Áine Greaney

Irish Writer. Creative Writing Workshops.

North Shore of Boston via Ireland

Filtering by Category: Writing process

Writing About Past Loves

Is it the advent of Valentine's Day, a holiday I claim to dislike, but that I seem to like writing about?

Is it some Chaucer-ian longing for springtime? Is it middle age?

Whatever it is, whatever has come over me, last week I rather grandly told some friends, "I'm writing a collection of short stories about my exes."

This is only partially true. What I didn't tell them is that I'm writing a collection of short fiction about the pathology and injury of romantic love.  How's that for Valentine's Day romance?

I remember the night this idea started.  Last year, I flew to Florida for a conference,  and, being frugal, I bypassed the officially listed lodgings for something nearby and cheaper.  

Well, you really *do* get what you pay for. That first wakeful night in that gritty motel (which looked nothing like its web photos), I relived one particular relationship that, while brief, was nothing short of madness.

After that sleepless and self-flagellating night, I became intrigued by the narrative, the vertiginous and often willful fall from affection to estrangement. 

So I began scribbling some fictional stories that are very loosely based on my own past dalliances. Some stories auto-emerged in third person; some insisted on a first-person voice. Some are from the man's point of view--which is especially fun to write. 

Note I say the stories are only "loosely" based on autobiographical events.  Like I say, I want to excavate and examine the injury,  not the chronology here.  And anyway, when it comes to writing fiction, the imagination can produce much more exciting stuff than the past ever could (most of the time).    

I'm having great, great fun with this. Last night  I even got up out of my bed to pen the latest story and kept going until 2 a.m. 

Listen, if this all sounds a little grim and revisionist, let me tell you that I have little or no truck with all that "don't let your past define you" malarkey.  Of course our pasts define us.  Our history is the only real narrative we have--and even that's dodgy at the best of times.

So I live in the past. Doesn't every writer?

 

   

Going On Writers Retreat: It's An Art

 My messy table at writers retreat

My messy table at writers retreat

I'm on deadline for part of a book and a brand new essay and oh, yes, I need to catch up on some emails.  So I did what always works: I packed up my notebooks, laptop, books, pens and sweat pants and booked myself a room at my favorite retreat for artists and writers. This is Day 3 and the last night of my short residency. 

I've been here before. And before. Fifteen years ago, shortly after it was opened, I was one of the retreat's first residents, and now I'm a frequent flyer. I've come here in winter, spring, summer and fall. I've come when I've been under deadline, under stress, under duress and, once, after a family bereavement, in that underwater silence that is grief and loss. 

I've done my best work here.  I am my best self here.  I am equal parts productive and contemplative and have often banged out 60 - 100 pages in one long weekend (O.k., so on those mega-output stints, the personal hygiene is .. ahem .. spotty). 

Tonight, I just had one of those great writer-retreat conversations.  

Downstairs, at our lamplit dinner table, the retreat 's assistant director was marveling over how resident writers just seem to naturally and automatically respect each other's space--much more so than, say, passengers in an airport or guests in a hotel.  

"Do you think there's some secret or art to this?" She asked. "To being on writers retreat?" 

"Yes,"  I said. "Yes. Yes. and, well ... um .. Yes." 

"You're sure about that?" she teased. 

I laughed. 

There is an art. It isn't enough to just book a flight or plug the retreat address into your GPS and "head west, young writer."  Whether you're booked for a week or a weekend or a month, you will need to be ready and prepared to ... well ... retreat.   

Based on 15 years' experience (I also write about this in my book, "Writer with a Day Job") here are my personal tips:  

6 Tips For Getting The Most Out of Your Writers Retreat

1. Alone or with writer friends? This depends on the friends and what you're working on.  If you're collaborating on a project, then a few days away together works perfectly. But when you go on writer's retreat with a friend or friends, make sure to establish work time and socializing time and to stick to your mutual agreement. If you do go in a small group, respect the other residents (outside of your group). Unless you've reserved every single room, it's not your group's exclusive space. 

2. Writing materials: Pack what you will need (laptop, charger, thumb drive, printed manuscript with hand-edits, audio interviews, books, research notes). But leave yourself open to new possibilities, new sides of yourself. Bring a few paper notebooks and pens. Once you settle into this slower, complete-immersion space and pace, you may want to mix it up and try new writing tools and approaches.

3. Food: Unless the place includes a meal plan, pack some easy-cook or easily defrosted or ready-to-eat meals. Yes, it's fun to join in communal writer dinners. But you're really here to work, not perfect new recipes or waste time driving around looking for local restaurants. A must have: One ready-to-eat meal for that arrival day or night when you'll probably be travel weary and just getting unpacked and used to the vibe. 

4. Be open to new experiences, new people, a new way of being and writing: Especially if this is your first retreat, and especially if you're used to writing on the fly or snagging time in between parental or other family duties, the solitude may take some adjustment time. Be ready for that. Allow yourself at least one day to settle in. Resist the urge to call home and check in. Ditto for social media and email. And if you must check in at home, assign yourself one check-in time each day.  

5. Set a goal and have a plan: Yes, I know I said you have to leave yourself open and go with the flow.  But with all this unfettered, unpunctuated time stretching ahead, make sure you don't just waste these precious hours or days. Set yourself some goals. Have a loose plan for what you will accomplish by retreat's end.  

