I realize that I have a fear of leadership as The Critique Group materializes

I don’t know why I am this way. I take heart in the fact that, according to Douglas Adams in Life the Universe and Everything, the kind of people who *want* to lead shouldn’t be allowed to. So maybe, since I don’t want to lead, I should?

Have you ever wanted to start a writer’s critique group, but been afraid that it wouldn’t work? I was … After all, not only did I have to invite people I didn’t really know and risk their not coming, I had to lead the meeting myself. My first choice with regard to leadership? I prefer to follow. I *can* lead, if there is no other way, but I tend to surrender the leadership of any given project at the first opportunity.

I don’t know why I am this way. I take heart in the fact that, according to Douglas Adams in Life the Universe and Everything, the kind of people who *want* to lead shouldn’t be allowed to. So maybe, since I don’t want to lead, I should?

There was no opportunity to be part of a local critique group without organizing it myself. I waited almost a year to find one, or for one to spontaneously form itself for my convenience. No dice.

So I had to be that person, the one who organizes something.

The day we were to meet, I went down to the coffee shop early and set up the table, and waited. This shop, Daz Bog, had already earned my gratitude by offering us a free room. I bought a coffee with soy milk.

Several people had emailed and said they were coming, so I was pretty confident that I wouldn’t be the only one there. But I now realized that was only half the problem. I was not just afraid of being stood up, I was afraid of leading a group.

When the writers came and sat down and looked at me, I took a big breath. Could I do this? At that point, there was really no alternative, or no easier one, than just doing it, so I began by introducing the format, explaining the order of reads, reading my own work for critique and running the timer.

And it was successful. All who wanted to read their work did so and got critiques, and enthusiasm was high. I was impressed by the seriousness and skill of these writers. “Thank you for doing this,” several said when it was time to leave. We agreed to meet in two weeks.

After it was over, I was pleased, chuffed even. And I began to think how I could make what had somehow become Fort Collins Writers Critique Group stronger, better, more effective, more prestigious. I had originally planned to shove the leadership off on someone else at the earliest possible moment. But did I really want to do that?

Maybe … this small critique group success was just the beginning of something bigger. I rolled that around in my head, smiled. This was better than I expected. This was something good.

Should he give up writing? Not so fast, colleague …

ABC_man_overboard_cruise_ship_sr_140116_16x9_992I was reading Twitter last night when an unusual tweet showed up on my stream.  It was a cry of despair, it appeared, and reading it, I had the sensation of a being passenger standing at the rail of on an ocean liner, looking out over the sea and seeing someone in the water, waving frantically to be seen before it was too late.  The tweet was:

“See you later everyone. I’m giving up writing officially. It’s going nowhere. As a hobby it’s a waste of my time if I can’t survive off of it. I’ll be around for another fifteen minutes before I delete my Twitter … “

Man overboard! I thought.  I tweeted back, “I hope you’re kidding … ”

“Nope. It’s a complete waste of my time. No one besides my mom, my brother and two other people (hyperbole) have read my book or cares … “

Oh my gosh.  Yeah, I know.  It’s tough, the rejection, the indifference, the feeling that what you’re doing *ought*  to be getting more attention than it is.

I know. My ego, too, has at times been pulverized, my self-image, regularly diminished.  And yet.

I replied: “I understand.” I wrote:

“Just tonight, I was wondering: what if I just publish a couple short stories, and nothing else, what then? And I thought: well, what else was I going to do with my time? Knit socks? Ride horses? “

I mean, writing is easy and cheap compared to riding horses.  And I prefer, on average, writers as good-time companions to riders.

I tell myself I have to adjust my perspective. Writing is a lifelong journey.  I think most of us intellectually accept that there are no guarantees, in writing as in elsewhere in life, but we have to accept this emotionally as well. I have a vision of the work I want to complete, but I don’t get a guarantee that my vision will be fulfilled.  I wonder every day if by wanting to be a novelist and see my book read by thousands, I am not suffering from grandiosity of a clinical nature.

I said to my daughter, “I want everyone to fall in love with Carl (my WIP’s hero).”

She didn’t say “You’re out of your mind,” but I think her eyebrows did rise a bit. Meanwhile, I vacillate between confidence and self-doubt. A year ago I told my husband, Leo, that I was in despair because I wasn’t sure I could ever be the Writer I Dreamed of Being.

