Serious whimsy

A new year: a fresh season to create. To bear down, pull back, try, tweak, form & fashion, enjoy. What will flow from your pen, spill out of the kiln, spark from your brush, leap off the stage this year? What will we hear, see, notice, discover because you anted up, got it done, polished the rough, and roughed the smooth? Will your portfolio expand? Will you learn something new? Will your craft hurtle off in a new direction? And what attitude will accompany this ‘work’?

There is a foot bridge in Tacoma, WA, part of which is covered by a structure built to house Chihuly’s glass. From a distance, this bridge is quite ordinary. But when you move closer, walk through: aack! You are surrounded, engulfed, by color, movement, vision, skill, abundance, joy. There is here, without doubt, the fruit of much labor and evidence of great care–but what strikes you is the bursts of enthusiasm, insouciance, exuberance. Unexpected, yet welcome, and offered up in this most pedestrian of settings to delight, and inspire.

Chihuly and Pike 8.12 206

Chihuly and Pike 8.12 193

Chihuly and Pike 8.12 195

Chihuly and Pike 8.12 197

Staging a Book

Letters to Me is nearing completion: it should be available as a paperback and e-book in about three weeks. But what’s gone into getting the book this far? And what remains? Here’s a quick summary of the process:

1. Idea stage, where the notion for a book shows up–usually unbidden or unplanned. The germ of LTM arrived early in the new year from who knows where, and stayed with me; I ran it by others and got a consistently positive response–enough to encourage pursuing further development.

2. From the start, LTM seemed like a collaborative book, something I’d done before, so I began the search for contributors in the spring. My starting point was to contact some of the really good writers I know. From there I went on to bloggers I’ve been following, as well as several recommended by a trusted source. A few I contacted weren’t interested, some had too much on their plates to tackle a new project, and a number were intrigued. The group of about 20 coalesced in late spring.

3. Describing the concept, sharpening details, waiting for responses–all this was going on during the ‘contact’ phase. We established deadlines, but then life intervened and those got pushed back. We’re now a couple of weeks behind the projected publication date, but as far as I can tell, this has not mattered one whit.

4. Writing, editing, rewriting occurred over the next three months; there’s a lot that goes into a finished piece, even when it’s less than 5 pages long. Did I mention that most of LTM’s contributors have been published, or have been writing for a long time–and that they’re good at what they do? Even still, rewriting is essential. Not only that, but the conversations that sprang up during the process was an important part of the collaboration, too.

5. We hired a professional editor, to comb through the text. Almost no book is error-free, but these days, independently published work (like LTM) can rush to market too fast, and miss this important step.

6. Cover design happened in the cracks, building from a stock photo, and using fonts recommended by pros.

7. By mid-October, most of the pieces had come to gether. Now I’m formatting the text and adding some interior design.

8. Contributors are contacting others they know about reading an advance copy of the book. This will be part of our effort to spread the work about the book. It also draws some generous people into the cohort of those who are enthusiastic about what we’re doing. Cheerleaders are vital, as are those who will give clear-eyed assessments of what we’ve done.

9. The book comes out. In LTM’s case, that will happen on or about November 10.

10. Comments continue. Our hope is that many will hear about it, so that they can find the book and enjoy–and, we hope, benefit from–its contents. We’ll be talking about it on our various networks, and looking for unobnoxious ways to introduce LTM to readers.

11. The next project begins (or climbs back down off the shelf). As wonderful as the one you’re working on is, it’s rarely the only, or the last, thing you write…

University of Days–part 6

In today’s installment, it’s time for graduation, and all the pomp, circumstance, and possible disaster associated with that. If you’ve been reading along, this is the last piece of the new novel; if you’re just discovering it, you can find the other five pieces here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride! It’s been a kick for me, too, and now I’m looking forward to some further tweaking as I prepare University of Days for publication. Target date for that is November. Between now and then, if you have comments about the book, I’d be glad to hear from you–my email is toucanic@aol.com . And if you’re about to start school, or it’s already underway, I trust the year ahead is a good one for you…!

Long quiet

For some weeks, the blog has been a bit still: weekly posts from Hebrews continue, but not much else has been going on. Here.

