I bought a new sewing machine this summer, my first non-Viking in thirty years. While most quilters would be dancing in the streets, I’m quaking in my boots. Everything is a little different, and that is dragging me out of my comfort zone. I am now able to thread the needle without having the manual in front of me, but I still consult it when I wind a bobbin.
When I was younger (like, in my 40s), I thought becoming an adult would mean I was no longer afraid. Oh, stop laughing. Of course I recognized that people are afraid of all sorts of things at every age. I still had it in my head that grown-ups were always fearless. It is a bitter thing to realize that you are indeed a grown-up and still afraid. “Self,” I said, “get used to it.” Self doesn’t like to hear things like that, which is why there is a stash of chocolate in the house at all times.
Sadly, bribery doesn’t take away the necessity to leave my comfort zone. I have projects to finish, and I must learn how to tame my new sewing machine beast so it will do what I ask. And don’t tell me it isn’t a thinking creature – that only makes the machines mad.
Mark Twain advised writers to use the right word, not its first cousin. This is an excellent suggestion, but what if you aren’t certain what the right word is, and your critique buddies all have different ideas? I heard Amy Tan say she will go through twenty-five drafts to make sure each word is polished, but I don’t have that kind of stamina. So here are my top four strategies for finding the right word.
Read the sentence out loud. There’s nothing like hearing the words to give you a clue as to where you went wrong.
Consider the location. Is the word in dialogue? Turn that bug into a feature by making this part of your character’s speech pattern. Is the word in lengthy exposition? Perhaps trim that passage and a better description will emerge.
Judge whether you need the sentence, or the entire passage, at all. When the garden gets unruly, it’s time to start whacking things off. I’ve found that solution is useful for my writing as well.
Punt. Just keep the word in place and trust that if it survives the next pass (because there’s always one more pass before publication, yes?) most readers won’t even notice it.
The Challenge Group project is on the theme of omens and talismans. I decided to do a talisman from found objects. Yes, only one object – the twig – was found outside. I will wrap it with the tail of the gold cord holding the other items.
Usually when people think of found art they imagine the entire piece is made from stuff scavenged from the street. Trust me, if you took a look in my studio you would understand why I consider all of my art quilts to be found art. Trying to unearth any given item is a miracle. I take what I can see and go from there. That’s going to be my personal definition from now on. If it works for you, great. Maybe we can start a new art movement – The School of Hoarding Quilters.
After more than two years of Zooming, Tri-Valley Writers returned to in-person meetings. Should it be a surprise that getting people to attend has been an issue? I’ve discovered that other organizations are seeing the same patterns. Hey, you get people used to walking around in their sweats and slippers and they’re going to think twice if they need to put on pants and shoes. So, how do you get people to join in again?
For me, the first step is acknowledging that we’re almost starting a new club. The pandemic has changed all of us, and even long-time members are looking at their obligations with a different eye. Some of us have started to write more, and are a little tetchy when asked to give up even a smidge of that time. Some of us have written less, and wonder if there is any value in finishing the stories. What the club offered before may not seem like enough today.
So here’s why I think writers should join in (and if you are anywhere in California there’s probably a California Writers Club branch near you so check it out here). Tri-Valley Writers (TVW) offers me accountability. There’s a room full of people who know I have a novel in progress and expect to hear updates. Then they’ll give me an update on their progress, so I can return the accountability favor. TVW also gives me a chance to publish some of my work in their anthologies, like the one pictured above (which is available for sale here).
Of course, to have the anthology – and other programs I appreciate – the club needs volunteers. Volunteering takes away from writing time. Is it worth it? I think so. Yes, I have a magnet on the fridge that says “Stop me before I volunteer again” but I’ve always received value from the volunteer experience. I get a chance to meet people and learn things that have appeared in my writing, usually with the blessings of the others involved. That’s a whole lot better than lurking in coffee shops and hoping no once recognizes the conversation you purloined.
In the end, only you can decide if joining a group will benefit you as a writer. But I would like you to consider doing so, if only to see what this reality can offer you. There’s really no going back to life before the pandemic, so let’s plunge into the world that is being born now, and see if it doesn’t give us a new resolve to be better writers.
I took a workshop recently not for the technique but for the kit. It was worth every penny. The project, an iris created collage-style from organza, isn’t anything that fits into my current list of projects but I loved the effect. I also loved not having to source organza. We’ve got some good fabric stores nearby but they rarely carry plain organza. That means I would be trapped in the glittery, shimmery aisle and my willpower would crumble. I’d come home with 7 yards of laces, and sheers with lace, and sheers with sequins, and still not the right fabric for the flower. So, I signed up for a class that I sorta kinda maybe knew how to do and bought the kit. As I said, it was worth every penny, especially when I realized I had cut my first collage pieces too large, but since I knew the basics already I could finish it quickly and do a second piece that I liked better. The moral of the story is that quilters are only here for the fabric. Admit it, sign up for the class, and buy the kit. You’ll thank me later.
