Retreating to Reconnect

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

April and May are reflective times of year for me. I often dwell on goals and achievements still unreached so I can set new goals, prioritize, and move forward. Interestingly, it has become a time to reconnect with past publishers. Not quite a week ago, I received an email from an educational publisher I worked with regularly for many years. The same happened with another publisher about a year ago. It’s even more interesting (and amazing) that this happened just before I left for a retreat and—perhaps due to the events/activities at the retreat—I received a

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

new assignment from this company two days after I returned home.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Feeling pulled in many directions and needing a moment (or many) of clarity, I made last-minute plans to car pool with a small group of friends also headed to Our Lady of Florida Retreat Center on the east coast. It was the best weekend I’ve had in five

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like "monks" holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like “monks” holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

years. (That’s about the time my father became so ill and much of my time centered around writing, teaching, and getting meals to him, or simply spending time with him.) I needed the break. I needed the peace, the fellowship, the downtime (no WiFi and I chose to limit phone use). I had time to think through life (and writing) puzzles and returned home restored and ready to reconnect—on a fresh frequency.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

Those who follow my writing and workshop info know that I am drawn to nature to recharge. The grounds of this retreat center were beautiful. So was the architecture and art throughout the retreat house, dormitories, and grounds. I came away fed–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I cannot wait to go back!

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Of Earth and Trees

Pine and cypress on golf courseThis morning is unusually quiet. Even golfers avoid the dull overcast from last night’s steady rain. Trunks of trees glisten with moisture and drip tears from their leaves as I take my morning walk. Ah, here at the clubhouse something is going on, perhaps to celebrate Earth Day. (On Saturday the place was overrun with children in various activities.)

As I walk and wonder, I recall a similar celebration when I was 7 or 8 years old. I’m playing hopscotch with my friends on a sunny early spring day in Michigan. In the middle of my turn I remember, I was supposed to be up at school today! The teacher has talked about the celebration for Earth Day or Arbor Day or something. I think of green and plants and trees and saving the earth from pollution. We’ll do activities, make crafts, play games, and have prizes. I signed up and each day this week our teacher has reminded us.

I rush through my turn, stepping on my stone then jumping off the chalked-in game board. I run home but cannot find my mom. “Dad took her grocery shopping,” my older sister tells me.

Now I’m in a panic. My teacher reminded us, reminded me, endlessly about this. Will I get into trouble?

pine and cypress against blue skyMy eldest brother overhears and offers to take me. He is in his last year of high school  (or maybe just home from his first year of college) and I feel so grown up sitting in the passenger seat of his car. He can drive, though our other brother can’t. Not yet, not for several years.

The school is not far at all, but to walk there I’d need to cut through an abandoned nursery plus an orchard and riding my bike would take me along too many busy roads (some without sidewalks).

We arrive and no one is around. Oh, no, I think, I’ve missed it!

But the school is not surrounded by fences or gates as they are today so we head to the playground in the back. I lead my brother around the building, guiding him through the enclosed Kindergarten playground, and now I can hear all the people and kids on the main playground behind the school.

My brother checks in with one of the grown ups and I run off to find my friends. They’re planting something and I get to help. But I’m disappointed when I reach them. They’re watering sticks in the ground.

“Where were you?” my friend demands. “You weren’t here to check in. We already ate lunch.”

I don’t know what to say. I shrug, because I already ate lunch. At home.

The man smiles. “It’s okay that you’re late. You’re here now.” He’s not a teacher at our school, I don’t think. He shows me how to gently separate the sticks from the pile, make a hole and place a stick in so it will grow. “I know it looks weird,” he says, “but each stick really will turn into a tree. Just wait.”

My brother is next to me now. “Lisa, I’ll be at work when this ends. Dave will come up to take you home. Okay?” I look up at him, nodding.

Then, it turns out, the man knows my brother. They laugh and talk. By the time I realize my brother is gone, our little group has planted a crooked row of sticks at the edge of the playground where it backs up to a row of houses.