Elsewhere, though, it’s a different story. Travel, weddings for extended family, job stuff, family gatherings–these have been occupying time, drawing energy.

Fair bit of writing, too. Revised Prime Target for a reissue (interested in a review copy? Let’s talk!). Finished (all but) the Glory book and sending it round for a look. Pounding out the next novel that will (most likely) start its life as a serialized story. And working on another collaboration with a bunch of really interesting people. More on this project to follow…

Paging Tom Edison

light bulb by Thomas Edison

If I’m not careful, my days break into too many small pieces: I have a variety of interests and responsibilities that clamor for attention, and want to give them all time and energy. But doing so can be wearing, and leave me huddled over the desk after sundown with a sense that not much was accomplished in any arena.

When several of those days pile together, I resolve to focus, to start the next morning by thinking in terms of chunks more than bits, hours more than minutes. Segments when things will happen.

On days like that, I section off a chunk for fiction, and set to it with determination. Usually, it works out rather well: time flies, and words show up on paper (the quality of those words is another story, as I’m also trying not to get too worked up about sentences or paragraphs during these early drafts, trying to listen to those who say ‘put words down before giving your inner editor license to critique’. Success in this is occasional).

The wrench? Reading over what’s appeared on the page. Sometimes, I like it fine. Other times, not so much. Recent case in point: a story that is unfolding more as a batch of episodes than as a sequence of events had me in its throes, and I bashed out another few hundred words only to find upon review that what I’d written would not do. Too many new ideas, too many unexplained pieces, too much drama for what needed to follow. Argh! One of my chunks wasted.

I went for a quick walk, grabbed a snack, checked email. A new idea occurred, and so I bent to that. Much better fit this time. So why couldn’t I have done it right the first time? This ‘technique’ seems rather inefficient.

Recollection of a story/urban legend about Thomas Edison floated in, how the esteemed inventor was trying to find what would hold a current and illuminate a gas to create a light. He tried this, that, and the other thing, failing each time. Are you discouraged? he was asked. Not at all, he replied. Now I know what doesn’t work.

Fun with words

putting words on paper

So, writing is what you do for fun?

The question was posed with a kindly smile, but even still, I hesitated. My brain cut in: No, writing is my job. Not my only job, but work, nonetheless. I take it seriously: I study the craft, log the hours, hone the grammar, attend to plot development, attribute sources; I build a platform, figure out marketing, push back at my introversion in order to network; I stay at it.

But then, another voice, the one that reminds me of how worlds emerge when I read, how worlds form when I put pen to paper. How a well-crafted line or two from a greeting card can amuse or intrigue. How prose–Dillard-lithe, or Dickens-rambly, and so much in between–delights.

Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett, Antoine de St. Exupery, Anne Patchett, Orson Card, Eugene Peterson–it hardly makes no never mind: reading writers who run along the high wire always draws a gasp. And to join such a troupe, if only by choosing to spend time like they do–not a bad way to fill the hours.

So: fun? Aye.

Down the road with singers and writers

open road ahead

More miles in the car this week, visiting some good folks in New Yawk. Took the trusty iPod along, with the Terry Gross interview of Paul McCartney topping my list. I didn’t find the Beatles til high school (we were living overseas where radio reception was spotty; we were Baptists) but the remedial learning was a delight–so I dialed up the Fresh Air talk enthusiastically.

But instead of a stroll down memory lane, Sir Paul went on about his creative process, how music he’d heard as a lad had stayed with him, how songs from his father’s era planted seeds that sprouted into rock n’ roll. McCartney was talking history, and then he veered over to art with a question: to what do you aspire? A great nudge for creatives, this. And another: How do your aspirations connect with inspirations?

Next up was Joanna Penn’s chat with Jeff Goins. Another easy conversation that lit more than a few fires. How do you see yourself? Goins asks. And then, particularly of those who write, he wonders, What will it take to call yourself a writer? Jeff encourages writers to embrace that moniker with greater verve and confidence. What happens if you do? he wants to know. What happens if you don’t?