6. This is not like a professional conference: If you work a second, non-writing day job (and which of us doesn't?), expect a retreat to be very different from a professional conference.  For one thing, it's unstructured, non-instructional time, without breakout sessions or round tables or focus groups.  And for another, it's all about respecting your own and your fellow writers' space and solitude and silence. Although you may have fascinating or fun chats, the primary focus is on working, not NETworking. 

Are you extra or less productive when you write away from home or go on writers retreats? If extra productive, share you personal tips. If less productive, what does work for you?

Writers! Write to your own body rhythm

When my late mother met my then-boyfriend, she shared some maternal advice. "She's a pure devil in the mornings," she said, nodding toward me (I thought all devils were impure, but ... anyway).  Then, my mother proceeded to describe those childhood breakfasts when I sat at the table, bleary-eyed and speechless. Sometimes, I nodded back to sleep over my bowl of porridge.

I've never been a morning person.  I doubt I ever will. But that boyfriend married me anyway (we celebrate 25 years of mornings next week).

Over the years, I've gotten better at obeying that damn alarm clock, but it still takes my brain an hour or more to fully wake up. For those morning meetings at work, I have to stoke myself with extra, extra-strength coffee (there's a *strict* no-porridge policy in the boardroom) just to be marginally coherent.

And those vacation bed and breakfasts places? Yuck. Chattery, all-guest breakfasts around the frilly dining-room table are my idea of hell.

This past spring, I really needed to increase my weekly writing output. So I began setting my morning alarm clock for an hour earlier. Also, determined to bypass the downstairs kitchen distractions (cat, husband, newspaper, brown-bag lunch prep), I bought myself a small red Thermos.

At night, I fill my Thermos with coffee, then set it next to my laptop on a small desk in an attic room in our house. As well as providing that instant morning eye opener, this nightly Thermos ritual creates the anticipation of morning writing.  

Once that alarm goes off, I roll out of bed, climb the attic stairs, turn on the laptop and unscrew my Thermos cap--all while still half asleep. 

Four or six-hundred words later, I'm still not really awake. But I'm done with that day's writing. I'm ready to get ready for my day job.

I adore this morning solitude.  It makes my whole day go better. And, even more than extending my daily writing quota, this sleep-writing shtick has had an unexpected payout:  With my left-brain still on dimmer switch,  I have neither the urge nor the acuity to read back through what I've written to nitpick and change things.

Now, it's late summer and I have an entire 70-plus pages of my book. Oh, yes, on weekend afternoons and on my days off, I've read through and nitpicked--and nitpicked.  But there would be little or nothing to edit if it weren't for those early-morning, unfettered drafts. When it's a challenge just to keep your eyes open, you just keep writing.

This article in The Wall Street Journal, "The Peak Time for Everything," cites a growing body of research that suggests that, according to our individual body clocks, we have our own optimal times for certain tasks. And that these rhythms, not our actual schedules, should dictate when we do them.

My only question: I knew this before. Didn't I? So why, oh why didn't I capitalize on it? 

Have you found an unprecedented but perfect match between your daily schedule and your writing needs? Share in the comments below. 

Writing about Tough Stuff (and then getting on with your day?)

I'm writing my first book-length memoir. It's something I thought I would never, ever write--that I would never have the stomach for.  But I am writing it. I feel compelled to write this story about my leaving Ireland at age 24 to come and live in the U.S.  

The story is, of course, about much more than the cultural bloopers, the adventures and misadventures of my early years in America.  

I've just drafted and printed the first 50 pages. I have no idea if it will ever get published.

Last Monday, I flipped back through the "easier" stuff to write and insert a really difficult scene.  How difficult? I, a woman who (mostly) breezes through the transatlantic airport departure lounge completely dry-eyed, sat here at my computer weeping.

Then, this morning, almost a week later, I got up, made coffee and tackled the second-most difficult scene. As soon as I began to write Difficult Scene 2, I instantly sank into another bout of  melancholy.

2013-06-15 11.27.38
2013-06-15 11.27.38

Surely this is a kind of willful psychosis?  Surely, on an ordinary American Sunday, a day when the sun is shining through my writing-studio window, it would be easier and healthier not to revisit or revive the past. To simply stay in the present?

But for better or worse,  I've written both scenes. In doing so, I've committed to typed words one of the saddest and loneliest times of my adult life.

Writing these scenes--actually the whole book so far--has taught me that sometimes, we commit our worst acts of cowardice, our most heinous acts of negligence against ourselves.

So I'm done.    I'm free to get up from this desk and go about the rest of my normal American Sunday.   

Or am I?

Busy, Guilt-Ridden Writers! Write What You Can

Two weeks ago I attended an after-work spiritual retreat at Rolling Ridge, a  retreat facility and conference center that's located only about a half-hour from my office. It had been a hectic week, so I welcomed this chance to kick back, meditate and just generally let someone else do the talking or better yet, shush my brain altogether.    

The presenter began with a story about two monks--one older, one younger. One day, the junior monk confessed to his mentor how, as a neophyte, he could never seem to measure up; he could never be as pious as his elders. The younger monk said, "You get up so early every morning.  You seem to pray with all your heart and soul.  I could never hope to pray like that."

