The story came to her in the early morning when her mind was still fresh from dreaming.
She had almost caught it when her alarm clock screeched and the story fled in terror.
It slipped beneath the crack of her door as she struggled to pull on her pants. She wasn’t far behind, but it was far enough.
Down the stairs, past the old library, she searched. Nothing. Her heart ached to lose such a story. Her fingers ached to write. Her mind longed to lose herself inside it.
She pulled back the coats in the old closet, whispering into the cedar scented shadows. “Story?” Nothing answered but the scritch of mice in the walls.
She crept into the wizard’s room, the one he rented by the week and reeked of charcoal, skunk, and sour feet. He was out.
She peered inside a blue potion bottle. Empty. But she could still make out the faint scent of the story. It had been there, no more than a minute or so ago.
She closed the door with a click and hesitated. She crouched, checking the key hole. Dust. Pieces of a crushed and tragic spider. No story.
Her stomach growled.
The fridge. She hurried to the kitchen, grunting as she yanked at the door. There. Behind a plate of leftover ham. The story she’d been hunting. The one that escaped her.
She lured it out with a handful of papers and a promise of ink from the bottle in her pocket. Quiet, stealthy, she wielded her pen, her face a study of concentration and delight. The story relaxed at last, snuggling into the snow-white paper beneath her hand, knowing it was home.
There’s a friendliness to this little beast, perhaps in the face I see when I’m writing, folder and wifi toggles like eyes, the keyboard a toothy grin. It reminds me of the way I imagined helpful robots in the era of Return of the Jedi and Flight of the Navigator. Or maybe my old Speak ‘n Spell?
Depictions of familiar writers wait for me before I turn it on. Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe. “Good morning, Chuck,” I catch myself saying to Charles Dickens as I set down my coffee and turn it on. His face disappears and my writing awaits.
While I admire these great writers, I’d love to see writers of color represented, as well as a better balance of genders. Alexandre Dumas, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou – they would do well in this crowd.
Technically speaking, the Freewrite keyboard is smaller than my laptop keyboard, which took me a moment to adjust to. It does bring to mind happy memories of plunking away on my parent’s electric typewriter, dreaming of being a famous novelist like the fictional Jessica Fletcher (obviously the whole mystery writer thing didn’t take). The notable exceptions being that the Freewrite fits on my lap without crushing me and has all the convenience of digital processing.
Learning how to use my Freewrite was as simple as following a few prompts to set up my ‘Postbox’ online and sync my cloud.
I ran into some syncing problems early on and panicked, thinking I’d lost my work. Freewrite covered me by sending a .pdf and a .txt copy of the work in question, which I didn’t expect. Thanks for having my back, little Freewrite!
A quick trip into the troubleshooting forums instructed me on how to re-sync my cloud. I suspect my spotty satellite connection will make this fix a common event. In the forums I also discovered that I can also plug the Freewrite into my laptop with its USB cord (also used for charging) and access my work through my Postbox online. Backups of backups? Yes please!
The Freewrite does not allow for editing. This is strictly a first draft machine. It is a pleasure to draft on as I stare off into the distance, lost in the world of my story, no glaring screen demanding my attention.
My preferred method is writing long-hand, which gives me a feeling of intimacy with the page and the words as they come. I don’t get this with my laptop, but I am finding this personal ‘sweet spot’ on the Freewrite. It feels like a writing buddy, with all the familiarity of an old notebook, stuffed full of stories. Full disclosure: I’ve already named the device and given it a backstory. #wordnerd
The screen is a game changer for me. I often get eye strain after a long day in front of my laptop. With the Freewrite, I’m constantly looking up, at the baby, and across the room as I consider something new. While it’s not over-bright, I turned off the screen light first thing (hit the ‘special’ key + l), which is my personal preference, and discovered I can still read my work by regular lamplight at night.
As a bonus, I can see the screen just as well outside, which means I can move my writing outdoors without any trouble. The Freewrite feels sturdy enough that I’m not afraid of damaging anything internal by lugging it outside. Hellooooo hammock writing!
There are other features worth mentioning: the battery that lasts for a week; the word count option in the lower window (my favorite); and there’s even a timer option for word sprints!
The slogan of the Freewrite claims it is a “distraction free writing” device. Astrohaus’ website promises it will double your productivity. Is this true? That’s the real question. These beasts don’t come cheap.
First: is it distraction free? The Freewrite is set up to write, and nothing else. The wifi capability works in one direction: to your cloud. You can’t google something, you can’t search thesaurus.com. You can’t even go back a few paragraphs to edit without deleting everything ahead of it. You are forced to slog ever onward.
