Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Successful Author: Making Change

Denali sunrise from my office window

We humans are strange creatures. We crave routine, and yet in many ways, we’re inspired by change. As writers, we can tease out our best work by playing to both aspects of our creative selves.

At the end of my Jumpstart Your Writing workshop, I ask students to write down what will be different as they move forward with their projects—what they’ll allow themselves, what they’ll remember, what actions they’ll take. Among their responses are this yin-and-yang—creating “mini-routines” that get them into writing mode and also making changes that energize their work.

Among the changes that can move your writing forward:

Break free of the linear: In our culture, we’re trained from a young age to think and work in linear ways, from beginning to middle to end. But especially in the early stages of a writing project, linear thinking inhibits creativity. There’s no reason to write straight through from beginning to end. Stuck in the middle? Jump ahead. Write key scenes from later in the piece. Write your ending. Then go back and fill in the rest.

Switch up the way you write: Writing will never be efficient, but with the advent of word processing, writers are able to work faster than ever. Still, typing has disadvantages. Handwriting jars us out of the keypad-to-screen rut. By putting pen to page, you can explore in more freewheeling ways. Visual activities such as mapping, illustrating, and webbing help you access the more creative parts of your brain.

See your work differently: When it’s time to revise—literally, to re-see your work—find ways to make it look different. Change the font. Load up the file on an e-reader. String a line across your work space and hang pages with clothespins. Spread pages out on the floor.

Acknowledge the reader’s desire for change: Part of what keeps readers turning the pages is their desire to vicariously experience change. Active readers enjoy anticipating how characters, setting, and event will activate changes in a protagonist. A helpful goal for a writer: By the end of each scene, at least one of the characters has experienced a change of mood, attitude, or direction. A slight change, perhaps, but a change.

Refresh yourself with new perspectives: Writing retreats and residencies aren’t just about getting away from it all. One reason so much good work happens there is that changes habits and scene nudges us to think and see in new ways. Travel is wonderful, but there are other ways to shake things up. Take a writing workshop. Join a writing group. Write in new places that are easily accessible from your home. Write in new places within your home. The bathtub? Sure. Just remember that water and laptops don’t play well together.

As I write this post, I’m in the midst of acting on this last point—packing up to leave Alaska after thirty-six years. It’s hard to leave the familiar, especially as wild and beautiful as Alaska, landscape on a scale that amazes no matter how long you’ve lived here. A place where the routine never feels routine, where even daily walks with the dog immerse you in natural wonder.

Alaska is also the place where I've grown into myself as a writer. It's where I've written all my published work (and a good amount that's unpublished). It's where I’ve enjoyed the generosity and warmth of the writing community at 49 Writers. A place where I’ve even built something of a reputation, with one Library Journal reviewer kindly referring to me as “one of Alaska’s leading storytellers.”

Still, I’m excited about the new perspectives that come with relocating, a prospect I hadn’t entertained until a few months ago, when my husband suggested a move to the Oregon coast. Family and job prospects (his) are a huge draw, as is living within walking distance of the ocean. I’ll miss the Denali sunrises, viewed from my office window. I’ll miss the moose strolling through the yard. And I’ll miss my friends and writing colleagues.

Alaska has been good to me in more ways than I could ever name. And in some small way, I hope I’m leaving it a little better than I found it.

But change is good. I intend to make the most of it.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Her next book, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold, comes out in April, 2016. A regular contributor to the IBPA Independent, her views here are her own.