I Read to Write

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve joked or commented that I wish I could get paid to read. I always envision myself, all curled up on the couch in comfy clothes, my back cushioned on pillows and my legs tucked underneath blankets, a pile of books and snacks on the table next to a cup of hot tea as I sit intently lost in an open book.
Until a couple of weeks ago it hadn’t dawned on me that it could really happen. Yet there I was, sitting in on a conversation about all the ways that writers could make money doing writer related jobs while they work on their novels. The topic of audiobooks came up, to which I joked was my “other dream job” (with the first dream job being a full-time writer, of course!). There was a stir in the room and something stirred inside as the others told me that I could do it, that I should do it. That is when I was introduced to the idea of doing an audiobook audition.
The following week was a whirlwind of research and watching hours of Youtube videos. My research was on everything from microphones to editing software. I got a used USB microphone. I started to learn and utilize the free software that I found called Audacity and played with recording my own voice. I watched video’s on narration and voice-overs and practiced recording myself reading. At first, I was choppy and mechanical. I repeated the same sentence over and over in different tones with different inflections. Finally, I moved my make-shift studio into half of the closet in my writing room. I have arranged, recorded, and listened to my audio, over and over again until I finally felt satisfied with the results.
Luckily, I am proficient enough with a computer that I can set-up, record and edit the tracks easy enough. Now that my “booth” is set up the way I like, I have spent the last few days practicing. I’ve enjoyed the practice so far even though I have to repeat things over and over again. I’m quickly developing an ear for what sounds good. (Although, I now know by heart almost an entire random text out of “A Wrinkle in Time”.)
After my limited experience, I would have to say, this is a good job for someone with some acting skills or background, neither of which do I have. But I long to be an amazing storyteller. I get to try my best to present a story with all the intention and excitement an author has put into the story thus far. I get to dress it up and take it out for a stroll. It seems to me a little ironic that for the last two years, my focus has been on becoming a better storyteller and now I get a chance to… just not in the form I expected.
I still have my dream. I would still love to become an author. I will still try. But I now feel this is also part of my journey. I know that doing this, whether I succeed or not, will help me become a better storyteller. Perhaps this is a door I must walk through to get to the other side or perhaps this is just the next piece of my writing evolution. Either way, I am here and learning and doing as much as I can to tell good stories, to share great ideas and to perhaps add to my working resume. I am both intrigued and blessed by this opportunity and I will do my best to honor it.

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My Experience with a Sledgehammer

Last year an intriguing contest rolled across my Facebook feed. It was held monthly at a local wine shop in Portland, OR. All I knew was that it was a short story writing competition and at the time, I was just getting my feet wet with writing fiction. I had studied books and kind of dabbled a little but that was about it. At this point in my writing progress, I was a strictly solitary writer. I had no groups that I was involved with outside of stalking a handful of websites and Facebook groups online. I was also somewhat disillusioned that all one needed to be a great storyteller was to be able to write well, which I felt confident I could. I walked into the shop knowing no one in the group, at the time that was the part that I thought was brave.

The administrator explained the process. We had 36 minutes (which is why it is called the Mini-Sledgehammer) to write a complete short story (beginning, middle, and end) and it had to include all four prompts (usually a character, action, object, and phrase). At the end of the 36 minutes, we would have a short break to upload our story to the online thread so that we could all follow along as we each read our stories out loud. Then the judges (usually an admin or two plus the previous month’s winner) would select the current winner based on things like story arc and originality. Honestly, the first time, I was devastated that I didn’t win.

But I learned and after I swallowed that jagged little pill, going and participating became something that I loved to do. When I started, I was unaware that actual short stories are deemed the hardest pieces of writing to do well. I was hard on myself for not grasping the concept more, month after month. I was also discouraged but I fought that discouragement back with a heavy dose of determination.

With each session that passed, just listening to the other’s stories, I was so inspired by their levels of creativity that it started to affect my own. I learned and I grew as a writer because of the group. Last night was my fifth time attending and while I once again did not win, I smiled with the acceptance that I am getting better. While I still have a long ways to go, I am grateful for the improvement. I am inspired by the group’s observations and comments on my writing and am more dedicated than ever. Not to win but to succeed where I once floundered.

Here is yesterday’s attempt, unedited.

Mini-sledgehammer for May 2018
36 minutes, 4 prompts

 

Character: a kid with chickenpox
Action: opening a window
Object: a lava vent
Phrase: “I always perform magnificently!”