Leo, who has again and again in my life given me good answers to seemingly intractable questions, said “Look, you write, you always write, whether you journal or you direct your energy towards publication. So why not work to realize your vision? You’ll be writing anyway. Try to make something of it.”

He then went on to tell me the story of Nietzsche, the great German philosopher and classicist, who was rejected by the professors of his day because his ideas were, let us say, a little too progressive. He came up with, among other things, the idea of the Ubermensch and the Death of God, which while controversial have become worldwide philosophical koans after his death. But Nietzsche didn’t live to see his work become canonical. He never made any money out of it.  When he died, his books were published in vanity press editions only. No paying editor would touch them. There was just one professor in the entire world who was teaching Nietzsche’s philosophy.  That one man told him he was a genius but the rest of his colleagues said he was an idiot, or worse, irrelevant.

This discussion with Leo made such a mark on me that I can remember it a year later, and since then I have never stopped trying to be the writer I dream of.  I have also come to believe, as I look at the world, that as education expands, and the world expands, there are more readers than ever before, and therefore, there is room for more writers than ever before.  So I think that as I do not allow myself to quit, my twitter friend should not quit, and neither should the readers of this modest blog, almost all of whom, I think, are writers as well.

I concluded my communication with a tweet that for me is the end of the discussion:

“At the end of the day I think the majority of the joy is in the writing itself not being published.” I should qualify that by pointing out that I’ve had work published — short form only, not books — hundreds of times.  So I’m not guessing.

Now that does not mean that I don’t do everything I can to write work that will satisfy my greater vision. It does mean that I understand that as Mr. Spock said, “No man can summon the future,” and I can’t force a solution.

I noticed that this morning my fellow writer who had neared despair was back at work and wrote that he had composed another 1000 words.  I commend all writers on their many journeys. May you all be read, and far more and far longer than you expect in your darkest moments.

Nietzsche certainly was.



Marcel Proust on the writer’s creation of fiction through fact and memory, and also, incidentally, rejection

The move to Colorado has left me absolutely busted, financially and to some degree emotionally, even as I feeimg_20181104_0706181487267935.jpgl a sense of victory and liberation to relocate to “the freedom lands.”  To sooth my jangled nerves, I have taken up listening to a biography of Proust while knitting.  Although admonished by a Facebook friend that doing so was “ like [reading] a Cliffnote’s version of A La Recherche du Temp Perdu (more conventionally known as Remembrance of Times Past).” I couldn’t find a full copy of the famous memoir-novel for free online listening, so I had to make accommodations.

The act of knitting while listening to a book is both relaxing and an extreme meditation on the writing.

Important writer’s knowings from Proust:

  1. “An I that is not I:” Proust created this formula for his masterpiece. It was at the time a new innovation.  First person narrators had been used before, such as by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, but it seems that no one had yet created what I might called a semi-memoir:  A work which is partly factual, and partly fictional.
  2. Finding material: Proust handily changed a young man, Albert, into a young woman, Albertine, for the purpose of his love story.  Masking real people into characters, he combined others and renamed still others, basing whole families of characters on their real counterparts.  The anger and objections of people involved were predictable. Yet in this way he was able to write the semi-memoir and claim it to be fiction. It seems few were fooled.
  3. Rejection.  Proust was devastated when the first part of his work, Swann’s Way, was rejected by the foremost French publishing house of avant-garde works at the time.  But it seems the rejection was personal: the editor had met Proust and was offended by his social climbing and his dilettantish ways as a young man.  Thus the work didn’t get an unbiased reading.  This rejection occurred even though Proust proposed to pay for the publication. Proust was crushed and had to go with a newbie publisher.  This reminds me of how much matters extraneous to the work, such as personal impressions and thematic or subject specifics, can impact the reception of one’s writing.

Write a synopsis: 7 prominent bloggers tell you how

The empty page is even scarier when starting a synopsis …

Just when I thought it was smooth sailing to get starting on pitching agents about my novel, I realized that there was one step I had so far skipped: rewriting the synopsis.  My heart fell to my very shoes.  Dusting off my old synopsis for this WIP, I quickly realized it wasn’t very good.  So, off to the blogs:  Thank God, my writer colleagues were there waiting to help me. And they’re there for you too, if you’re so inclined.