Each group rotates through planting stick trees or flowers. (Now that is what I expected. Just like when I help my mom with the plants at home.) We have relay races with prizes, tiny ice cream cups like when someone at school has a birthday. And I learn about trees and plants.

The man says to me, “Your name’s Lisa, isn’t it?” I nod. “That boy is calling you.”

I turn to see my other brother at the far corner of the playground, back by a giant oak tree my friends and I like to play tag around. He’s waving to me. “Come on! Gotta go!”

My friend turns to me. “But it’s not done yet. We get a badge and award at the end.”

I shrug, then turn and run to my brother. We walk the way I am not allowed to go and he swears me to secrecy. I trust him. He leads through a gap in a fence, across a wide plank like a balance beam over gravel pits. Then we cut through the abandoned nursery and the old orchard to enter our backyard.

At school on Monday a hand-printed certificate sits on my desk. So does a thin plaster “badge” shaped like a clover. It reminds me of the cut-out cookies my mom makes, but with a hole at the top with red yarn strung through it. Except, instead of colored sugar, this is painted green with my name lettered in black. This is my reward for planting sticks? I wonder.

k5454-17 Potato PlantThe sticks do grow into trees. When I’m on the playground, I feel proud, especially by the time I’m in grade 4 and the pine trees cause me to marvel that they were ever shorter than a Popsicle stick.

TwoEgretsI like to believe that during this event I participated in the first Earth Day, but I have long since lost the “award” and it could have been Arbor Day (which is celebrated this year on Friday, April 24). Whatever the event, I do know it had a lasting impression on me. I love the outdoors, plants, trees, birds, wildlife. I grew up to write books for children about these topics. I’ve written about the environment, nature, recycling, and sustainability. I’d like to believe the roots of these interests were planted on that spring day long ago when I was still in elementary school.8771543_orig

Overwhelming Genre Choices

Is your project a cross-over genre, a blend, or hard to categorize? As a writer, I thought a lot about this over the weekend. Here’s why:

From Pippin on Broadway http://www.pippinthemusical.com/ (Joan Marcus)

From Pippin on Broadway http://www.pippinthemusical.com/ (Joan Marcus)

Saturday evening I went to see Pippin at Artis Naples (formerly The Phil) with a friend. I knew the basic storyline from the 1970s Bob Fosse musical. (Pippin, a young man from Charlemagne’s court searches for purpose in his life. The journey takes him from war to wandering to love and home again.) This revival, which just closed on Broadway in January, takes on a surreal telling that blends the excitement and showmanship under the big top with dance and song, acrobatics and illusion. During the opening number I was stunned, not expecting the overwhelming display of costumes, different activity (from dance to acrobatic stunts) and music that blends circus and nightclub with jazz and Burlesque. It was not what I’d expected but I was definitely entertained. In fact, I immediately wanted to see it again because there was so much going on around the stage. One number even included a sing-along complete with projected chorus lyrics and the bouncing dot to help the audience keep up as we participated.

Charles and Fastrada (from http://www.pippinthemusical.com)

Charles and Fastrada (from http://www.pippinthemusical.com)

Throughout the show I laughed my “arse” off but was also moved nearly to tears. I watched in awe at illusions and knife-throwing routines. I also gasped at trapeze and acrobatic stunts. It had something of everything it seems.

At the end of the show my friend and I discussed the overwhelming blend of entertainment. “How would you classify that?” I asked. “I don’t know how to explain what I just saw.”

Now I know where the term “entertainment extravaganza!” comes from. We both agreed that we were glad we attended the show. We were definitely entertained. And, like the promise of the circus announcer during that opening act, we did see feats that would haunt our dreams, that we would never forget.