Smoke and Scars
Written by Jaimee Walls

Baxter Bradley sat in his dingy south facing room, the sun beat across his spotted chest and sweat gathered on his brow like the smoke on the horizon. He itched all over even where his mom had spotted the calamine lotion leaving him feeling like a bingo card on breast cancer awareness night. Grandma used to drag him along with her before she died. Like a statue, he waited for the alarm to sound again. He wanted to get up and at least draw the curtain but he didn’t have the strength to do so. His mom would be home soon.
The alarms were sounding again and the ground shook from time to time. He knew the danger was growing closer but it’s not like he could run or anything, not today. Why did all the cool stuff happen when he was sick? He had a vision of being like the men years ago who engineered a series of pipes to put out the lava flow hardening it into a crispy crust of new land. He pictured the congratulations from all the community and news crews. He would announce with no unnecessary certainty that he outsmarted the lava vent that grew into a fissure covering miles of his hometown. “I always perform magnificently!” he announced as he tried to raise himself slightly so that he could creep into a spot where the sun wasn’t going to make things hotter.
He heard the front door as his mother came in and fought to open the window, it slapping open and wind rushing in. “It’s as hot as that lava vent in here!” she announced and turned on the overhead fan. “How are you feeling?”
“Like butter burning in a pan…” he winced as she checked his forehead.
“I’m going to go run you a bath.”
“Not another bath mom, come on. Besides I can barely get up. Shouldn’t we be evacuating or something?”
“There is a ship waiting, just in case, but the authorities say we should be fine.” She grabbed the calamine lotion and the bag of cotton balls. He started scratching just at the sight of them.
“Don’t scratch, you’ll scar.” She held his hands down as she dotted the spots again.
The siren went off with a sick sound of its own followed by a low grumble beneath Baxter’s bed. A dog howled along with the siren. Outside a scar in the earth was growing wider, setting things ablaze and devouring every little thing it touched. Smoke drifted in through the window and danced with the thin curtains. He pictured the pools of lava licking flames along the little things in his life. Part of his school was gone so at least there was that. It might be a nice long summer, he just wondered if there would be anywhere left to play.

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Novel Number Two

During the month of March, I was introduced to the continuation of the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) with Camp Nano, which is always done in April. I persuaded myself to attempt the same feat that I had accomplished just a few months ago back in November. There is this one character that I have carried around in my “back pocket” for a few years and knew she was ready for a novel of her own. I decided this was the perfect time to bring her to the surface. I gave her her own spotlight and stepped back to see what would happen.

I started out on April 1st with all the gusto and feeling I had from November. In the weeks before, I had taken the time to develop her backstory as well as creating a current “situation” and even a subplot full of personal tension. I gave her a bit of a platform and set out to tell a harrowing tale! During this time, I also started or was in the process of reading 3 heavy-hitting books. “The Art of War for Writer’s” by James Scott Bell, “Character’s and Point of View” by Orson Scott Card, and “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. I also didn’t fully take into account the fact that April is our busiest month of the year at my work and that I was scheduled for almost double my normal workload.

Like I said, things were good at first. Although I wasn’t regularly hitting my word count and I knew it. I was exhausted from work but I kept telling myself that I could catch up. I got sick. I caught the crud. Of course, I did. I was stretched too thin already and barely able to keep my house clean. I was managing to get some reading done and in turn, learning things along the way but not getting much in the way of actual writing done.

As my story became clearer and clearer, I realized that I had more work to do before I could really keep writing, or at least that is what I told myself. The truth was I had lost my way. I had taken on too much and my learning was getting in the way of my writing at that point. For the first time since I started writing again, I hit a full-blown wall of solid writer’s block. Through my reading, I learned why I hit this particular wall, but it did me no good as far as finishing the manuscript by my deadline. I had oversold myself and needed to step back. So I did.

This is also the first time I didn’t beat myself up for not finishing by my deadline. I showed myself some compassion and for once, I learned something by not finishing. I learned that reading a brilliant book like “The Silence of the Lambs” makes your own writing look even more amateurish than you would ever think possible. Also, I would not recommend reading any type of learning books while trying to reach such a tight goal. I worked on things that are developmental in nature instead of just focusing on getting the story out. I ended up changing the direction so much that I couldn’t recover fast enough to keep the ball rolling, not with me on top of it anyway.

So, once again my character goes into my back pocket. Only this time, for the next few weeks, as I finish up these books I am reading, I will be working on her character and her story, but this time from the pinhole points of synopsis and loglines, developing elevator pitches, voice journals and honing her story down to the barest essentials. I will take the current story skeleton that I have and piece it together like Dr. Frankenstein and put meat on its bones like fattening a calf for slaughter. When I am finished, I hope to have done my character justice and while I’m no Thomas Harris, I hope to create a lasting character, with deeper substance and an amazing story.

I did not win the contest (because I did not reach 50k in one month) for Camp Nano this year. However, I did win in general because I am learning to set my character into motion and develop a story like never before. While there is still plenty of writing to be done, I am proud every time I stretch my wings and at least try. I always accomplish more than I would have if I had never tried at all.

Camp

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A Black Crayon

 

The smell of crayons always takes me back to my first childhood memories of creativity. Crayons were almost always available and easy enough to use though I was never “that kind” of an artist. To this day, I love the way the wax slides across the paper and catches every bump or imperfection both in the paper and from the surface underneath it. I still love the smell of a fresh brand new box and can hear in my head the sound of the paper being torn off as the crayon leaves itself behind on the paper.
The black crayon was always my favorite. I saw it as the most useful of all the colors because you can use it to outline anything, like the way a tattoo artist or coloring book does. It creates the lines and structure of your focus. It conducts your direction like the line on a road. It is the color of ladybugs and window frames.
Now as an adult, I get to show my grandkids the cool things one can do with a crayon and I love when they think I have some sort of magical powers. “How do you know how to do that Grandma?” my grandson Lucas will ask, his voice filled with wonder. “Because when I was your age, I practiced,” I tell him smiling.
I hope he always sees me as magical, just as I did my first box of 64 Crayola crayons, the cool one with the sharpener in the back. The box was so much better than that smaller, plain, nondescript box of crayons that mom got me before that, which broke, randomly melted, and honestly did not even write the same as the Crayola brand. I remember feeling rich when I opened that package on Christmas day! I am sure that it came with a coloring book but I have long since forgotten what book that could possibly have been.
I do remember emptying the entire box on a regular basis. I used the four inserts to arrange the crayons in color coordinating patterns, resulting in the colors beaming back at me like some confused sort of rainbow. Crayons, in some ways, symbolize my first OCD moments, which as an adult continue to play out in my color coordinated closets and pantry’s, outlined in black. I manage my OCD with a strong dose of writing and have long since traded my crayons for pens and my drawings for stories.

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Camp Nano

If you follow my blog, you know that learning my way through this writing process has been a favored topic. This is not only so that I can analyze what I have learned but also a way to keep a record of this journey, much like a journal. This past year has brought me so many lessons and the learning I have done has brought forth a positive part of myself that I feel I should share with others who are either on my same path or are thinking of starting something new.

The other day, I met a woman who was taking her first steps on this journey that I have been on for the last few years. This flashed me back to some of the first public writing groups that I met, thinking I knew so much when I really knew so little. I was hit with the feelings all over again, the curiosity, the bewilderment, the unknown and uncertain paths, all the things that perplex us in the beginning, all the frustration for there being no one single “right way”.

Within the first few months, I successfully learned all the wrong ways. There were ways that I tried that left me spinning in circles, never getting myself anywhere. I finally learned not to write and edit at the same time even though I swear this is what I was taught in high school English classes. I learned that not writing every day is one of the worst things you can do if you want to be a writer. I learned that not sticking to deadlines prevents finished projects. I learned that writing with money in mind will only bring forth writing that contains no heart or passion.

I learned that some kind of support is paramount. It helps if you have someone you can talk to about your work. Someone to share your excitement. Someone to hold you accountable. “How’s your book coming along?” is a steady motivator. Having an online group that shares your small successes is encouraging as well. Even keeping track of your word counts supports that forward motion. I’m often motivated when I look back at how much I have already written.

I’ve decided I must be a glutton for writing punishment. I have committed to writing another 50k in April for Camp Nanowrimo (which is basically Nanowrimo-National Novel Writing Month- only done in April instead of November) on my next novel. This is not an easy task. Only 17% of the people who start Nano, finish Nano. The odds are not in my favor. However, I have found that this crazy method works for me so I will stick with it. Plus, I learned so much about the writing process from the last one that I want to see what more I can learn the second time around.