The elder monk smiled and said, "Why don't you pray what you can, not what you can't."

This advice really applies to our writing. It especially applies to those of us who constantly dither between our creative lives and our other responsibilities, including work. Honestly, there are weeks when I should get a golden gloves for all the jabs I take at myself, for how much I beat myself up over all that "I can't" do, or haven't done or failed to do.

In her inspirational blog for writers, Barbara Ann Yoder dubs this, "emotional self-flagellation," a state she finds counterproductive.

Barbara adds:

I think it’s important to acknowledge that jobs, relationships, cross-country moves, illnesses, and many other challenges can and do at times take precedence over writing.

For me, this "emotional self-flagellation" is often rooted in a monkish belief that only long-form writing stints qualify as "real" writing. 

Or, for another perspective, check out Lisa Romeo's writing blog, in which she also refutes that perennial advice about writing every day.

Lisa says:

But to my mind the most detrimental piece of standard writing advice is the one that declares that in order to be a *real* writer (whatever that is), one must write every single day, often amended to include that one must write a set number of pages or words, or a set amount of time per day.

Since attending that evening retreat, I've been trying to change my own thought processes.

On those days when I simply can't get 500 words on the page, I force myself to ask: What can I do?

Can I do a short morning meditation to clear my brain and develop a better and more creative attitude? Can I journal for five minutes?

journal
journal

Can I switch on my laptop and just read yesterday's paragraph so that I have at least "visited" my work in progress for that day? Can I do a quick read-through and edit of the first paragraph? Can I write up a to-do list of what's left or outstanding in the work? Can I play a scene through my head while I'm driving to the day job?

By focusing on what I can do, I am actually getting more writing done--or at least, I'm staying more consistently engaged in the work.

And best of all, I'm on much better terms with myself--and this life called writing.

What on-the-fly, quickie writer strategies save your writing days?

Tax Preparation for Writers: Tips and Zen and Pain

If you haven't prepared your tax return yet, check out this great article on tax returns for artists, complete with an expense checklist for writers. This CPA's site and ebook have all the info you need (note: this is not my own accountant). I'm a lifelong math phobe. So tax season sends me trudging into the dining room for what I've come to think of as my annual tax Gethsemane.

I have my bag of receipts and canceled checks.  I have a clenched jaw, a tremble in both hands. I have a mountain of regrets for (1) My terrible childhood math teacher and (2) My conviction that numbers are really just a bunch of 9th-century hieroglyphics masquerading as 21st-century digits and invented to give us night sweats.

I've created my own homemade tax-prep technique.  Using my accountant's categories, I write said categories on a bunch of sticky notes and place the sticky notes in a double row along the dining table. Next, I unfold and assign each collected receipt to its appropriate stick-note category. Then, I total the receipt amounts and write that total on each sticky note. And finally, I write that amount on the appropriate line on the tax form.

numberblocks
numberblocks

Look, I know that it's second-grade math.  I know I'll never get into CPA school. But it's the only way that works for me.

Believe it or not, this tax-prep stuff has a saving grace. For a busy woman who often can't remember what she did last week, tax-prep season is a rear-view glimpse into the past year.

And it was a good year, full of blessings and surprises. On a freezing night in March, on the nights of my Gethsemane, I need to be reminded of that.

For example, here's a receipt from a dinner out with three other working women writers. Oh, yeah, now I remember that night. We yapped and chatted and chewed the writers' fat until the waiters started dimming the lights.

Oh, and here's a canceled check for a payment to someone named Daniel. Daniel? Daniel ... Webster? Boone?  Oh, Daniel. Yes, how could I forget that hipster who sold me the used desk and matching file drawers for my home office, my little writing haven?

Speaking of checks, here's one from my favorite writers retreat. Days writing in my room. Evenings sharing dinner and chat with one of my oldest friends. Seriously, does life get any better than that?

Oooh! Here's a fully intact MTA parking receipt from ... when? Christ, with all their tax-fare hikes, you'd think that the Massachusetts Transit Authority, the MTA, could print their ticket dates clearer? Just this once, MTA, couldn't you and your buddy Charlie be the men who actually do (tax) return?

Wait. It's coming back to me. The receipt is from that fall afternoon, a Sunday when I took the train into Boston to read and present at America's first public library.

And then ... (cue the creepy music) ... it's time for my annual attack of tax  paranoia.  Instead of this tabletop, karst landscape of sticky notes and receipts, I see every crack, every cockroach that skitters across the floor of my prison cell--as in, tax-evaders' prison cell.

Gulp!  And listen, why should I trust an accountant? Isn't she also in the hieroglyphics club? They probably all have their own secret social media page, all communicating and chortling away in that mad language that .... Yo, writer. Yo. Zen. Zen. Now.

Let's just log onto the IRS website to check and double-check these official allowances and write-offs.

"See the page on ..." "Read the addendum on ..." "Read our set and subset and footnotes of hieroglyphics for blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

And then, here's the flash point of sin or redemption for every writer during every tax season:  "Was this trip for business or pleasure?"