As I thought about it all, I considered how the “hard to categorize” quality might work for this show, but not for our writing. (Actually, this revival initially received flack that it detracted from Bob Fosse’s vision with the original.) Unlike writing, the audience for this performance is clear: if you regularly attend the theater, attend musicals, like comedy and spoof, appreciate all types of dance and music, and are mesmerized by illusion and the strength and skill that go into acrobatics, then you would enjoy Pippin. (The couple next to us did not return after intermission.)

genreBut as readers, genre–the classification of the writing–helps us find and select our next reading material. We tend toward a genre–a specific type of writing, a category within fiction to aid in narrowing our selections. Bookstores and libraries are set up to display books grouped by category and topic.

I always assumed that a writer who read voraciously would pick up on the categories and sub-categories (or genres) within each type of writing. The story’s plot and key events are different when the detective is a cop vs. a private eye (hard boiled detective) vs. an amateur (cozy mystery).

But after teaching and coaching writers for several decades, I have come to realize that may newer writers don’t think about genre details. They simply write the story. I guess they assume that the decision about where to file it is up to the publisher or bookseller.

readinggenresHow wrong they are. Knowing the category or genre is important when you’re ready to submit a manuscript to an editor or agent. Like knowing our audience, writers need to know where the idea fits and then mold the story to fit the genre. (I will admit, I often do this during the revision stage, but it is a consideration.)

When you’re subbing a story, being able to state the genre provides info to the editor:

  1. It shows you’re serious enough a writer to: a) know that there are sub-genres or sub-categories; and b) have taken time to learn about the craft (and industry) of writing.
  2. It makes their work easier. You’ve sent historical fiction but their list (the books releasing soon and/or previously published) is inundated with historical fiction. You’ll receive a “thanks, not at this time” form rejection. Likewise, if they are seeking books in the genre you’ve submitted, they’ll give your manuscript a closer reading.
  3. It will be your job if you plan to self-publish. In this case, identifying the genre and sub-genre is even more important. Without an accurate classification, how will your readers find the book among the tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) out there?

Apparently, writers aren’t hitting the target, at least based on the tips some editors shared recently on the Writers in the Storm blog. Chuck Sambucino provided tips and insights in a guest post, “Agents Explain Book Genres” which is worth a look. In it you’ll find comments from agents about mystery v. thriller or high fantasy v. urban fantasy. What is crime fiction or the different types of romance.

This whole issue gets trickier when you write genre fiction (as opposed to literary fiction ) because the genres are broken into sub-genres (or types of fantasy, types of mystery, types of romance). Then there’s the issue of “cross-over” where the main story is one genre but a subplot crosses over into another genre. For example, you might have science fiction or urban fantasy or mystery with romance elements.

Yes, especially for new writers it can become overwhelming or cause confusion. But, if you read, especially in the genre you want to write for, you’ll begin to distinguish the differences. Begin to notice how the books you read are categorized. Read blogs and books about writing craft, too. And, if you’re in the Southwest Florida area, I do teach a mini-course called “Genre Details.” Two are upcoming, April and May 2015. Check out my class listings for details. (Or, let me know if you’d be interested in an ecourse.)

 

Breaking through Blocks

Alcott-sailDuring a recent creativity for writers workshop I presented, it occurred to me that the publishing industry is riddled with negative phrasing and insinuations. Editors send rejections in response to submissions, people talk about “failure,” and both pre-published and published works get critiqued. During writing workshops I often address the anxiety and fear newbie writers experience and discuss the “inner critic” (or “gremlins” as my graduate professors labeled the negative self-talk). Both these gremlins and publishing terms can cause blocks (for writers at all levels) and delays in getting started. Many writers fear what others will think of the finished piece though there is not yet anything to shape into a polished product).

In fact, for this creativity workshop, one of the first activities (which I have adapted successfully with writers from grade 4 through college freshman) was to create a visual representation of that inner critic. (I wrote previously about this activity in “Gag the Inner Critic.”) Later we were to write a letter to that critic, and after more activities and info (at the end of the workshop) I planned to have them write a response to that letter in the voice of the critic. The idea was to work through the blocks to creativity and put a positive spin on the “negative” views we often place on the creative process. We never got there–because one participant didn’t want to do half the activities and another took issue with the “negativity” behind the label critic/gremlin. The idea behind all the activities was to allow inhibitions to drop away and OPEN ourselves up to the ideas and creativity we each possess.

“Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart & to turn on your creativity.
There’s a light inside you.”
~Judith Jamison

In order to tap into our creativity, most of us need to learn to silence the inner critic (or whatever label you want to place on the editor in your head). During the initial creative stages, we need to be free to play with ideas (without yet deciding whether they are worth pursuing or not). We need to knock down the obstacles in our path, whether they are believing in our own creativity or wrestling with finding time to write (or draw, or paint, or sculpt, or find new solutions to old dilemmas). In the midst of the workshop, I didn’t realize that despite getting stuck on the label I used for one of the biggest obstacles writers face (the inner editor or critic), one participant was mired in “self-limitations” (essentially a block to creativity, perhaps even a gremlin scampering beneath the surface and inhibiting creativity).

“Any little bit of experimenting in self-nurturance
is very frightening for most of us.”
~Julia Cameron

Using a long list of activities, from looking at the world around us with fresh eyes to playing with nouns and verbs and words, the participants worked with tools designed to spark creativity. There are two types of thinking important to creativity and which easily deepen our writing : divergent thinking (in which we see new uses for common objects) and associative thinking (in which we link two thoughts, experiences, items, words, etc to create new ways of seeing something). Associative thinking, especially, is important for writers because this is the type of thinking we use to create analogies and paint vivid pictures using few words (think metaphor, simile, and comparisons for description).

 ducklingsIt’s easier to let go of fears we have about our writing or being “good enough” to get published if we focus on  the joy behind creating and do what’s needed to stifle the gremlins, inner critic, or joy snatchers. (I previously covered this topic in Find Your Writing Joy.) Having writing and creativity exercises on hand to get the juices flowing doesn’t hurt either. Some of my favorite activities come from the following books (dog-eared and within easy reach on my bookshelf):  Writing Done the Bones by Natalie Goldberg;  Pencil Dancing by Mari Messer; and The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron.

May you break through your blocks for happy writing (or creating)!

The Longest Night

“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” –Steve Martin

winterwoods-MimiLuikIf you’re in the northern hemisphere, tonight (Sunday, 21 December 2104) is Winter Solstice. Winter officially arrives at 23:03 p.m. EST (that’s 6 o’clock in the evening on the east coast of the United States). The days now begin to lengthen. For those who love the snow and cold of winter, it’s time for rejoicing. Winter is here. For those who dread the frigid conditions and wild weather of winter, this is still good news since each days draws us closer to the warmer temps of springtime. (But, our coldest days are still ahead of us since the earth continues to lose more heat than it gains during “daytime” for several weeks yet. So just hang in there.)

Equinox-orbitsThis year, I’m intrigued by Winter Solstice for several reasons, one of which (no surprise) relates to research for a few of my fiction projects. (You know I love my research.) For one project, my characters need to know Latin (which means I need to learn some phrases) and while surfing the information highway, I discovered something I did not know: the origin of solstice is from the Latin solstitium meaning “sun (sol) stoppage (-stitium). During the winter solstice, the sun’s path reaches its lowest point in the sky. At noontime, the sun is directly overhead on Winter Solstice. But for a few days before and after the solstice, the sun appears to be in the same place each place. It looks “stalled” and this is how the name came to be.

sun treeThe other reason Winter Solstice has intrigued me is because of its history and celebrations surrounding it. Again, I have another fiction project that is fantasy based and so I’ve been creating holiday celebrations for these characters. Learning about Yule and Winter Solstice traditions led to exploring how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures. This led to other winter holidays and they all made me see connections–the springboard to creativity–for fictional winter celebrations in books, games, and other entertainment. For example, the Feast of Winter Veil and Greatfather Winter in World of Warcraft and Hogswatch from Discworld.