Seth Godin is pretty much ubiquitous for those connected to business, marketing, writing, or the world-wide web. An interview with Brian Clark at Copyblogger was still on my player, so I keyed it in. Ideas burbled out. One factoid caught me: that Godin has been blogging for about 15 years. Could that be part of the explanation for his prodigious reach and influence?

After all, 15 years on the digital highway is like a century on an ordinary road: this guy has been around more blocks than most others. Seen through a different lens, of course, 15 years is hardly a blink. I was 15 when I heard the Beatles for the first time, and that just seems like, well, yesterday. But the point of longevity is an important one, and modeled by this one who champions showing up and shipping out.

And you –when you’re on the long & winding road, what podcasts are likely to be playing?

3 tips for continuity in novels

row of palm trees

When writing happens in the cracks and on the margins–in other words, when it’s part of a routine that includes a set of responsibilities like raising kids, operating in the marketplace, etc.–continuity can be an issue. How do you keep track of the developing story? What helps your novel stay consistent?

I’ve found a handful of tools that help with this, so that it’s easier to pick up my writing when I return to it hours or days after dealing with other concerns: Continue reading

Consideration of the writing life

A place to pursue the writing life

How much time and energy to give to writing? When does a hobby/avocation deserve to be considered as a full-time occupation? And even if writing (or any other ‘artistic expression’) does end up paying the light bills, of what else should life consist?

I read blogs and follow tweeps who wrangle with questions like these–and often, there’s a leaning toward going for the writing life. In some respects I like this: it’s great to have a gaggle of voices encouraging interest in the arts and pursuit of dreams. But in other ways, I wonder if there’s more to the story: Is this sort of life compatible with raising a family, or preparing for life’s second half? Does it depend overmuch on the generosity of others? Is it sustainable, once the first couple of projects are completed?

Lately I’ve run across a few who have been examining the nuts and bolts of a writing life, and concluding that dropping into this full-time requires a batch of pre-reqs. At the same time, each is still enthusiastic about writing. I’m appreciating that interplay.

In late March, I reviewed Shawn Smucker’s new book, which chronicles the ups and downs of building a life out of words. Smucker commends the way such a life resonates with deep-seated interests, but he’s also careful to explain that while this is his route (and one on which he embarked after not a little experience as a published author), it’s not for everyone who dreams of bashing away at a keyboard as the primary source of income. More recently, Shawn posted a blog that had the same candor as his book, and offered a handful of diagnostic questions for evaluating how likely such a life might be.

A tweet by Jane Friedman alerted me to Porter Anderson’s take on the topic, and I’m still processing what tumbled out of this bracing interview. Like every journey, Anderson’s is unique, but it also includes transferable lessons for those contemplating the writing life: write more than talk about writing; “become a professional in the field of your own potential”; expect to take years (not weeks or months) to get good at it. Writing, Porter Anderson says, should be the “aggressive default” that takes over no matter what else you’re doing if you plan on it being your full-time occupation. “If you think there’s a chance you can make a contribution, if the sculptor in you keeps overtaking your other careers, that’s your aggressive default. So wait. Work harder, work longer, cover yourself in the work.”

A third voice? It’s Bradley Moore’s, who warns against blurring the line between what we love and what’s important. Standing on the other side of fifty, and considering available choices in the remaining years, Bradley has a clear-eyed perspective on taking a leap into writing full-time. It’s right for some, but not all, he’d say–for most, the matter of paying the bills by ‘conventional’ means is the typical path. Does that mean giving up or selling out? Moore would say quite the opposite. For him, there’s “something valiant, even noble” about “showing up every day, being responsible, doing your job and taking care of business.”

Views such as these round out my thinking. They also help me realize that even if I don’t forge a career in writing, there is still ample room in my schedule to write–(a post by Glynn Young offers a glimpse into writing ‘in the margins’, while holding a different f/t job) and, that doing so yields stuff that is deeply satisfying to me and occasionally worth sharing with others.

“Building a Life Out of Words”: A review

Building a Life Out of Words

You cannot make a living at writing, and its corollary, Don’t quit your day job, bounce around the classroom and blogosphere as conventional wisdom. And for good reason: at a moment when bookworld is in such upheaval, few find themselves able to pay the bills solely from their writing.