Phew. I've got the rest of my receipts. I've got my mileage amounts. So no final phone calls from the prison pay phone for me.

Okey dokey, what have we got here?  Oh look!  It's from my teaching stint at the Ocean Park Writers Conference in Maine. Hot summer days. Maine ocean breezes. Front-porch conversations with my students.

And it was all, all business (heh!).

Writers dish on balancing writing with work and family

I'm delighted to announce that Alizah Salario, a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, NY, is the winner of my signed book, Writer with a Day Job. All of the names were entered for a random drawing. Check out Alizah's work at her website.

Below are Alizah's tips on writing and you can read all of the tips in the last blog post.

Tips from Alizah Salario:

1) Don’t confuse your job with your career: Because the type of writing that pay the bills and the type of writing that creatively fulfills and sustains me are two separate things, it’s easy to feel like I’m not a “real” writer if I’m not earning money doing what I love. I often remind myself there is no shame in doing something for money in order to do what you love.

2) Find an ally: Even supportive friends have a difficult time understanding the unique rhythms of a writer’s life. Find a fellow writer – through a writing group, a friend, or simply write to someone you admire – who can relate and help you stay on track when it feels hopeless.

3) Create your own criteria: So much of what is considered “successful” on the web is determined by the number of comments, likes, or tweets. Remember that some of the best writing out there gets the least attention, and there are countless talented people who don’t get the credit they deserve. Make your own markers of achievement that don’t have to do with responses from others – otherwise you’ll constantly be looking for external approval.

Thank you to all who shared their writing processes and tips. I know I learned a lot.

Writers, Join this book giveaway by sharing your tips

This week I was lucky enough to be featured at The Writer's Place, a spiffy blog by writer Nancy Christie. Then, today, the interview gets included in Help for Writers.

I enjoyed the entire Writers Place interview, but I was especially charmed by Nancy's last question in which she asks for my "top three takeaways" (or tips) for balancing creativity with work (based on my book, Writer with a Day Job).

Here are my top 3 tips for balancing writing and life:

1.  Define your own path to writing and writing success. Comparing ourselves with other writers is counterproductive—even deadly.

2.  If you’re a beginner writer, create an overview of your month’s typical schedule and commitments. Circle the items that can either be outsourced or dropped altogether. Only keep those commitments that are truly, honestly as or more important in your life than writing. Even if you don’t use your freed-up time for actual writing, use it for writing-conducive activities such as reading, yoga or just sitting and staring into space.

3.  Learn how to say, “no.” When we do, people are not as miffed or disappointed as we assume that they will be. We fall into these “I should” and “I must” habits because —duh!— we’re not clear with others about what we need in order to nurture our talents as writers.

So you've got my three tips. Now, what are yours? Insert below in the Comments section and join my book giveaway. 

If we get 15 responses (each with your hot tips), I will enter all names in a random drawing for a signed copy of my book, WRITER with a DAY JOB. I will mail the book to the winner, so make sure to include a website or blog where I can reach you. Sorry, U.S. addresses only, please.

We need a minimum of 15 responses ... so ... pick and post your best tips... and spread the word  ... 

New Year's Resolutions for Writers: Ernest Hemingway's "Truest Sentence"

Should some writing come with a "made-in-China" label? In our digitized 21st century, how much of our writing is too cheap, too quick and too disposable? Has the sheer volume of digitized, podcast, broadcast and hard-copy content spawned a  24/7 static, a persistent distraction?

I have been a lifelong lover of the jigsaw process of writing, of yoking apparently disparate ideas together for a cohesive whole.  As a teacher and a writer, I have told my students and myself to "let yourself play in the word box to find that first, unfettered draft."

But lately, I have been questioning my own advice. In the time that it takes us to pen that first draft of a 3,000-word essay or story,  have the writing and publishing rules already changed? Has everyone already gone onto the next and louder message?

December has not been a good writing month because the first week was spent in my native Ireland, where I flew across the Atlantic to visit my family and to close out the mourning year for my late father's death.

It has not been a good writing month because my day job was really busy.

It has not been a good writing month because I was jet lagged and tired, addled, anxious and often awake at 3 a.m.

In fact, though I've managed to complete some essays and start a new book project, it hasn't been a very good writing year. For most of 2012, I have been plagued by this sense that some of us are destined to be the gauche maiden aunt at this hyper hip, hyper loud and hyper mercenary party called modern writing.

Or let's put it this way: This December, we tele-witnessed a young man gunning down 20 school children, another man pushing a stranger in front of a speeding train, and another man shooting up firefighters on Christmas.

So what the hell good are we?

And, worse than being ineffectual, aren't we writers--aka "content providers"-- part of the problem?  Our words are part of that blathery static that postures and obscures and, by extension, belittles the gut-crushing realities of life, death and loss?

Two nights ago, on the evening of December 30th, I was thinking about all of this when I suddenly remembered that line from Hemingway:  "Write the truest sentence that you know."

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

But after the madness that has been December 2012,  I could find or write no fixed, existential truth.

At least, not about anything out there outside my office window.

But a quick Google search threw up this wonderful writing exercise from a Canadian writer who encourages us to adapt Hemingway's advice to write some truths about ourselves.

To atone for our year of spin and cruelty and sycophancy, I tried to call up that one true thing about me.