1. How to Write a Synopsis for your Novel I put Graeme Shimmin’s post about writing a synopsis first because he gets it with humor: this writing thing is as emotionally fraught as it is all-consuming. Finding out that after you’ve finished your novel that you’ve got to write a synopsis is not just bad news, it’s downright painful.  His linked blog on archetypes, based on the famous writer’s tome Hero’s Journey, is also useful reading.

2. Jane Friedman is building on all that: The synopsis is probably the single most despised document you might be asked to prepare.  Make sure you detail the character’s motives and emotions. This is what really drives your story.  She gives a detailed list of what to include and what to avoid.  And a list of links on how to write the synopsis, including to Miss Snark’s 100 synopsis archive.

3. How to Write a Novel Synopsis with An Example Jericho Writers.  Well this has some indispensable formatting nuts and bolts, such as: Bold your character name. Write your synopsis from the bones up, from the novel’s structure. Tell what plot developments mean for your protag, what’s at stake, people! Comes with Agent Submissions Builder pop-up, which I can’t vouch for because I didn’t do it. You might take these people a little more seriously if I told you:  They’re from Oxford, UK. Real deep intellectual country.

4. Agent Carly Watters: How to Write a Book Synopsis  Five steps to writing your synopsis, and remember the character arc:  “A one dimensional main character will suck the air out of your manuscript’s tires.” Well said.

5.  How to Write a Synopsis of Your Novel  by Glen C. Strathy.  (OMG he spells his name the same as my ex husband, but I’ll put his blog in here anyway.)  Go ahead and rush past the intro to the meat of this blog post, which details various elements including plot, character, relationship, and theme that your synopsis must have, and then continues to tell how to make a set of index cards which will, if not write your synopsis for you, make it significantly easier.

6. How to Write a Novel Synopsis According to novelist Pearl Luke, ” what you present must be a stirring distillation that leaves readers eager for more.”  Okay, I look at my own personal synopsis and think, I may not be there yet.  But there’s hope. Luke provides you with a very detailed plan, including writing a “major synopsis” (my term) 20 pages long that she says will be useful later in the marketing of your book, before whittling to a “minor synopsis” of less than five pages.  Also includes detailed formatting notes.  If you refer to this one and number 3 above you should have a pretty sound idea of how to format.

7. Learn how to write a synopsis like a pro by Courtney Carpenter.  No roundup of blogs about how to do anything writing would be complete without an entry from the venerable Writer’s Digest, which has been advising writers since before print went decisively digital.  This brief blog will give you critical synopsis vocabulary, and also a quick list of what to avoid. Unfortunately, just before they actually tell you how to write the synopsis, they instead recommend you buy a course for $79, by Jane Friedman, to get the pertinent details.  Jane Friedman’s blog post on the same topic, of course, is #2 on this list.  Having read quite a bit of Jane’s blog, I admit I would wholeheartedly like to see that webinar.  But given that my budget for writing development for November would be wholly subsumed in the purchase, and would leave nothing left for Submittable.com and contest entry fees, I will have to mortify my curiosity, and just write my synopsis based on the blog posts I’ve summarized.



Maniac Miniseries Becomes my Mashup Muse

Maniac_Image2This week, I got the idea to watch Netflix as part of my ongoing work on creativity.  I chose Maniac, a futuristic 10-part series about the attempt by a team of (flawed) doctors to create a computer-pharmaceutical treatment for mental health issues of various types — and the people they treat.  As I watched the show unfold, inspiration flowed into me.  From a seemingly cracked, broken and disordered beginning, the character arcs tie up remarkably. The lonely borderline-personality disordered beauty was going to see that she had the option of making other choices and was going to make them, I just knew. The young man with scizophrenia was going to transcend the mentally-unhealthy label and free himself from his pathological family.  And the sicko scientists who were creating much of the drama in the movie were going to get their just deserts, along with their human-empathy-enhanced psychologist computer.

Maniac functions on a kind of supercharged genre mashup. An incomplete map of the genres and their conflicts follows:

fiction type character(s) conflict
Recovery fiction Owen, Annie Both must overcome mental illness.

Owen: scizophrenia Annie:  substance abuse.

Family drama Owen, his father, and his brother Father seeks to force Owen to lie under oath to protect evil brother
Science fiction all A new type of mental health therapy combines pharmaceuticals and computer tracking of dreams
Psychological fiction Owen, Annie narrators are unreliable and tell incomplete stories
dystopian fiction all Strange and alienating fictional world includes technological advances such as ad buddies, humans whose job is following people reading them ads, robot dog pooper scoopers, and x-rated, whole-body virtual reality devices.