Still, some do—and many continue to try. The latter group is proving resourceful, too, figuring ways to monetize their skills and passion. The requirement, it seems, in this day of nearly non-existent 5- and 6-figure advances, is to adjust life accordingly.

That adjustment lies at the heart of Building a Life Out of Words, Shawn Smucker’s delightful new book. In telling the story of his own experience of pursuing a career as a writer, Shawn leaves little to the imagination. Building a Life Out of Words describes the ups and downs of such a pursuit in honest, humorous, and sometimes wrenching, detail.

While the book offers a number of practical details connected with making enough to pay the bills, its deeper story has to do with a change in perspective brought on by unsatisfying business ventures. Building a life out of words was more than a job for Shawn: it was an adventure of self-discovery that resonated with a deep sense of personal identity, and worth betting the farm.

He is forthright enough to say that doubt reared up more than once; he is quick to praise his wife Maile for her enthusiastic support, too. Indeed, the backing of Shawn’s family is an important sub-plot in this tale, and a confirmation that it’s good to have a cheering section when you plunge into the deep end of the pool.

As the story unfolds, we watch “a fragile hope beginning to take shape.” Slowly, offers for work come in and ideas for more income emerge, and it looks like this writing life will be firmly rooted. But Shawn insists on casting this tale in different terms; he is not simply providing a blueprint for those wanting to quit their jobs and freelance from coffee shops. For this is also a story of faith, of following one’s convictions, of trusting that God will come through. As such, we read more about the journey than the destination.

Along the way, Shawn pauses to let others comment on their own experiences with writing. It’s a nice collaborative technique, allowing friends, acquaintances, and fellow bloggers (Andi Cumbo, Bryan Allain, Ed Cyzewski, Jason Boyett, Jeff Goins, Jennifer Luitweiler, Ken Mueller, Kristin Tennant, and Stacy Barton) to add flavor as well as a few tips. Like Shawn, they are also honest, funny, and full of hope. Taken together with the call-outs that appear in nearly every chapter (like, “money is a necessary tool for navigating life, not the compass by which all decisions should be made”), these ‘guest-posts’ compress into small spaces ideas worth further unpacking.

Those aspiring to a life in writing will find encouragement and good counsel in this book—but it also has a wider appeal. For this is an adventure story, where decisions are made on the basis of what’s possible and not merely what ought to be done. And having brought readers through the year in which he decided to become a full-time writer, Shawn Smucker then sets up his next adventure: leaving hearth and home to tour the country in a bus.

Via Facebook, I asked Shawn and Maile about this latest leg of their journey. What’s the present shape and aim of your hope? I wondered. Shawn answered that he detects a sharper focus, that he’s shifting from telling others’ stories to concentrating more on those he wants to convey. Maile said she was after “the same sort of stretching and strengthening as we (had) in that first year of Shawn writing full-time. That year taught us a whole new level of faith and rearranged our priorities like no event has thus far in our married life…. I want to experience that sort of deepening on a regular basis by making decisions that continue to grow us.”

Had anything surprised them thus far? I asked, expecting an upbeat reply (who wouldn’t love 4 months on the road in a bus?). Maile admitted to a naive expectation of delight and amazement at every turn–an expectation that has been tempered by fatigue, setbacks, and familial melt-downs. Shawn’s reply sounded a lot like his tone in the book: “I’ve been reminded that all true adventures occasionally feel pretty lousy, and that often times miserable things happen. If everything was safe and uneventful, it wouldn’t be an adventure.”

While Shawn’s honesty came through again, for me the key word in that response was ‘occasionally’. He wasn’t ignoring the troubles of long-haul bus travel, but neither did he succumb to them, noticing instead that the payoff for such a  decision is priceless.

It’s the same way with Building a Life Our of Words. The book is straightforward about the pitfalls of a self-employed writer’s life, but puts an even greater emphasis on the deep satisfaction that comes from committing to work compatible with identity. In the end, what I like most about this book is how it’s shot through with ‘realistic idealism’, advocating a shift in perspective that plants “fragile hope,” waits, and watches with delight as it blossoms and bears fruit.