I wrote down 20.

Some are those bare-knuckled truths that set us on the offensive or make us brace or duck for the next upper cut.  Some of my self-truths made me hold my breath. A few made me tremble. One made me cry.

The fact that I wrote 20 truths on 16 single-spaced, handwritten pages doesn't make me super prolific or super honest.  It simply and sadly means that,  in the busy-ness and babble of life, in the gussied-up version of me that I present to the world, I had abandoned what was true.

Now, all 20 of my truths are written down. They are an excellent blueprint for 2013.

Thank you, Ernest Hemingway. I don't like your writing. Given your macho, hard-living shtick, I probably wouldn't have liked you.

But in a world turned mad and bad, I love your saving advice.

Writers, Learn Lots from a Wind Chime

windchime
windchime

"Where did we get that new wind chime? I asked my husband. We had just brewed some Saturday morning coffee, so my brain was still in sludge mode.

Sitting there on our back deck, he peered over his coffee mug at me. "You-bought-it," he said.

"No I didn't."

 "Remember?" He said, using that sloooow,  nursing-home voice. You gave it to me as a gift? Two Christmases ago?" 

"Not that wind chime," I said.

"You said you found it at an art show in Florida."

"But that wind chime was twice this size. And it had those long, beautiful strips of turquoise stained glass."

"The stained glass broke off last winter" he said.  "It's been gone a long time."

Finally awake, I studied our broken wind chime. For the first time since I had swaddled it in my socks and stuffed it in my airport carry-on bag, I finally saw this remaining, plainer part with its clear and deep blue sea glass.  

Writers, let's call this the parable of the wind chime. And let's remember the parable of the wind chime each time we are (1) So dazzled by our own eloquence that we shush that inner editing voice that cries, "Cut! Cut!" and (2) Already clicking the "send" button, even though we know that our current draft needs one more read and edit.

In business, creative, expository and journalistic writing, less is always more. If you want to find the richest, truest part of your work, be ready to trim all that extra fat.

With the extra parts gone, you can see what's left and beautiful.

Like the remains of a broken wind chime.

Here are my three favorite editing techniques:

1. Email myself the manuscript. Then read and edit the email. This new format allows me to switch from the role of writer to reader.

2. Read the manuscript out loud. This is invaluable.

3. Save it in an online document storage site like "Dropbox," then read it on my phone. This miniature view brings me up close and personal with the text.

What are your favorite tips or techniques for editing your own work?

The Next Big Thing: Blog Hop on Writers' Work in Progress

Week 8: The Next Big Thing: Work in Progress Thank you to Donna at Girl Who Reads who invited me to join this blog hop, in which writers dish a little on our current work in progress. Thanks, too, to the other scribes (see list at end of post) who have decided to post next week. Check out their works in progress  on August 22.

What is the working title of your book?

It's a novel set in greater Boston--with small parts of it in Ireland. I had called an earlier version, “Waverly Farms,” but the plot has changed considerably since then, so I don’t really have a working title yet. But I'm intrigued by my own unfolding story--and that's always a good sign.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The  creative itch  for this book can be traced back to my 10-year bug to write about wealth and its effects on people, and just how much will someone sacrifice or compromise themselves to hold onto wealth and what money can buy.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a YA crossover novel. This is my first time really dabbling in this genre. But in my 2nd novel, I enjoyed creating the teenage character very much, and found that I really got inside of her head. I've also completed a very layered, sassy short story with a 14-year-old character. So ... I'm building on these and trying a full-length novel with a 16-year-old character.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Gee, I’m not good with actors at all. But my teenage character, Drey, would have to be played by someone fairly complex, with the ability to master or balance a  cheeky worldliness with an inner sense of injury. For the male main character, Nathaniel, I think Jeremy Irons would be perfect.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A 16-year-old girl is forced to give up everything when her family declares bankruptcy, files for divorce and her mother emigrates to, and disappears in, America.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Either an agency or an independent literary press.   I don’t self-publish fiction.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I haven’t completed the first draft yet.  But between the day job and my other shorter projects, I’m working on it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Not sure.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

As an expatriate who left Ireland 25 years ago, I have watched from afar as the country underwent a huge economic boom and crash.   Recent financial articles have highlighted the prodigal greed and unfettered borrowing and development that contributed to or fueled Ireland's current economic crisis.  So I imagined this spoiled teenage character whose family suddenly loses all of its wealth, and the mother and daughter are forced to emigrate.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Despite the context above, the novel is not a sociological study. Instead, it's part mystery, part psychological thriller and an unusual blend of two main characters: A teenage girl and a 60-something Brahmin New England man. The man is really quite crazy.

Next up: August 29: Check these 5 writers' blogs or websites to hear and see what they're working on:

Carolyn Roy Bornstein

Daniela Ginta

Lori Grace

Jennifer Karin

Ted Mitchell

Should You Come Out (as a writer) at Work?

It's happened again. This morning, my Google Alert told me that my name had been mentioned somewhere out there in the cyber galaxy.

Was it a glowing online review? Some writer blogger mentioning or  (or damning--who knows?) my book for writers? Some agent who had come upon my last novel and now, she or he had a question or a quibble or a hot writers' advance for the next book?