(Not charted:  mobster fiction; fantasy, and probably others) So what happened after I watched it?  I started writing my own genre mashup:  horror meets mythology meets nature writing.  A longer short story, this one will be about a man who goes into the woods and meets a dangerous cannibal hiker guy. It’s based loosely on the ancient Greek story of the cyclops, Polyphemus.

Thus, here I  introduce you to the mashup muse.

An interesting coda:  I watched this with Leo.  At the end, I asked him which character he identified with.  He said Dr. James Mantleray … I was like “What, the mad scientist?” He said, yes, well, when you have a PhD but are not a professor, yes, it feels a little similar, like you have the knowledge but the world doesn’t want you to do the work you’ve been trained for.  I guess I could see that.

As for me, identifying with both the mentally ill characters is a little unsettling.  But hey, I have to own it.  I do.

A muse over my muses

Who or what could be my muse? A real person whom I love? A saint? A creature I believe exists in the spirit realm?

Could a type of event be a muse? Hemingway was inspired by war and by bullfighting. Zelda was Fitzgerald’s muse. Sylvia Plath had her father and Ted, and even her college boyfriend was used to fuel her art. That brings us to Ezra Pound, whose true Penelope was, he said, Gustave Flaubert.

Could your muse be a crime? I’m reading a true crime book, “I’ll be gone in the night” about the East Area Rapist, and it seems that tracking down a killer is author Michelle McNamara’s muse.

How about place? I’ve been inspired by place more than once, writing about California and about Rome.

Now, in the distance, I hear a train whistle moaning, crying. I imagine it rocking past the prairie dog town. Fort Collins is a place with much placeness. One could write about Fort Collins, with its bearded men, many looking marginally educated but then doing complicated paperwork correctly, like the guy at the U-Haul place. The men of Colorado are a study. I get the impression there’s a lot going on underneath the surface.

In Texas I learned how to find other writers. Texas has an active and well-developed literature and writing community but but I never found I wanted to write about Texas. But Colorado is something else entirely.

Yesterday I was driving home from work and as I came across the very last miles of the Great Plains, driving west up to the Front Range of the Rockies. The haze of September had been rained down earlier in the week. And I saw, for the first time, the real mountains themselves. Not the rolling hills I’ve seen before, but mountains, far into the sky, higher than what seemed possible, their peaks unreachable, their slopes laid out in silver granite ridges and saddles filled with snow.

This must be what my grandfather felt when he became a mountain climber, when he with ropes and clampons went climbing the Matterhorn and the Grand Teton and I can’t remember what else.

Half of Colorado is wilderness and mountains. And mountains speak to me of the ineffable, the truth beyond what we know and see …

I wonder if the mountains could be someone’s muse.

Premise: All fiction really comes from somewhere called “The Mystery Box”

It’s a TED talk.

In order to explain I need to back up.  This discovery started with the idea that one has to read literary magazines in order to get ideas of who or what might publish one’s writing.  I was reading the submissions page of a journal called Bourbon Penn, trying to find out if a surreal story I’d written concerning some women who were attending a 12-step group for SUV addicts might be a fit. As I read the description of what they were looking for, I was intrigued.

“We are looking for highly imaginative stories with a healthy dose of the odd.,” the page stated.  Yeah, me too, but what would that look like? I mused.

That’s where I found they had helpfully included a link to The Mystery Box TED talk.  In it, J.J. Abrams tells us simply:  “It’s as if the blank page is a magic box.”  And it’s a writer’s job to put a mystery inside for the reader to find.

I wrote the following notes on how to put a worthwhile mystery box on the blank page:

1. The big question that animates the story is the mystery box.  Why would the reader keep reading?  To find out the answer to the mystery.

2. Abrams notes the practice of withholding information intentionally; referring to Jaws and Alien.  This corresponds, of course, to Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  The goal is to increase the sense of mystery.

3. Abrams then points out that often, in a story, what you think you’re getting is not exactly what you’re really getting.  E.T. is not really about aliens, he claims, it’s about a family going through a divorce.  More mystery:  what you see is not what you get.

4. And finally, he tells us:  we may still be thinking of plot, but really, character is what’s inside the box.  The mystery is answered when we find out about the hero’s character.

Here’s the TED talk itself: