Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Interview: Dawn Groves

Dawn Groves is a 21st century Renaissance woman. Her official description says:
“Dawn Groves has authored several books on lifestyle management and a variety of computer topics, including Stress Reduction for Busy People, Yoga for Busy PeopleMassage for Busy People and The Writer's Guide to the Internet.  A certified Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI) presenter and trainer, she consults for the government and private industry in Canada and the USA through Einblau & Associates (http://www.einblau.com/). Her specialties include workflow productivity, team communication, and stress management. Her work has been quoted in Professional Excellence, Fitness Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Yoga Journal, and other national publications. A resident of Bellingham, WA, she also teaches writing and computer workshops for Whatcom Community College. She maintains a popular blog, Your Productivity Sucks."
Yes, but there's more.  In person, Dawn exudes practicality, wit, vast writing and social media experience, and uncommon patience. Her writing pops because her voice and point of view (POV) are strong and sassy.   I know this because I’ve taken three writing/computer classes from Dawn at Whatcom Community College since February.  I also know that  she also curates three great sites: 

Productivity Tips and Tricks

Neuroscience for Regular Folk  

Productivity Backwash: “Where productive people chill” 

She’s also an avid nature lover, kayaker, and puts enormous loving energy into mothering two teenage girls.
Finally, Dawn is generous.  She expressed delight when I asked her for an interview.  And at 4:20 am yesterday morning, she emailed fabulous responses to my questions.  That’s right; the woman was up and taking care of a commitment at 4:20 am.
Come and meet this fascinating writer:

Q. I've been looking at your website, blog, Scoop It, etc.  You are a powerhouse writing and blogging teacher and corporate trainer who also has major roles as a parent, a spiritual person, nature lover and kayaker.  We both know that writing happens because you commit to doing it, but how do you carve out the time to write?  I know that you wrote a post on your blog, "Your Productivity Sucks" on keeping balance in your life, but how do you apply those lessons to your writing?
Ah yes. 5 Takeaways from Seth Godin interview. I like that post. Good info.  Re balance in life, I’ve become more forgiving about it. I drop my standards and go for “good enough.”  For example, when i write blog articles, I write them good enough. I always strive for fabulous but I post when the result is good enough. If you don't see a blog post for a few weeks, it’s usually because I got caught trying to be fabulous again. The same holds true for parenting. I want to be a perfect mom. My love for my girls is infinite and I make sure they know it. But in practice I’m often imperfect, good enough. It’s hard to accept sometimes but when I stop expecting unrealistic outcomes, I produce better work. I get off my own back and become more emotionally present. Presence of mind is what gives writing spirit and heart. Presence communicates.  

Available at Amazon
When it comes to work, I typically schedule a “good enough” goal and then define milestones to reach it.   I allow wiggle room for surprises like special events for the girls, illness, computer crashes, or flat tires.  Again, I schedule for “good enough.” Once I get good enough delivered, I continue to refine until the product is great. But if I wait for great to evolve, I’ll piss off my clients. In all honesty, good enough is usually great to a client.
The bottom line, Benita, is that there is no answer to the balance question. It’s not an either/or situation. It’s more like a continuum. Sometimes you’re at a 10, other times you’re barely hanging on to 2. I’ve found that balance is the result of perspective. I develop relationships with people who’ve been there and done that. Mentors, friends, colleagues, and peers can provide a comforting perspective. They help me remember what’s most important without invalidating my current set of concerns. They make me feel better. They reconnect me to my values. And isn’t that what balance is really about?  
Q. You are a self-confessed neuroscience geek, regaling your followers on Neuroscience for Regular Folk with fascinating discoveries and proven information on how the brain works and how powerful it is.  What information about the brain do you think writers need to know to stimulate their writing and handle distractions?
Oh wow, this could be a book. OK, I’d synopsize it in this way. Habits are neuronal paths biochemically worn into your brain. Spiritually they could be a lot of other things depending on your philosophical flavor, but biologically they are chemical. Because the brain changes constantly, we can generate new pathways. We can change our habits. Really. If we want to move away from distraction and into production, it’s a matter of tromping new neural pathways and letting the old paths go to seed. No it isn’t easy but so what? Everything easy was once hard. We can do hard. We’re not destined to walk the same unskillful pathways. We can change them. Old dogs *can* learn new tricks. It’s a matter of tromping down a smart, sustainable path that’s linked to the same stimuli that used to trigger the old unskillful habit. 

Available at Amazon
Easier said than done, I know. Psychobabble. But it gives me great hope and the impetus to keep making an effort.

Q. A few nights ago, you told our non-fiction writing class that this was the best time for people to write for publications.   Just last Friday, the New York Times had a long article, "Miniature E-books Allow Journalists to Stretch Legs" What will today's new writers need to do to break into the e-book market?