What will I gain from all this? Hopefully another finished novel and a better sense of my writer’s voice. A feeling of success and accomplishment for sure. I will also gain a dirtier house and friends and family who will claim to miss me. I will disappear into the recesses of my story as I watch it unfold before me. I will lose sleep and miss fun activities but I will be a better person for it. I will strive to learn all I can as I create something new, something that didn’t exist before I put it on paper and for that, there is no greater reward.

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A Voice Full of Faults

 

There are moments in life that just stick with you. They plaster themselves on the big screen in your mind and replay the scene for you at random times, sometimes years or decades later, usually on the tails of some epiphany or regret. This particular epiphany hit me out of nowhere and bruised me with a harsh dose of unexpected reality. The unconnected moments stringing their stories together before my eyes.

Lately, I’ve been reading numerous books on writing to usher me along my current path. While reading through a chapter on finding your writing voice, I was hit with a memory from nearly a decade ago. It was an important crisp spring day in Vancouver, Washington, and my son had just tied the knot. After listening to several great speeches, I choked on a handful of words that I had scraped together for the occasion. I’m sure that I was expected to say something wonderful and inspiring or welcoming to my new daughter-in-law, but instead, my underdeveloped words hung in the air like an unsightly stain. I saw the disappointment and disbelief on my son’s face and I still carry that disappointment with me daily.

I had not found my voice at that time. Over the years, I kept my voice safely at the surface where nothing ever happens, only grazing the top, only skimming off what can be seen on the surface– never delving to the depths of my soul. Perhaps, I was still scared to go beneath the surface and see my faults brewing below, just out of sight. If there is one thing I have been sure of in this life, it is that I was full of faults. I never understood why I was given such an awkward starter pack. The life tools I possessed were unhelpful at best.

The voice I’ve been accustomed to using for the past 40 years or so, was biting like my mom, chomping her teeth at me as though she could eat my flesh if she chose to. All my genuine voice could manage to do was spin around in the same dirty dishwater for years while it waited for me to find it. Even when I have found parts of my voice and managed to make it work at all, it would lock up at some point, my throat choking off my very words. I never realized that finding my voice would be the missing piece to finding my true self.

I’ve always found it easier to use my voice on paper. Only there can I share my acknowledgment of these mistakes, knowing that I deserved any bite ever received from my son for all my fumbles over the years. However, I am also blessed with his forgiveness for my mistakes throughout those parenting years. His love and acceptance has lead me to become a better person as well as giving me the courage to find my voice and the freedom to use it. My quest to find my voice has helped me bring up the fresher, deeper truths, like discovering rich fertile soil in the spring. Two unconnected moments meeting together, changing the layers of my life, opening doors that I have never had a key for, releasing my voice into the world.

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Writing My Way into the Day

 

My life has rarely been structured or disciplined. I’ve lived most of my life by the seat of my pants, doing things my own way and making plenty of mistakes in the process. I usually choose to learn things the hard way. As I get older, I’ve learned the value of learning from other people who are experts in their field. The best way to learn to be successful is from doing the things that successful people do. Successful writers write. They write a lot.
So, I am sure that when I first encountered the idea of a daily word count, I scoffed at the idea, thinking it ridiculous. Not only did I not see the purpose in it, I didn’t think it was possible to maintain a high count nor was I sure it was even a good idea. It all seemed like a waste of time to me.
I have learned so much by writing every day. Setting a target to reach for every day really helps to keep me on track. Plus, when I hold myself accountable for a daily word count, I always get more writing done than without one. I push myself, even when I don’t feel like it and am always surprised that my writing is usually just as good as when I am inspired.
There is something about writing every day that is more spiritual than anything. It tends to open a person to the creative force of the universe. It creates a new level that wasn’t there before and doesn’t tend to exist unless you dedicate the time to maintain it. Writing every day opens the mind’s eye to new things and even silently encourages from the sidelines. It helps the writer pay close attention and get down to the nitty-gritty details.
When the daily word count is added in, it raises the bar on the overall writing. My dad, who is a photographer, once told me that you must take lots of okay pictures to get the good ones. I think it is the same with writing. We might write pages to get that one sentence. We might write years to finish that one book and it’s always worth it.
I’ve never been a morning person, however, since making a commitment to a daily word count, I find myself up before sunrise, writing my way into the day. I get more done and all before I would normally even climb out of bed. My writing life has changed the way I live. I don’t have time for things without a soul. I no longer allow myself to waste time on things that won’t help me to grow. I want to do the things successful writers do.

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