In addition to enjoying the preparations for this year’s Christmas (and New Year’s) celebrations, I’m having fun weaving traditions, customs, and repurposed details into the beliefs and festivities my characters will take part in. Even if your stories are set in the present world, note your own traditions (and those you’ve heard friends share) and select a few customs for your characters. Holidays and traditions (and a character’s reaction to them) are great ways to reveal a life-like character to readers.

Happy holidays, and have fun writing!

Settling in to Create

I like that Maya Angelo sometimes worked from the floor.

I like that Maya Angelo sometimes worked from the floor.

I find this interesting:  While I was working on reclaiming my writing sanctuary and simply de-cluttering my condo, I saw quite a few desk and office photos posted on Twitter and other social media. I recall thinking how messy some of the spaces were. For others, I could relate. They had that “organized piles” look I thoroughly understand. (I mean honestly, I didn’t take photos of the stacks of books and files under my desk or in other parts of my condo to share with my last post.) I get it. Creative people have their own methods that work for them (or they don’t last long in this business. Be messy if you need to be, but please make your deadlines).

It got me thinking, though, about famous creative people. I wonder what Michelangelo’s work space looked like. Did Leonardo Da Vinci fire the housekeeper for organizing his notes and sketches into neater piles? Beethoven did. According to Lee Silber, in Time Management for the Creative Person, because Beethoven didn’t trust them (and was a slob) he “spent enormous amounts of time hiring and firing housekeepers.” But what about famous authors? What were their spaces like?

I do recall a beautiful book published in the late 1990s of writers’ offices, The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz and John Updike. I was relieved and reassured by the variety of clutter and mess I saw within the pages (along with neat and ordered, too, of course). Obviously, I’m not the first to wonder. There are recent blogs and articles sharing the workspaces of highly creative people  or the desks of famous authors or–and I find these most fascinating–the
inspiring work places of the famously creative.

I like to see variety and degrees of neat and orderly balanced with stacks and piles along with a few who are the extreme of “disordered mess.”

Twain used a desk AND other areas in his home.

Twain used a desk AND other areas in his home.

Twain's billiards table spread with papers

Twain’s billiards table spread with papers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I was most surprised when I sought out photos of some of my favorites: Mark Twain, Rudyard Ripling, Isaac Asimov, and Ernest Hemingway. Numerous images exist of Hemingway’s office but it depended on where and when he was writing.

At Hemingway's home in Havana, Cuba. His office just as he left it.

At Hemingway’s home in Havana, Cuba. His office just as he left it.

I like my objects but Asimov has sooo many.

I like my objects but Asimov has sooo many.

Media Milestone!

How exciting! I’ve been interviewed about my writing for newspapers, magazines, and once on the radio, but my first (cable) television interview airs this weekend on C-SPAN2. You can watch the clip April 19-20 on your cable station or on the Cites Tour Fort Myers page.

Interview in Fort Myers during the C-SPAN Cities Tour in March 2014

Interview in Fort Myers during the C-SPAN Cities Tour in March 2014

It’s been a month since BookTV’s Cities Tour Local Content Vehicles (LVC) visited the city of Fort Myers, Fla. and met with me at Books-A-Million to discuss my book, The Right to Counsel: From Gideon v. Wainwright to Gideon’s Trumpet (Enslow Publishers, 2009).

Clip from interview about THE RIGHT TO COUNSEL.

Clip from interview about THE RIGHT TO COUNSEL.

This weekend, April 19-20, the segment airs on C-SPAN2 (Saturday) and C-SPAN3 (Sunday). The crew of LVC did a fantastic job weaving my interview with still images and video clips from the 1980 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Gideon’s Trumpet,  starring Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon. Thank you C-SPAN Cities Tour for including me in your fantastic coverage of “The City of Palms”!

Clarence Earl Gideon shooting pool.

Clarence Earl Gideon shooting pool.

Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon studying law books at Raiford Prison in the Hallmark movie, Gideon's Trumpet.

Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon studying law books at Raiford Prison in the Hallmark movie, Gideon’s Trumpet.