OK, another question that could fill a book. Here’s the short “good enough” list off the top of my head:
1.      Start with reading Jane Friedman’s blog, Being Human at Electric Speed religiously. She’s the queen of online writing and publishing. Incredibly generous, a huge influencer. Her articles are a treasure trove of how-to info.
2.      Pick your topic of interest and see what’s already out there. Assess the competition.
3.      Do everything you can to set yourself apart. Determine your niche. Do you have a unique POV? Is your book shorter? Easier to apply? Edgier? Illustrated with naked people? 
4.      Start a blog with the same distinguishing characteristics. Establish yourself as an authority before you begin asking for money. Test drive your material.
5.      Write a really good book. This is where “good enough” doesn’t quite cut it. Pay an editor.
6.      Commission a strong front cover design. Most e-books have covers that look uninspired or downright sucky.
7.      Don't get greedy. Of course your work is worth $10 to $20 per download. So what? Sales isn’t about worth; it’s about market value. Even Guy Kawasaki, the undisputed king of social media influencers, charges just $1.99 for his latest ebook, What the Plus? Google+ for the Rest of Us. It’s a mighty fine work. I know because I was one of the editors.
8.      Write with two spinoff projects in mind. The second work sells the first and so on.  
9.      Work the process, but also appreciate it. If nothing else, you’re burning new synapses into your brain that should help prevent Alzheimer’s.
Q. Today, it's a brave new world for authors who are expected to promote their own work.  You have enormous experience doing this, and quite an opinion on what does and doesn't work.  In fact, you're going to speak about social media issues this month at the Whatcom Writers and Publishers dinner meeting on March 21st.  Can you tell us a little about what you're going to discuss?
I’ll be sharing 10 strategic tips for writers who want to take advantage of social media but don't know where to start. My aim is to offer options that make sense. Social media is necessary to writers. They just need it demystified and prioritized.
Q.  What led you to writing as one of your many vocations?
I’ve always been a writer and a reader. My father was a driven fiction author (albeit a bad one) and my brother John was a successful Hollywood screenwriter. So it was in the family. I knew I’d write a book someday. I also knew that I’d need a “real job” until my writing career <cough cough> took off. I chose to cultivate two professions. One was an early bloomer (software industry) and the other a late bloomer (writing books). Today, my pathway still combines two professional directions except I traded software for communications. I train and consult on management, team, and online communications with an eye toward efficiency. This lends authority to my work and strengthens the market for what I typically write. As one philosopher said, you can ask for what you want but you must also be willing to pay for it. I always wanted to be an independent writer. I gladly paid for it -- and continue to pay -- with effort, tenacity, compassion and realistic optimism. It’s worth it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Interview with writer Susan Colleen Browne

Susan Colleen Browne
In early February, I took a fantastic weekend workshop on Memoir Writing from Susan Colleen Browne.  It was obvious, both to me and the other students that Ms. Browne taught from experience, “walking the walk” as a writer herself. I knew from Susan’s warm and funny blog, Little Farm in the Foothills, that “…Susan Colleen Browne is an organic "mini-farmer," creative writing instructor, and novelist. She's the author of a romantic comedy set in Ireland, "It Only Takes Once." Her memoir, "Little Farm in the Foothills," relates Susan and her husband John's first, tumultuous year on their starter homestead. "Little Farm" was awarded a spot on the Washington State Library's Summer Reads 2010 book list.”

I wanted to know more Susan’s writing life, and she graciously agreed to a delightful “walk and talk” interview in Fairhaven last month.
When did you know you were going to be a writer? What has been your path?

I actually started late, in my early 30’s.  I had been a romance novel junkie, and my husband encouraged me to write my own romance and use our brand new Apple computer. The process took me a bit over year; from getting an idea, then handwriting it on a yellow tablet, then typing it into the computer.  I sent my manuscript to Harlequin, and got a nice letter back from the editor with some very good feedback.  My mother,who had published several academic books) encouraged me revise it and ask the editor to take another look. So I sent it back to the editor and again got very good feedback, but it didn’t sell.

However, at this time my marriage was breaking up.  After my divorce, I went back to school at Western Washington University to get a degree in Environmental Policy so I could support my kids.  While I was there, I did well writing term papers,  utilizing the writing skills I’d learned as a novelist.  In fact, one nominated me to be a Writing Fellow.  In the meantime, I kept working on romance novels at night, but though I came close several times, I never sold a book.