I’ve read arguments that this is silly, after all, who doesn’t have a phone handy to look things up and fall down a rabbit hole of something or other? This made sense, so when I first pulled my Freewrite onto my lap, I left my phone across the room. The first time I reached a point where I would normally look something up, I looked at my phone, far away, remembered how comfy I was, how well the writing was going, and left it where it was. I could look it up later. I typed a note into my draft to remind myself, and kept on going. This happens about twice a day as I’m clickety clacking away, and I’m consistently choosing to keep writing. I am consciously making this choice, but the Freewrite removes temptation.
Productivity is trickier to prove. Eight months ago, before Baby Nim arrived, I was averaging 13 645 new words per month (not including any editing and secondary drafts). Since Nim arrived, I’ve been struggling to reach a measly 4000 new words per month. Yeah. Time to get back on track.
What I propose is to track my writing for the rest of September, on into October. I’ll stop when November arrives as I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo and this will skew the results. If there’s interest, I’ll consider posting the results of the months following November as well.
I’ll only track new words drafted on the Freewrite for the purposes of this experiment. Further skewing may come from the Freewrite being a new toy, but the lengths of the experiment should ease this skew and a pattern should emerge by the end of October.
There may be a tendency toward greater productivity because I’m being held accountable. We’ll have to absorb this one, I’m afraid, as I see no way around it. I can tell you that I’ve always found ways to hold myself accountable (waves sheaf of calendar records). I’ll come back here at the end of October and post my results.
At this point I have had my Freewrite for seven days. In this time I have written as follows:
Day 1 – 705 words
Day 2 – 2145 words
Day 3 – 1571 words
Day 4 – 1749 words
Day 5 – 239 words
Day 6 – 1724 words
Day 7 – 681 words
In the past week I’ve already surpassed my post-Nim monthly writing average, but will it last? Can the Freewrite actually double my pre-baby productivity? Let’s find out!
Paige strode across the sunny terrace to a bistro table set for two. Wisps of gauzy fabric whispered about her bare feet. She threw herself into a shaded chair with the petulance of a teenager whose been called a child. “What’s on the menu today? A cup of discouragement? A plate a self-loathing?”
Fear smiled, revealing his fangs. “Both, actually.” He served these dishes to her cold. “Enjoy your breakfast.”
She sipped at her cup in cheeky rebellion. It was all she had left and she refused to fight with him. “I must say, I couldn’t help but admire your work in the United States this week.”
Fear sat down in the chair opposite hers, crossing his legs and taking a nibble from her plate. “It’s almost too easy. The threat of nuclear war makes everything so deliciously tense.”
Fear leaned forward, licking his lips. “What about you? How’s the writing going? Received any rejections of late?”
Paige shook her finger at him. “Naughty Fear. I haven’t even finished my breakfast yet.”
“Ah, then allow me to offer another dish: a bowl of ‘my accomplishments are all worthless’ stew. Full of all the things that eat you up on sleepless full moon nights.”
“How generous of you, darling Fear!” She watched him cringe at her ‘darling’.
“Now, Paige, be careful. You wouldn’t want to piss me off.” He snarled, his eyes flashing.
She leaned across the table, sweeping her cup of discouragement, her plate of self-loathing, and the stew to the hard-tiled terrace ground. They shattered with a satisfying smash. “Do your worst. You were always going to anyway.”
Drool began to ooze from his fangs. He always loved his victims best after they moved past the simpering, tearful stage. Paige held his gaze. She was growing stronger. He would make a writer of her yet.
I take a deep breath. “That’s a loaded question, pumpkin. Every writer has a different way of knowing, and I can only tell you my way.”
She looks frustrated. “But how do you know?”
“I know a story is done when I can read it out loud without tripping over any lines or feeling self-conscious.”
She stares at me, a perplexed look on her face. I struggle to explain myself. “It might sound simple, but it takes a lot of work to get there. First I revise it a few times on paper, then I start reading it out loud, pen in hand to mark the spots that need work. Sometimes I’ve gotten my plot tangled in my first revisions, so I have to do undo all of that.”
She continues to stare, the furrow in her brow growing deeper.
I start to sweat. “Sometimes I’m so embarrassed I want to burn it, so I put it away for the rest of the day. By the next morning I’m ready to tackle the broken spots and sculpt my story into what I want it to be.”
I chuckle. “These days this involves pen, paper, and a clipboard resting on the baby’s bottom while she contentedly suckles. When I’m done I’ll feel happy and exhilarated.”