I like to think of my writing as self-contained. I write a blog post, or a chapter, or a journal entry, and it stays where it began. This may not be the best strategy. There are many times when what I write – especially in fiction – just doesn’t fit. My critique partners can usually talk me into removing the offending chapter and putting it in a file to use in another time and place. Ah, you may ask, but do I look in that file? Well, of course not. That’s what files are for – to be ignored. And that’s where thinking of the life cycle of writing may be useful.
Consider the tree. As it grows and changes, it often reaches a stage where it isn’t as lovely as it could be. The wise gardener prunes a little, or trains a branch to grow in a different direction. Leaves fall, sometimes limbs fall, sometimes roots need to be removed before they damage something else. The point is, we accept that these things happen. We don’t leave the limb to rot in the yard, we find a purpose for it. We might use fallen leaves for decorations, or let them shelter wildlife over the winter, or gather them for the compost pile that will feed next season’s vegetables. Whatever happens, we adapt because we love the tree and want it to live as long as possible.
The next time your writing starts to vex you, don’t abandon it. Let it tell you how it wants to be used, or if it needs a rest, or if it is morphing into something entirely different. Yes, you may need to trim an errant branch or root, but the writing itself is worth the effort.
I use greens as neutrals, and thought I could make all greens blend. I was wrong. Greens can be persnickety. The photo above is proof (and those are all greens – the one that looks blue is actually more of a greeny-teal in person). The green laces and beads I chose for my kudzu piece are another proof, but the results so far are so hideous I don’t even want to show it. I won’t give up on the idea, but it needs a rethink.
While I am not pleased with this lack of success, I won’t let it beat me. I’ve put the kudzu piece aside, and am returning to other projects that have deadlines and places to go. Perhaps by clearing some of the clutter when these projects are sent off, I’ll be able to hear what the laces and beads want me to do with them.
The lilac in our backyard is blooming again. I’ve never seen it blossom at this time of year. My first reaction was, “Cool! I love lilacs!” My second thought was about what this means for the health of the plant. Is it getting too stressed? Will it bloom again in the spring? Then it occurred to me that had I lived even five hundred years ago I would have asked, “What kind of omen is this?”
Omens can be good, or bad, or both, depending on who is interpreting them. I’m reading Plutarch’s Lives and he writes about a little infowar between two opposing parties and the meaning of apparent omens. It would have been hilarious except the omen was used to start a war, but that’s a blog for another day.
Writers don’t have to limit themselves to fantasy or horror to use omens in their plots and/or character development. We all look for meaning in our lives, and sometimes that involves deciding when something is a sign from the universe – which is sort of the definition of an omen, yes? The need to make a hard decision could force your character to rely on superstition, or revert to child-like behavior (“eeny, meeny, miney, moe” and all that), because there is no obvious right answer. Similarly, making a wrong decision could be both a plot point (or the beginning of a subplot) should one character decide everything would have been fine if the protagonist had only used some sort of faith-based option in the decision-making process.
In the ancient world, anything could be an omen. Give yourself the freedom as a writer to use whatever comes your way to make your story what you want it to be.
I finally had an idea for a kudzu-inspired art piece using stuff I’ve saved and stuff I was given. The base for this piece is a cardboard packing insert that I thought looked like a mask. However, when covered with batting and fabric it turns into something entirely different. The green fabric was given to me by Rebecca Buzsaki, who has even more glittery stuff than I do thanks to her years of making dance costumes. I was hoping to use some of the wrapped floral wire that I bought for COVID masks (the wire is too heavy for that use), but of course I put the wire in a very safe place. While looking for it, I discovered some stiff paper that I used for making hat bands, and some stiffer paper that claims to be for making waists in dresses neat and tidy. Since my own waist is neither of those things, I have no problems using the paper tape to hold the lace I’m using for kudzu leaves – unless and until I find the floral wire.
There’s no pattern for this piece, which means it may languish for weeks until the various bits tell me where they want to go. I’ve never done anything remotely similar, so every technique will have its own learning curve. And I have no place whatsoever to display it. Why am I doing it? It’s art, sweetie. I’m making art.
I read a book by a botanist who divided life into the species that move a lot and those that move only a little. He framed it as a choice. “Self,” I said, “there has to be a story in there somewhere.” So far I don’t have an entire story, but I do have some ideas about using this choice for character development.
Very often those characters who choose to move a lot are divided into useless gadabouts or visionaries. That gets boring after a while, but if I dig a little deeper into our evolutionary history can I make something more layered out of a choice to move a lot? Could the visionary have found a way to fulfill her potential without leaving everything that made her?
Similarly, the ones who stay are generally divided into hidebound traditionalists or saviors of the collective past. Ditto on the boring bit. Perhaps a choice to stay could mean both more and less about the fear of change, and at such a deep level that the character will never fully understand her motivations.
And this is why you should always read outside your genre. You never know where your next characters, plots, or high-concept projects will come from.