As I began working for the Whatcom County Planning Department in the mid-1990’s , I kept writing at night, but noticed that I was evolving from a romance novelist to writing more contemporary fiction.  Interestingly enough,  many  published romance writers have also moved out of that genre, morphing into contemporary and suspense novelists.   For the next ten years I continued to write and sent novels out to publishers. Again, I  got wonderful feedback, came very close to being published, but it never happened.

I got away from novel writing for a while, but in November, 2006, I entered the National Novel Writing month, writing a 50, 000 sequel to a novel and actually completed it.  That set me off on another writing project for the  2007  National Novel Writing Month, but after a while, my internal editor could see that  my story was too depressing and wasn’t something I really wanted to write after all.

By that time, my second husband and I had sold our house in Bellingham and moved out to our farm in the Cascade Foothills.  That was an amazing journey:  two “boomers” leaving the city to fulfill their dreams of owning a farm.  I thought that perhaps I’d write an 800 word essay about it, but the story was just too big to be contained in that structure.  So, I began writing the whole story, checking with my husband John to make sure my memories were accurate. 

Once it was done, I had to make a decision about how it was going to be published.  The publishing world has changed so much:  it’s less personal, fewer books are published and editors take less risk as publishers look to their bottom lines.  I decided that I didn’t want to go through the 21st century submission process when I had another viable option:  self-publishing.  I established Whitethorn Press and published 

Little Farm In the Foothills: A BoomerCouple’s Search for the Slow Life on May 1, 2009.  And it turned out to be a good move, since it did receive positive reviews and was even selected for the Washington State Library’s 2010 Summer Reads Booklist.

Since then, I’ve also self-published my debut novel, set in Ireland called It Only Takes Once


and a middle school novelette, called The Corpse Bride.  I’m also  getting ready for a final revision on  another Irish novel, a comedy drama called Mother Love.
You write both fiction and non-fiction.  What’s the difference for you when you write fiction and non-fiction?  Which do you like better, as a writer?

Well, I’ve learned that both forms require good mechanics, voice, setting, and strong story-telling, for example, and writing in both forms has made me a better, more conscious writer.  I must say that I love writing fiction, though.  It’s such an interesting way to present ideas.  Fiction also allows you to develop a character that’s going to have to change, and the plot is going to need to come to a climax.  I also love developing ancillary characters and creating dialogue. 

I find that when I’m not writing fiction, I miss it.  I used to write two hours a day, but when the farm is in full swing, it just demands most of my attention and energy.  From March through October, the farm is really a full-time job.

For me, writing practice is like doing piano scales so that eventually, you just might to be able to play a sonata.  What writing practices work best for you?

Today, I do daily writing for 15 – 20 minutes.  I like to hand write my practices in a notebook, so I can easily look up  the page.  I’ve found that just stream of consciousness daily writing helps keep my creative juices flowing and develops story ideas and different takes on characters.I also believe that clustering/mind mapping is a great way to tap into story, details and character.

Your January 17, 2012 blog posting, “Wild Kingdom” was about your encounter with a bear very near your home.  The last sentence at the end of the paragraph literally made me laugh out loud.  This sentence is only three words, and the last word is italicized; however, in the context of the blog, it set up your experience and injected humor into your piece.  Can you tell me how you created that?

What I did was focus on the image, of the dark mass of the bear, and how it moved across the road. I guess when you think your safety, or even your life is at risk, it really concentrates your attention! Also, I tend to use italics here and there when I'm writing in a more lighthearted vein. I think it helps add inflection to the language, so not only your writing voice comes through, but you give the reader a sense that they're hearing you tell the story.  

How do you approach writing your blog?

My approach to writing a post: usually I write about something I've been thinking about a lot. Not just a quickie anecdote, but some topic that figures strongly in our lives here. For example, the bear and wildlife--it's the reality of living out here, that just taking a walk, we could encounter some wildlife that might pose a danger. But we try not to take the potential dangers too seriously, or we'd just be cowering in the house. An earlier post, from September, I think, was on the topic "Strawberry Yoga." I'd been thinking a lot about the physical challenges of harvesting strawberries and gardening in general, so it was current in my life at the time--but I wanted to make it light. If you don't laugh at your backaches, gardening and raising food won't be fun and satisfying!

You’ve been writing for more than two decades—what impels you to keep writing? Any projects that you’re working on now that we can look forward to?

Well, I love writing and want to keep practicing and stretching myself.  As I told you earlier, I started off as a romance novelist, moved on to writing more contemporary novels, then wrote a personal memoir and finally have moved on to writing novels and short stories set in Ireland.  I’m Irish-American myself, and I’m captivated by the country and people.  And I’m also a freelance manuscript editor and I write non-fiction pieces, too.