“That means happy and alive. When I wake up the next day, I might read it again and realize how much work is left. One day I’ll read it and everything will fall into place, a story that flows as smooth as the baby’s bottom it was edited on, and then, at last, I’ll know it is done. At least until my critique group tells me otherwise, but that’s another thing altogether.”
She shakes her head. “No, mum, I mean, how do you know when its finished?”
I stare, drawing a blank. “I don’t understand.”
She stamps her foot. “How do you know when to stop reading?”
Discouragement. It comes to us all. Few things kill creativity like discouragement can, and it shows up like a pterodactyl to snap at your latest project and fly off with its entrails hanging from its beak. There you are, wondering what happened and why you were so convinced pterodactyls were extinct all this time.
I know if I want to succeed as a writer, bad reviews are going to happen. I’m supposed to stand tough and learn from them. If I start taking it to heart and crawling under rocks now I’ll never have the guts to keep going. The tricky part is I see this best when I’m not discouraged.
The first scathing review I received came from an editor I submitted a piece of flash fiction to. This was maybe the second or third time I’d ever submitted anything. By scathing I don’t mean the editor declined to publish my work and scrawled ‘this sucks’ over my manuscript. No, they launched into a three-page tirade of everything they hated about my half page piece. When I read it, I was stunned. Not just because, hey, I liked that piece, but because the hate steamed off of their words like Pigpen’s stink waves in a Charlie Brown comic.
How did my tiny story evoke that much hate? I still don’t know. Sometimes I pull out the review and the original piece and re-read them, my sleuthing cap on and my magnifying glass in hand, trying to figure it out. You know what? I still like that piece.
I moped for about a day before I realized something in there must have touched a chord to make that editor so passionate about it. This tiny thought got me through the worst of it. You probably don’t want to hear this, but it taught me something too.
I wish I could say it taught me about plot structure or character development, that those three pages of hate were hiding useful feedback, but this is not the case. What it did teach me was that I’d prefer to get scathing reviews from my peers than an editor. It was the catalyst that made me sign up for several online critique groups. I didn’t want to give up submitting, but I didn’t want to feel humiliated like that again if I could help it.
Critique groups have changed everything. They give me extra confidence in my best stories, and they let me know the ones which need to be laid to rest. They’ve taught me that while I may enjoy writing adult fiction once in a while, it’s not where I’m at my best. I don’t get the same feeling of absolute delight writing for adults as I do for children, and it comes out in my work.
I still get the occasional poor review, but they come from a constructive place. They may still discourage me, but it doesn’t feel as devastating. I know I’m growing, and I can mark my progress now. Critique groups are safe places that have made my skin tougher, which writers need, especially when submitting and publishing. The odds are someone is going to reject our story-children, and we need to be ready for that. Even the greats get bad reviews.
Last week I received another scathing review, this time from a new-to-me critique partner. With a familiar sinking feeling I felt their hatred of my short story emanate from the screen. I felt gutted, again. This story, too, I believed in, labored over, rewrote and revised, because it was worth the effort. This reviewer eviscerated every last detail of my story, scattering its entrails to the wind. It marked the first review of this story, and I felt shattered.
A few days later, another reviewer from a different critique group sent me her review of the same story. I put off reading it. This woman is a damn good writer and she minces no words telling a fellow writer what is wrong with their story. She doesn’t care about how that makes the writer feel, she’s out to improve stories, not hold hands. In other words, she’s the best possible critique partner you can find IF you can handle it. I’ve been working with her long enough to respect her opinions and be terrified of them all at once.
At last I opened it. “Great story, well-written, made a few notes to clean up a few phrases,” she wrote. My jaw hit the floor. Positive remarks from this woman do not happen often. This is a major personal milestone and this is the exact story which received the soul-crushing review a few days previous.
Negative reviews happen, and they’re bound to discourage, but a bad review is just one person’s opinion. If the one can make a writer question their career choices, why can’t the other re-affirm them?
I went back to that scathing reviewer and tried to look at it with a greater personal distance. Truth is, I didn’t and don’t agree with most of their comments, but surely they must be an expert if they reviewed my work, right? Nope. They specialize in writing kink. Why they were reviewing children’s fiction is beyond me. So why did I put so much stock in their opinion?
Why do we, as writers, believe the worst even when we feel, deep down inside, our story is good? Argh. The stereotype of the neurotic writer. I wouldn’t let myself get away with that on paper, so you can bet I’m not going to get carried away with it in real life. Writing is fun. I’m here for the fun, the hard work, and those blissful moments of creative birth. These things come with the occasional, inevitable discouragement. The discouragement doesn’t get to take over, it gets one day. One. Day. Then we’re moving on, me and my imagination full of stories. Come with me, there’s fun to be had.