It was none of these.

Instead, it was a press release that I posted at work as part of my job as a communications director for a non-profit here in Massachusetts.

Dang. It's not that I'm disappointed that the search engines are picking up my work-generated press releases, but I don't like this public link between my paid work (aka, the day job) and my life as a creative writer.

I hate when that happens. In fact, I do everything I can to not have that happen, to keep  my day job and my writing life separate.  So I never stand in the lunch room blathering about last night's rough draft. Or I never announce a new publication.

2011-10-20_19-50-56_853
2011-10-20_19-50-56_853

I don't invite my colleagues to any of my public readings or panel discussions.

I never bring one of my books to work, and I never, ever mention my workplace on Twitter or on my author's Facebook page. Sometimes, when and if a colleague reads a piece of mine or sees my name in the local newspaper (the arts, not the business section), I grow suddenly bashful and embarrassed, as if I've been caught out in a secret.

Why?

Mostly, I like to honor the requirements and ethics of my professional life and workplace. I feel grateful to have a job I like with colleagues I respect.  But then, I don't write anything salacious or pornographic or outrageous. I don't write on the job.  So what's the harm in sharing my life with those people with whom I wait in line for the coffee machine?  Just as they tell me about their kids and their kids' birthday parties, why can't I share my extra-curricular life?

Mostly, I want my colleagues to see me as fitting and fulfilling the role I'm paid for. So I hesitate to introduce another variable of myself, to charge them with seeing me in another and separate light.

And make no mistake: They are separate. The worker me and the writer me are very different. Especially on those self-effacing and writer-blocked days, I like the worker me better. It's a far more confident and competent version.  It's a version that gets things done.

But mostly, I think I keep things separate because, even when I'm writing fiction, some part of that manuscript will reveal my past and my innermost thoughts and sensibilities.

Do I really want my colleagues to know that much about me?

How do you manage it? Really, I'd love to know. Do you allow colleagues or business associates to share in the joys and challenges of your writing?

Do you share rough drafts with your family or life partner or best friend?

Project Management for Busy Writers

Claredonohue
Claredonohue

Chicago-area writer Clare O'Donohue has published six novels, while also working  as a  freelance TV producer. 

Her most recent book, LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, was released earlier this month.  LWP is the second in O'Donohue's Kate Conway mystery series.

 Clare is also the author of the Someday Quilts Mystery Series.

How does she write six novels (count 'em--six!) and balance a day job? According to Clare, there's no real mystery to getting it all done. It's all about managing the project's component parts. 

In my latest novel, LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, Kate Conway, a freelance television producer,  is working on two shows at the same time. Someone recently asked me if these fictional overlapping shows reflected real life, or if they were just creative embellishment on my part.

 LWP Cover

LWP Cover

Kate and I share a profession. I’m a TV producer and writer, working mainly on the informational program side of TV (shows on A&E, History Channel, HGTV, truTV…) Like Kate, I’m freelance, and right now I’m working on three television shows at the same time, and yes, my head’s about to explode.

As stressful as it is, it’s the nature of the beast for any freelancer – sometimes there’s too much work, and sometimes too little. When people call and ask if you’re available, you say yes, and then find a way to fit the project in.

That’s usually okay. Being a TV producer is fun. I meet people from all walks of life from killers to congressman, actors, athletes, business owners and orphans. But it is also exhausting. There are constant deadlines and lots of demands, and I always have to learn something new for whatever assignment I’ve taken on.

And have I mentioned that it’s constant feast or famine? I have? It bears repeating.

Somehow the craziness has been a blessing when I write a novel. And not just because my work as a producer was the inspiration for Kate. Being a good producer requires serious time management skills. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work, questions, phone calls and emails. One day I went to get my teeth cleaned, and when I walked out of the dentist’s office I had a hundred new emails. A hundred urgent requests for information that wasn’t particularly urgent or even necessary, but required my attention to make my clients happy. I sat in my car and answered them, both grateful and annoyed that the invention of the smart phone made that possible.

When I’m confronted with a huge task like producing a show – or writing a novel – I realize I follow a few simple steps every time I take a breath. I make sure I’m as calm as possible. I get rid of annoyances – dealing with the little things to get them off my plate. Then, I look at the big project and choose which part I’ll work on first. I set an amount of time I’m going to work before taking a break.  And then, as hard as it is, I ignore everything else and focus myself completely on that task. There is nothing quite so overwhelming as looking at the big picture. So I try hard to stay on the small one until I can check a task off my list, then I re-assess, move on, and occasionally have some chocolate. I’m a strong believer in the reward system, especially when it involves chocolate.

In TV the “what’s first” task isn’t always the same thing, but in writing novels it is - Chapter One. I figured this out a few years back when I wrote my first novel.

