Monthly Archives: April 2012

Writing Life: What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here (& 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time)

Northwest 200 1993 – R. Dunlop

Have you ever had days you moved through furtively restless, with the certain impatience there was something you needed to do?  A pressure that meant you could not go outside to trim the bougainvillea that nearly clotheslined the UPS man (in all its bloody thorniness), could not (as you had promised) take the boys to the movies, could not spare the hour to catch up with your dear friend in LA (even though, for once, the time diff was in your favor), could not do laundry or dishes or even think of writing…but couldn’t name source of the urge?

I spent today in the tufted leather chair my boys expect me to sit in when I work (I work better sitting on my bed, but look so much lazier there, so that the leather chair claims me).  I had the laptop in my lap.  I had lists of things to do, and those that had been accomplished to check off.  I’d written three blogs this week, which needed proofing before posting.  I’d gathered more pictures for another Living with Books.  I’d traded notes with staff at a TT race in Ireland, that gave me just the detail to write an inner monologue for Wake‘s mose elusive character (where he dreamed himself the race marshall responsible for warning approaching racers of a hazard in the road, but somehow failed, as the character does ultimately, in preventing a family member’s death).  I had 14 brief manuscripts to read and comment on for a workshop with Ann Hood starting Wednesday, and three more litmag submissions to read and respond to.

More urgently, 69 student essays and 17 preliminary research packets await comments for classes this week, with mid-period grades due tomorrow.

I assumed that was source of the restlessness: resentment at spending my Sunday grading, guilt not to be with the boys.  I love teaching writing but have to confess myself worse than the students this year in having early-onset of summer fever.  As much as I’ll miss this fabulous year when it ends, right this moment I want nothing more than hours alone to myself to read and write and play with my boys and maybe, if I have to, get the house clean.  Or go on a date.  Student papers drag their toes in self-conscious awareness there’s no competing with all that. Together, the weighty bag of papers and I went through the day watching guilty marathon episodes of Miami Towing on tru.tv (yeah, that bad) knowing I was clearly in a state of avoidance.

The boys went out to let me work but the urgent impatience continued.  With the irritable absentmindedness of a nervous tick, I flicked back and forth through software on my computer and online.  Metaphorically pacing.  Searching.  Waiting for something.  Every twenty minutes or so, a tweet would come through, an email would come through, friendly comments and connections from my friends in the ether.  A good article to read, an interesting piece of news.  I’d be sated, momentarily, like easing a junkie’s craving, so that yes, it seemed, maybe that was it: just boredom.  Avoiding the essays.  Loving the connection of fellow writers.  Avoiding the essays.

Just as quickly, the craving would be back, the pacing, the constant flickering hunt through the buttons on screen.

But, whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t here.

The boys came home, breaking my trance.  I broke free of the leather chair (who may find itself summarily dismissed for its continued failure to aid in productivity), went upstairs to where the beginning of twilight lit the bay window of my room like a treehouse.

Sitting here reminded me of the hour stolen before teaching last Thursday: writing the scene where this elusive character revealed himself, pulling the long unused key to his parents’ house from his wallet, his men turning away in denial of how his hand shook, scraping the brass face of the lock before he could turn the key.  The house of the death he’d caused, the main character still thinking him a victim while the shear act of turning away had revealed to him that his closest friends had thought him at fault all along.

Where all day there had been restlessness, I am now there in that novel — in the scene just written, in the race getting ready to be underway in Northern Ireland (in the real world) which the elusive character’s father was famed for winning before his death (in the novel).  In the scene still in my head, wanting my attention.  Awareness fills me, as it does, with the engulfing physical and emotional presence a work in progress can have.

I realize with a mix of frustration and relief this is the answer I looked for all day.  The novel.  I want everything else — the grading, the cleaning, the movie, the duties — to fall away and leave me dozens of hours to disappear into finishing this story.  It’s frustrating because the timing is off.  I budget time for fiction, but today’s hours were allotted to getting grades entered and I’m being bratty to complain about it.  I’m lucky enough to be working only part-time this year, to have 3 days off for a workshop this week, to have 2 months home this summer between teaching.  Wait, impatient novel.  Your turn is coming.

But, even with the limited time, I pause to enter this post to say one thing: what a relief it is, and a joy, to know the writing I am doing has this powerful a pull on me.  To know that, even when it has to wait its turn, it is strong enough to leave me pacing and craving the work.  Relentless: that’s the nickname of the motorcycle race coming up in Northern Ireland this month.  I like that, as it fits the relentlessness of this urge I have to get this story down.

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5 Things I Could Have Done to Make Today More Successful:

Yeah, I know better.

1.  Write first.  What relief I would have felt, had I given myself an hour, even, to get that one scene down before trying to work on other things.

2. Not let interruptions begin, in the first placeBad, leather chair, bad.   Sounds like I’m kidding, but fact is, this chair is aimed at the tv, in a room crowded with the boys’ toys, causing stifling chi even when the tv is off.  I know this to be true.  The trick is to know yourself and not invite the disaster in to begin with.  I should have begun the day in the room where I knew I worked more productively.

3. Don’t worry what other people think.  I started my day in the family room because I was waiting for the boys’ dad to pick them up. He would have taunted me for “sitting in bed all day” if I’d been working in my room when he got there.  So what?  I should have done what I knew to be best, regardless.

4. When you get in a rut, break it right away. Okay, so yeah, it was hysterical seeing the crazed big man stuck in the passenger window of his car, fighting to keep the tow truck driver from pulling away.  But, yo.  As I procrastinated into the third episode of Miami Towing?  Take a hint.  Break the trance.  Go for a run.  Go to that movie with the boys.  Do anything — but don’t let the procrastination take over.

5.  In avoidance mode? Use a timer and break work into 15 or 30 minute increments. Grade 30 minutes, then give 10 to something rewarding, whether that be a break with friends online or reading for the workshop later in the week, or a turn with fiction, getting that new scene down.  Several 30 minute increments would have left me much more productive than the day turned out.

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Worth Reading:  For friends who have been participating in Robert Lee Brewer’s Social Media Platform challenge this month (#mninb on twitter), I’ll end with a link to a great article by Jane Friedman: read this for the great checklist, providing an interesting approach for deciding how to balance time between writing and building platform. Comments following the article are just as insightful.

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Best to all of you, who struggle with the ongoing need to balance writing with the other demands of life.  If you have similar challenges, or insights for what works well for you, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Social Media for Writers: Twitter (vs. Facebook)

I was just responding on Facebook to writer Kathy Conde, who read my last post about Why Writers Should Use Twitter (and my 5 Top Tips). Kathy is a fabulous writer in Colorado .  We met through online forums, but she expressed her reluctance with Twitter as arising partly from the cryptic brevity of twitter-speak.

Not just hashtags, not poetic brevity.  Twitter is more like semaphores, is it not?  Like telegram days, when you paid by the word. “Not dead. Home soon.”

We rose up from being cavemen, right?  Grunted, “Talk gooder,” and invented grammar for clarity.  Spent centuries melding language from hundreds of cultures to achieve elegance and exactness in word and sentence and intonation. Wordsmiths from throughout the ages must be smacking foreheads in their graves over this ugly Twitter relapse in language skills.

On that we agree.  I shudder to type “r” as a verb when 140 characters doesn’t leave room for the “a” and “e.”

But here’s the thing. If I were a sentry on a Revolutionary hill who spotted troops advancing, I might later have written a letter to my mother with real words and exclamations to describe the experience — but, in the moment, I would have been pretty stoked to have signal fire on hand to warn the distant village.

What’s odd about that metaphor is part of why Twitter is actually more intimate than one would expect. All that sentry can do is light a fire. Yet imagine the people in the village, the moment they see the plumes of smoke. Instantly, they know what the signal fire means. They experience communication of the shared fear — internally getting all it implies.  They build their own fire to signal back, “We saw it.  Thanks,” and to relay the warning on to the town next distant.

The signal fire at work for writers: Writers (Cheryl Strayed, Meghan Mayhew Bergman, Rebecca Makkai, Saeed “Ferocious Jones”) post that they have a reading at a book store tonight. I’m not in their town, but I know immediately their mix of expectation and hope for an audience. I have followers in that town.  I retweet, lighting signal fire for the next village:  “Are you in Brooklyn/Minneapolis/Pittsburgh… ? Go see…”

Twitter does this, but accomplishes what the fire only wished it could. That sentry, now long in his grave, nods in envy, because his fire could signal only “danger.”  The citizens of London neighborhoods tweeting about riots last summer could name streets, buildings, the kinds of danger and, when details got longer than 140 characters, add a link.  The sentry could have linked a blog on the number of soldiers, if they were on foot or horseback, a map with the direction of approach.

The signal-fire-plus-link works for writers partly through the access it gives us to immense cross sections of useful reading.  One Sunday morning I stumbled across a post with a hashtag for a publishing industry “non”-conference held in NYC, with countless industry players tweeting streams of the current issues and thoughts in the industry live from the various panels and roundtables they attended. Another morning began with link to a lighthearted and candid New York Times feature sharing Nathan Englander’s plans for the day, from coffeehouse and dogwalking, through writing and editing, through evening dinner plans. My last two Mondays, morning writing was kicked off by inspiration from Twitter links. This week, it was an hour-long conversation between Michael Chabon and Andrew Sean Greer, recorded at the Aspen Institute’s Winter Words.  They became the conversation in the room, as I re-envisioned a scene for my Irish novel (random piece about the character’s difficulty to steady his key to open a lock), that I now love.

Of course, the signal-fire-plus-link also serves writers as a chance to reach readers, by sharing links to new work or blogs, or simply things that interest us.

The main reason I have come to prefer Twitter over Facebook in recent months comes partly because of Facebook’s constantly shifting respect for its users — I begin to doubt the company’s integrity in how it will use our information, and many of my friends have begun to shun it, which makes it less useful to me.  Beyond this, Twitter offers a different kind of access than FB.  The benefit of Facebook conversations is they are comparable to a chat you’d have with someone you know over coffee. In that sense, they are more full and extended. The benefit to exchanges on Twitter is you have access to anyone. Exchanges are more limited, like what you’d say passing someone in the hall or riding on an elevator or passing on the street, possibly handing off a paper to be read. But think about that “passing on the street” essence:  How often, passing a stranger on the street would they pause in their step to tell you about the fab article they just read?  On Twitter, they do.  And that’s the difference.  Like living in a friendly, small town — but populated by everyone you could hope to connect with, in any industry or area of interest.

I describe it as a warm environment, but key to that is the amount you participate. If you rarely post or connect, then exchanges will be as cold as that stranger reading the paper on the subway. As you become more engaged, those “on the street” exchanges seem more like the way people in small southern towns used to call out to each other, sitting on front porches, to trade news. The people on the street may still be strangers, but with the familiarity of people in your village.

A couple weeks ago, Nova Ren Suma (author of Imaginary Girls and other young adult fiction, whom I first discovered through a Twitter #YAlit chat) was one of dozens of people tweeting that she was going to see Hunger Games.  Only, I knew that her tweeting this news was different from the hundreds of others reporting on the movie’s premiere, because she was in her second week of a monthlong writer’s residency in a grassy-hilled retreat overlooking the distant Pacific, so it took the coincidence of an excursion into town for her to be able to see the movie. I’ve read enough updates by New England writer Meghan Mayhew Bergman about her children, her marriage to a country vet, and their countless dogs, cats, chickens and other animals, to feel it when she posted about the sadness she felt, watching their aging dog approach her up the drive.

That said, I completely get the blank cryptic feel Twitter has.

In my post the other day, I said it took me months (years?) to warm to Twitter. Even now, I don’t feel that connection every time I glance at the feed.  The reason I post an article like this is because all the new forms of media are continually evolving grey areas for all of us. I once loved Facebook, wrangling all my friends to join. Now, I use it less, while a few of those who once refused to join are the ones prodding me to get back to it. I was reluctant with Twitter, now I sing its praises, although maybe six months from now I’ll be posting what a time-drain it is and no one clicks my links anyway (grinning, to imagine). Oh, now friends, don’t let’s even mention Pinterest. I was complete skeptic there, but do you know the greatest linker to my blog these days?…

If you want to find me on any of these media forms, I do welcome connection.  In the comments, I’m sure we’d all love to hear what media has worked for you and which ones you avoid.

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Related Posts:

Why Writers Should Use Twitter & Top 5 Tips to Get Started

Twitter for Writers: My Top Recommended Users (& Useful Hashtags)

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Why Writers Should Use Twitter and Top 5 Tips to Get Started

The legacy of Cypress Gardens (waterskimag.com)

Some of the best articles I read each week are through fellow blogs, newsfeeds and links I find on Twitter (find me at elissafield).  That said, since Twitter has played such an important role in where I am getting and sharing this reading, it’s time I sound off on why I think Twitter is so valuable.

I bet many of you are still Twitter skeptics.  A year ago, I had 3 Twitter accounts and honestly… could not see the point. I used Facebook daily to communicate with friends around the world (literally). I set up a separate Facebook for writing, and had been connecting with writers at Poets & Writers’ Speakeasy since back when not all of us had email accounts (really).

But, man.  That Twitter just made no sense.

Last fall, between following a series of advice on how to use the thing and beginning to use it more regularly, something clicked.

I can say this: it’s like when my dad taught us to waterski as kids.  Those first hundred yards, as the rope between you and the boat goes taut and begins to drag you artlessly through the water, the skis and chunky ski jacket adding resistance so it seems impossible to imagine you could ever lift up and glide across the water, it was so tempting to let go and give up. Newbies do that, calling back to whomever goads them on, “It’s not working!” But keep those skis and body in the right position, lean back against the pull as the boat gains speed, and there it is: water rushing beneath lifts the skis and up you go.

Getting up on skis isn’t impossible, but it’s a matter of getting up on plane – letting the boat accumulate speed and overcoming resistance so you lift and skim across the water.

In this metaphor, Twitter isn’t gliding when you first sign up because you do not yet have the momentum of a community to lift you, and you are not yet actively using muscles to work with that lift, to engage in the community so that posting and reading feels as fluid as conversation.  Once you seek out that lift and engage yourself, you pull free of the resistance and glide.

Why bother?

Extending the metaphor, the reason I’d push people to make the effort with Twitter is that active tweeps (Twitter peeps) find it becomes their hottest source of information, just like waterskiers who come to dash, leaping, across wakes.

For one, Twitter has become my fastest and most reliable source of news. New York Times and Guardian UK post news alerts the moment news hits, before it’s compiled and released through other media. I read about London riots on tweets last year, before anyone knew of the first fires. Reporters at the front lines and witnesses on site post firsthand accounts, and the media post frequent updates, so I get a more complete and corrected picture than other media has time to serve.

But beyond news, I’ve gained a watercooler intimacy on issues throughout the publishing industry. Not only can you get periodic news from the magazines and publishers you admire, but can connect individually with their editors, as well as agents, book reviewers, independent booksellers, librarians, and writers, readers and educators, at all levels.

And, hey, we’re not all that serious all the time. Can I say how thrilled I was to trade tweets with Tom Colicchio as he live-tweeted through Top Chef, or to trade tweets with the Dowager Countess Maggie Smith?

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That said, here are my top tips for getting up on plane with Twitter:

5 Top Tips for Succeeding with Twitter.

1)  Identify yourself clearly. Establish your account in the name you use for writing, not a nickname. This is how people can find you. Take the time to write a bio statement for your profile, that lets people know who you are. Do you write? Say you’re a writer. Is it poetry? Fiction? Nonfiction? Add that. Most of us have a day-job, too, or we’re parents or have other interests that impact who we are as people and as writers. Note these simply, and unapologetically. If part of your schtick is that you’re funny, be funny. If not, don’t think you have to be. Just try to convey who you are. And, hey – you can modify it as often as you want, as your identity changes.

2) Get people linking to you.  The key to Twitter is to draw further connection, so make sure to include a link to you, in your profile. If you have multiple media sites (Facebook, Pinterest, a blog, Tumblr), assume people will only click one, so list the primary link that you want to draw traffic to.  For example, list your website or blogsite, and have links to Facebook or other media on those sites.  (Note: there is an option to create an About.me page, which is a splashy bio app, but don’t do that unless you have no other sites, as it will actually be diverting traffic away from your site.)

3)  Find key people to follow. Search out friends and colleagues. Search out authors, magazines and editors you admire. Follow your favorite news media or other influencers. Okay, not bad. When I was at this point, I was still a Twitter skeptic. The change from skeptic to being on-plane came for me when I discovered lists of the most recommended people to follow on Twitter.  Here are three lists of people to follow.  The first list is my own, posted June 14, 2012, and the other two each offer a different emphasis in selecting people to follow.

4) Use hashtags. Seriously, I think it’s a stupid word. We’ll move past that. Definition: hashtags are words, letters or abbreviations, preceded by the pound symbol: #. Wow do they make posts look ugly. We’ll get past that. They work. I really began to jump wakes with Twitter when I began making connections with others by participating in conversations I discovered using hashtags.  How? Keep one image in mind: growing community in Twitter is like the growth of crabgrass — you want to branch sideways, to reach more than just the people in your sights.

  • Use them when you post: When you post without hashtags, only your “followers” see your post. What if you’re new and are only followed by your mom and the account you set up for your dog? You found this great article on McSweeneys that jumpstarted your writing Monday morning, and posted the link. You had a Zen moment and posted a wise mantra.  You shared news that you finally finished novel edits. Unfortunately, the dog can’t read (What’s up with that? Lives in a house full of books, all that time on his paws, and still can’t read.), and mom is a twitter skeptic, so no one read your brilliance. When you add the hashtag (#writing or #amwriting, for example), it includes your post in the feed for conversations on that topic. Someone halfway across the planet you have no other opportunity to connect with now sees and clicks your link. They now: a. get the brilliance no one else saw, b. follow you to experience more brilliance, and c. retweet you, so the 2 or 200 or 2000 people following them now also see your brilliance.
  • Use hashtags when you read.  These hashtags are trickier — they tend to be tags you see included in an interesting post by a key player you are following. Don’t know what a hashtag means? Click it and see what people are talking about. Major conferences and events will establish a hashtag — for example, Associated Writing Programs used #AWP2012 during the annual conference that attracted some 10,000 writing and education professionals.  I’ve used hashtags to read the livestream of reporters attending a press conference for an international event who were live-tweeting before they even sent news back to their news desk (yeah, wow), and the livestream of publishing movers and shakers live-tweeting from panel discussions they were attending at an “un-conference” on change in the industry, held in NYC one Sunday morning. In both cases, not only did I gain remarkable insights by reading, but retweeting the genius I was witnessing convinced others I was genius as well, and led to many of my followers.
  • Use hashtags to participate in live chats. For nearly any topic you could want, there are live chats held on twitter, which you find by using the chat’s hashtag. I write adult fiction, but teach middle grades and ended up making connections with several young adult fiction writers, publishers, agents and teachers by participating in #YAlit (young adult) and #MGlit (middle grade fiction) chats I stumbled on to. I’ve met writers discussing their writing process by participating in “book tour” chats at #litchat, and discussed trends in education with teachers on various edu-chats.
  • You will notice that people also use joke hashtags, which is a funny way to make a point, although will not develop into a conversation unless everyone uses the tag. #works #pointmade #fewerwords That’s one reason for doing it. You can add an emotion to the post without having to say it in a full sentence, which the 140 characters don’t allow.  In twitter, I could have made the joke above with the silly hashtag #dogdoesntread #whatsupwiththat.
  • To get started, try this list of 40 Twitter Hashtags for Writers.

5) Number one suggestion is going down as number 5: participate. Reply to tweets. Comment on articles you read. Retweet articles that are worthwhile. I can give more specific advice about each of these, but will keep it simple here, because it is absolutely important to get this message: be genuine. Twitter is not for blasting demands. You may want people to buy your book or read your blog or follow you, but expect these things to happen naturally because you establish yourself as a participating member in the community. If you tweet and retweet things that are of interest, people will be drawn to find out more about you. Yes, share alerts when you post a new blog or get a story published, but readers will “unfollow” tweeters who only post “buy my book” updates. Don’t: harass, stalk, turn into a megalomaniac or post that you ate cereal for breakfast. Do: send thank you messages when people follow you, reply with interest when you liked a post or link, retweet the things you found worthwhile. Be genuine. Be mannerly. Be funny if it’s in you. Be helpful. Share what you know.

Those are my top five.  Feel free to start by connecting with me and seeing who I follow.  Leave comments to let me know how it goes, or post questions I could address in the next post.

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