing business who offered to read my manuscript for free.  Another - If my manuscript gets picked up by a traditional publisher, it will get a thorough content and copy edit. Why pay anything now?

I have always recommended you consider asking "discerning" friends if they will do the favor of reading all or part of your book.  The key is discerning.  I could give my book to any number of people, but whether they can offer an honest and valuable critique is another matter.  This is one of the reasons I started the Women's Writing Circle critique group.  We are writers critiquing other writers. Friends are not always qualified to help you craft a scene or discuss a character's motivation.  Friends, no matter what their background, are not invested in your project like a professional editor who is paid for their services.  In addition, people are busy.  Asking a friend to read a 200-page manuscript is asking a lot.
International Women's Writing Guild book sale.

While the dream of finding a traditional publisher is uppermost for many, the odds that an unknown author finds a home with a Random House or Knopf are not good. If you query a literary agent, the first thing they will notice is the typo, the lack of compelling narrative, the stiff dialogue.  Why not make sure your manuscript is as near perfect as possible before you go through the endless hours of querying an agent? (Some toss after the first paragraph, but that is another discussion.)

Recently, a woman came to the Circle. She confessed she spent as many hours on query letters as writing her book!

When I work with clients or hire my own editor, I value expertise and the collaborative process. What I look for in an editor:

Is she a writer?  Has she been published?  Is she available to meet for coffee? Will she take the time to chat on the phone and go over the editing? Can she catch an error that saves me the embarrassment of having written something inaccurate, or possibly misleading?  Is she kind and encouraging?  Is she discerning and honest? Will she tell me what works . . . what doesn't?  Does she include proofreading with the content edit?

Your book is your baby. You put your heart and soul into it. Criticism is hard to accept for some writers, yet criticism/editing is integral to the writing process. It is also rewarding and fun.  Why? It is a learning experience.  Most of all, at the end of the process you have something much richer than you might have imagined, not just for your readers, but yourself.

For Susan's editing services:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Journey - A Memoir Quilt

What would you take if you were packing for a special journey?  What would you make room for in your bag? Would it be a bird's feather, a velvet ribbon? A dried and pressed rose, a photograph of one you love? Would you leave room for sadness . . . for a song, for a memory, for lightness of heart? 

Diane and Ginger hold the memoir quilt.
Diane will pack her hand-sewn memoir quilt . . . and the sounds of the Circle. Creativity is messy.  Ice cream always helps.  Think for yourself.  Treasure true friends.  Breathe deeply. Everyone has a story

Colorful patches we can all live by.

As Diane faces a great challenge this week at Cleveland Clinic, she took with her a journal from Pat, brimming with hand-written quotes above the blank page; a book of poetry, penned and published by Emma; a hand-knitted scarlet scarf with silver stars from Beth;  and from me, an amethyst-colored stone from Mount Lemmon in Tucson. This is our "talking stone" that we hold when we read to each other.  Diane will keep the stone until she returns to the Circle next month. 

What would you take on your journey? I think I might like to take this feeling of intimacy. . . that like the threads and patches in Diane's quilt, we are all interwoven.

Safe travels, Diane.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Renewal Through Memoir

As I listen to interviews and read stories this week about how trauma affects people differently, I can't help relate it to my own life.  

My late husband, John Cavalieri, would have celebrated his 64th birthday on September 11. Our son, Daniel, will celebrate his 24th birthday the same day. I wrote about this special day in my memoir. It is hard to believe that this would also become a day when a nation confronts its own trauma. Every year at this time, I listen to the stories of loss. And I relive my own.

Writing my memoir helped me heal from much of the grief surrounding my husband's long, slow death. It was a seven-year ordeal that was both psychologically and personally devastating considering he was 39-years-old when he was diagnosed with cancer and I was six months pregnant. Writing about his final days, I found that the memories of that time began to lose their power to traumatize me. Just as helpful was talking about those memories yet again at book signings and with readers who had suffered their own loss.

In the end, it is how we deal with trauma that defines whether we can move on and create something new from tragedy. Many days I was stuck in the darkness of the past. Then, as always, my writing rescued me.  Writing is what I do and what I have always done. It has saved me on more than one occasion.

My memoir helped me create something new, not just as an author, but as a human being. By offering others a chance to write their stories through the validation that is the Women's Writing Circle, I found much of the support and validation I needed. In the Circle we listen to stories of  pain and renewal, loss and hope. Through the generosity that is writing from the heart, we share our hopes and dreams, our tragedy and our triumph.

Each month in the Circle I "see" the resilience of the human spirit. From my perspective, it seems we are all doing our best to move on and create something new and meaningful with our lives through writing and sharing our stories.   What better gift to each other than that.