While we’re at it, why haven’t I brushed off my flash fiction piece the editor ranted about for three pages and made it into something awesome? The pterodactyls must be done with it by now…
I’ve been struggling with emotional upheavals and whacked-out hormones of late. I resist the word ‘depression’, so let’s just call it the blues. They happen. I have a hard time writing through these periods, so I read myself through them. As in, I just keep on reading like the worst of all stubborn mules until I start feeling better. It’s how I cope.
This did not work with my last bout, however. Everything I picked up was awful. I tried a few of my favourite authors. Blech. I tried my favourite genres. Ugh. Nothing was good enough to break me out of my mental reality. I kind of panicked, to be honest.
Then, at the end of an empty, awful day with no fictional escape, I sat up in the dark, flicked on my bedside lamp, and pulled out my notebook. I wrote down a short list of what I wanted from a story in that moment. I poured out all my reader’s frustration into a manifesto of the story that I so desperately needed.
It wasn’t a list of a characters or plots, it was just a sequence of vague ideas:
I want a story where the character gets what they need, but not they wanted (cue the Rolling Stones)
I want a story where the character goes through hell and we get to see them through
I want a story about a character who doesn’t think they have any value but finds a way to prove to themselves that they do
After this was on the page, I felt purged and peaceful. I turned out the light and went to sleep.
I woke up the next morning with a quote I saw drifting around on social media repeating itself in my mind:
A short story premise I’ve been struggling with jumped in and asserted itself. As I watched, it disrobed from the characters I had assigned to it and dressed up in new ones, older ones, and darker ones. The magic it had lacked began to buzz about the edges. It demanded I apply my list and get to work.
Several hours later I had the first draft of a new story. One that makes me tingle with excitement. I love this story! I don’t like every story I write, but every so often one comes along that surprises me and demands I believe in it. Best of all, I got the story I needed to read, and I feel so much better.
What about you? What story do you need to read? Have you ever written it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Today, instead of a story, I thought I’d write about the importance of writing every day. Writers hear this advice often, but without a why or a means to do that when the words just won’t come.
Busy is one excuse writers give for not writing, but never has a day gone by when I couldn’t squeeze in a paragraph locked in a bathroom with a pen and paper if I needed to. Hold yourself accountable, put your feet against the door to keep the toddlers (metaphorical and otherwise) out, and get some words down. Do this for yourself, and do this for your work. You’ll feel your powers of expression get stronger in just a few weeks.
I keep myself to a hard schedule. I expect myself to write a minimum of so many thousand words per month. This works for me. To meet my goal, I need to write every day without exception. This has also taught me that I write my best when I write every day. I don’t have to hunt for the right phrase to say what I want to say or pause to catch an elusive word; they are all right where they should be, on the page. They’ve been trained. The ideas flow in thoughtful progression and I don’t get stuck on what should happen next.
This doesn’t mean that I, or even any other writer who insists on writing every day, has some brilliant story to work on every single day. Oh, no, no, no, no. Some days are the hair of the dog, days when the words are venomous and cruel and the last thing I want to do is fight with them. Other days I am feeling so profoundly discouraged that working on a story would flavour it with an inappropriate darkness. Those days I put the stories aside, and find other work to do. Exercises to do.
One of my favourite exercises is to click onto google search and find people. National Geographic is a treasure trove of interesting faces in situations which grab hold of a writer’s imagination. The trick is to find one which fascinates you to the point that it feels like a delight to write about her/him. Take, for instance, this gentleman (photo credit: Andrey Pavlov, via National Geographic):
His story leaps out of the photograph, unique to the viewer. First, describe him. Get to know his face as you paint it with words, and as his life unfolds, allow your imagination to build his world, the details of his life. What begins as description moves into a character sketch and perhaps it will grow into something else as well. The point is letting go and allowing the words to guide you, of honing the writing instinct and finding your voice as you tell someone else’s story.
Writing about people in other cultures is a delight. It feels like play to slip out of my own comfortable culture for a while and feel life anew. You may not understand every detail of how that culture works, but this doesn’t matter for the exercise. You can research later if you want to publish, or he can live on an alien world if he needs to. This is writing. You can make it work. For now, just write.
When you’re done you have something – and someone – new. You have a character that has been developed, waiting until a story comes along he’ll fit into like he was meant to be there all along. Perhaps the story you’ve created is compelling enough for a unique work of its own. Or maybe you’ll never use him again, but you still got some writing in on a day that may have gone to waste. You practiced and you wrote today. And I bet you even had a little fun.