I didn’t have an agent, didn’t really know anything about publishing and was just jumping in with a lot of dreams and just enough stupidity to keep me from realizing how much the odds were stacked against me. (Not knowing you can’t do something is often the very reason you succeed.) Anyway, my sister kept talking about how she could totally see it on a bookshelf someday, that she knew it would get published. Lovely supportive stuff that only made me feel more anxious. It made the project seem big and important… and beyond my abilities. So I began saying, “I’m in chapter three. That’s all I care about – Chapter 3.” I would work on chapter three, and when it was written and my sister started talking about book tours and best seller lists, I would say, “I’m in Chapter 4…”

In fact, “staying in the chapter I’m writing” is now more than just about writing. I realize sometimes when something else in my life starts to get bigger than I can handle, I break it down into small chunks. aka chapters. It’s more manageable. Planning a vacation, dealing with a personal problem, trying to lose that annoying ten pounds… I break it down into little pieces until it’s manageable and easy to achieve. And I take another page out of my producer handbook, and set a time that I’m going to work on something, or worry about something, before taking a break.

I’ve now written six novels, and I’m working on number seven. When people ask me how I do it, I say I produce a book the way I do a television show. I stay calm, stay focused, choose a small task and stick with it. And in the end, there’s chocolate.

What skills do you share between your day job and your writing life?

Working Time and Writing Time. What's In-Between?

"Tuesday is the day before hump day. Thursday is one day after hump day. Except Friday is WOOOH!!! FREEDOM!!! Day, Saturday is Mostly Hungover day, and Sunday is PreDoom day."

From: Urban Dictionary

I'm voting for a change in the calendar. If there can be "hump day" and TGI Friday and "doomday," and "pre-doomday," then why not a catchy name for that day or afternoon or morning that comes after work but before writing?

I don't know about you, but I never drive away from my office ready to dive into my current work in progress.  In fact, there are weeks when the hardest part of writing is the transition from worker-brain to writer-brain.

I love my job as a communications director for a busy non-profit. I feel fortunate to work 32 hours per week, usually Tuesday through Friday.  Oh yes, I hate when that dang alarm clock rings.   And I despise the pre-work choreography--you know, the cereal-coffee-shower-select-an-outfit routine. I'm never awake enough to get it right first time.

But once I get the matching socks on, once I actually get to work, the day flies by and I enjoy my colleagues and my daily tasks.   I enjoy it all the more because I know that, come Friday evening, I have three whole days of writing time.

Or do I?

The older I get, the more transition time I need.   I need a metaphorical green room in which I can rest up and make that switch from worker (public) me to writer (private) me.

Writer and worker. They are quite different people. At work, I think my colleagues would say that I'm chatty and upbeat (on good days), deliberate but efficient at getting things done. But holed up in my writer's den, I'm much, much more organic (scattered?).  I'm more given to self-flagellation and artistic despair. I'm quiet and solitary. And, even when I'm writing (or trying to write) witty, I'm often serious and dark.

So once the working week is done, how to do that old switcher-oo?  How to put all that efficiency and teamwork and left-brain-ness into cold storage until the alarm goes off and it's time for the matching socks again? How do we shush the workplace water-cooler chat to hear, instead, our own unique writing voices?

The switch isn't easy. Not for me. In fact, some weeks are so busy, so all-consuming that I need a down day.

Down day? Um ... No. Hate that name. Hate its connotations (down = feeling down = downward slide = getting down on yourself).

Listen, whatever we're going to name this writer-in-transition time, this set of hours and mental space betwen work and writing, we can start by making that time more productive, restorative, more writer-ready.

Here are 5 strategies that work for me: 

1. Exercise -  You've had enough desk surfing. After work, get out there and walk or run or go to the gym.

2. Small assignments - Before you set out on that walk or run, stuff a work in progress in your backpack. After your workout, grab a tea and spend an hour reading and editing. It's just an hour. You're just reading. But this gets you back into writer-you.

3. Do something just for you  -- A yoga class, a massage, a visit to you local art gallery, lunch with your kids or partner or a good friend. A deliberate spate of self-nurturing helps us to feel like our day jobs neither own nor define us.

4. Write in your journal. Writing about your work week gets it out of your system. Oh, and don't forget to list of all the wonderful things you accomplished this week.

5.  Read--A poem, a novel, an article on writing, a personal essay that inspires or informs.  Reading something we love is a great way to say, "Goodbye work. Hello me."

Whether it's an hour or a day or an afternoon, how do you transition from day-job you to writer you? And writers, what should we name this transition time?

Jodi Picoult, Luanne Rice, Glen Cook: Your writing tips, please!

Are these facts or urban legend rumors?  Novelist Luanne Rice writes a book per year. Ditto for Jodi Picoult.  And here's a definite one: I read that SciFi and fantasy novelist, Glen Cook has already cranked out 40 books during his career--most of them while he worked full time at General Motors. Fact or fiction, if these book-per-year outputs are all true, then pass me the paper bag--to put over my shameful head.

Actually, I'm not so much in awe of these writers' productivity as their dexterity in being able to complete one project and get stuck into the next.  Or is it an overlapping, relay-race process? In other words, as one book awaits publication, the author is already drafting the next?

I don't know. I wish I knew.

dance-240
dance-240

My second novel, DANCE LESSONS was launched on April 1, 2011. That's four months ago. In Rice and Picoult years, that's a third of a new book. Have I written a third of my next project? Hah!

Last week, I wrote a guest post on this topic for the wonderful literary blog, Savvy Verse and Wit. Until I sat down to pen that piece about the après publication period, I didn't realize just how strange and direction-less this fallow time actually is.

So I'm having a strange old fallow time. And in some ways, it's kind of fun. But scattered.

How about you? Can you effortlessly switch projects? Write in more than one genre at a time? Or is there a regrouping phase in between?

Nail that Writing Project (and the door to Mom's home office)

Ack! I missed an entire week of posting. Why? Because I took a mini-break with my husband in the foothills of the Berkshires. It was bliss. But I've been remiss. So today, I am atoning for my absence by bringing you some writing wit and wisdom from author, columnist, marketing executive and mother of three boys (and a dog), Jennifer Karin. In addition to her just-completed novel, "Asunder," Jennifer's books include "Letters to a Girl," "The Bear who Loves Halloween" and "The Dreamstarter Books" 1 & 2. "Dreamstarter" won the 2009 Book of the Year Award from "Creative Child" magazine.  

Jennifer
Jennifer

Jennifer penned the weekly humor column, "Zen Mother," which won the National Humor Writers of the Month award by the Erma  Bombeck Writers' Workshop.

Follow Jennifer's writing blog.  Oh, and full blogger's disclosure here:  As well as balancing her paid work, family and creative writing, Jennifer is a wonderful friend (that's only 'cos she lets me have long and deep conversations with her oh-so-cute dog).

Interview with Author Jennifer Karin 

1. Jennifer, I know you were a child prodigy, but when did you start writing (approx)?

 Well, I was not a writer as a child. Rather, I had a paintbrush in one hand, and held my cat in the other, and I only occasionally painted the cat . . . (Could you wait a minute, Aine? I need to close my office door) . . . I was a late bloomer when it came to creative writing, and I am self-taught, and, therefore, continue my education every day. I didn’t start any creative writing projects until I turned forty. But, my academic background and my career in public relations were based on strong analytical writing and journalism, so I've been writing intensively since I was fifteen.

 2. As a busy marketing professional and Mum to two boys and a dog, do you write in the mornings, evenings, lunchtime or on weekends?   

Three boys! (Hold on, I just want to nail a 2x4 across the door.) Work comes first, always, no matter how loud my characters are shouting at me. That leaves very little time for creative writing, so I've learned to write anywhere, especially in my head. When I have a free moment . . . (Excuse, me, Aine. "HEY! MOMMY'S WORKING HERE!!") I quickly write down everything I was daydreaming about, while the boys wrap the dog in toilet paper.

 3. Jennifer, as someone who mostly does your paid work from home, how do you separate your paid work from your creative work?  

I'm very lucky to have an office in my home. It's my sanctuary . . . (Hate to stop the interview again, Aine. I need to slide the bureau in front of my door.) . . . It allows me to complete my contracted work in a timely and professional manner. And that's what my paying clients expect from me: professionalism. ("NO, YOU CAN'T COME IN, HENCE THE EXPLOSIVES I PLANTED UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS!") Anyway, when it comes to creative writing, a change of scenery is a big help. Away from the house. Away. Away. Away.

 4. Universally, do you believe that being a parent makes you a better writer? How? 

I'm sorry? What? Oh, distraction. Well, many readers say my humor column represents my best writing, and that comes from the depths of exhaustion, motherhood, aging, and all the other distractions of real life, so I'd have to say the more snowballs life throws at me, the better the writer I am. Parenting is more of an avalanche, but the climb out is priceless. 

5. What is/was the happiest moment of your entire writing life?

 Wow, that's a heavy question, Aine! Let me get my box of tissues. I'd have to say, (sniff, sniff) — and this is really quite emotional for me — my happiest moment was when I killed off my husband for the first time in my Zen Mother column. But the second time was quite lovely as well.

The Studio Tour: How Mega Busy Writers Make it Work

Write every day. Show don't tell.  Mind your online manners. So go the writers' yada, yada's.  But honestly, is there anything more monotonous than some author doing the preachy-preachy about the writing process and craft? While I was writing and researching Writer with a Day Job, I wanted to include these advice staples--yes--but I also wanted to set up a kind of virtual studio tour in which readers could watch and eavesdrop on some busy writers at work.

Here are the book's complete, uncut author interviews, as well as a bio on each writer and a link to each writer's website.  From California to Massachusetts, from New Orleans (that's a whole state by itself, right?) to New York, these writers speak to that tightrope walk of writing, working and/or parenting.

A warm thank-you to all who participated.  Read their smart words, visit their websites and let them know how much you appreciate their savvy advice.

They are (in alpha order):

Debra Anderson - San Diego

Brunonia Barry  - Massachusetts

John Brehm - Colorado

Monica Carter - Los Angeles

Stephanie Cowell - New York City

Susanne Dunlap  - New York City

Laurie Lee Drummond  - Oregon

Karl Iagnemma  - Boston

Naomi Feigelson Chase  - New York and Cape Cod

Sharon Charde - Connecticut

Katherine Hauswirth - Connecticut

Ava Haymon - Baton  Rouge

Ted Mitchell (writing as T.J. Alexian), Massachusetts

Kitty Gogins - Minnesota

Holly Robinson - Massachusetts

Annette Harper - New Orleans

Meredith Hall - Maine

Reba Elliott - Washington, DC

Mark Greaney - Memphis

Gabriel Valjan - Boston

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
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