As for what I’m writing now, that has a complicated answer.  In 2008, I spent a year writing Little Farm In the Foothills.  Late in 2009,  after I’d published my  memoir, I had an idea from a clustering exercise about a character called Emma, and wrote quite a bit of her story, intending to develop it into a novel.  However, at the same time, I developed a short story that I called the “Not Emma” story, and liked it much better than Emma   So, I put Emma aside in favor of “Not Emma,” a short story that I’m planning as part of a collection of Irish-themed stories.    I’m quite enjoying my Irish stories, both short stories and novels, and look forward to publishing them through my company, Whitethorn Press.  And of course, I do enjoy teaching writing and the business of self-publishing at Whatcom Community College.

Thanks, Susan, and I will look forward to reading It Only Takes Once and taking more classes from you.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Non-Fiction Writing - 10 Essentials from Dawn Groves

Last night I started a Non-Fiction Writing class with Dawn Groves.  Readers will remember that Dawn taught a great class on blogging; in fact, this blog is a direct result from her class.

Here are 10 great takeaways from Dawn on becoming a successful non-fiction:

  1. Stop waiting
  2. Commit
  3. Configure your data management system.  Hard copy, interviews (mp3 and transcription), websites, blogs, periodicals and books, aggregator websites and misc. data.
  4. Plan for a goal and then release it. (Construct a timeline, word count goal, and outline.)
  5. Submerge and indulge (Research).
  6. Keep an idea pad handy.
  7. Prepare for distractions.
  8. Cultivate strong readers.
  9. Establish an on-line presence,  preferably a blog and twitter account.
  10. Join  www.writersmarket.com
Note:  I think I've found my non-fiction book combining what I've learned from urban farming, mental illness and finding personal peace.  Now to put these steps to use and get this done by August 1, 2012!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A New Favorite Blog: Brain Pickings



Slow Love Life  is one of my favorite blogs for great writing and reading.  In today's post, Dominique Browning "curated" several blogs she reads regularly.  I was drawn to "Brain Pickings ... the brain child of Maria Popova, a cultural curator and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and Design Observer, among others. She gets occasional help from a handful of talented contributors.

Brain Pickings is a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are."
And what should I find but the post below, surely one of the most succinct pieces of advice on how to be a good writer?


10 Tips on Writing from David Ogilvy

“Never write more than two pages on any subject.”
How is your new year’s resolution to read more and write better holding up? After tracing the fascinating story of the most influential writing style guide of all time and absorbing advice on writing from some of modern history’s most legendary writers, here comes some priceless and pricelessly uncompromising wisdom from a very different kind of cultural legend: iconic businessman and original “Mad Man” David Ogilvy. On September 7th, 1982, Ogilvy sent the following internal memo to all agency employees, titled “How to Write”:
The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.
Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.
Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:
1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
6. Check your quotations.
7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.
This, and much more of Ogilvy’s timeless advice, can be found in The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners, a fine addition to my favorite famous correspondence

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Abraham Maslow, Self-Actualization and Writing

Happy Valentine's Day, fellow writers. If this day is about love, let us now love and cherish the "spirit" within us that makes us write. I have been thinking about what makes a writer a writer, and am looking forward to getting insights from Susan Colleen Browne tomorrow. 

And now, through loving synchronicity, up pops a biographical article on Abraham Maslow on my IPad.   I remember getting so excited in college as I read his theory of self actualization and hierarchy of needs.  This must be where we should all strive for, I thought, on top of the hierarchy.  If we were there, in that top golden  triangle, we wouldn't have war, we wouldn't be consumed with dominating others, etc.

What does Maslow have to do with writing?  This morning I read this excerpt from his 1954 collected papers, Motivation and Personality:

"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.  What a man can be, he must be.  He must be true to his own nature.  This need we may call self-actualization . . .(it) refers to man's desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become more actualized in what he is potentially.  This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one idiosyncratically is, to become everything one is capable of becoming."

I realize now, after nearly 50 years, that the work that makes me feels self-actualized is writing.  And self-actualization fuels the loving energy to do the work:  the daily practices that feel like piano scales, the editing and editing, the intense observations using all senses, the great reading and not so great reading, the emotional dredging that feels like you are wielding your own scalpel.

So much to learn, so much to do, so little time.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Nancy Lou Canyon's Creative Writing Class - 8 Compelling Ideas and Strategies for New Writers

Last night's class soared around tried and true strategies for gaining power as writers.  Nancy Canyon encouraged us to:
  • Remember a novel can be written one scene at a time.
  • Write 100 words about the subject you're writing about.  For example, if you were writing about a wagon journey in the 1900's, start a list describing the wagon and it's contents:  oxen, floorboard, tongue, cast iron pot, bonnet, whip, traces . . . .
  • Try writing exercises that will tap into your right hemisphere.  For example, write ten minutes on "I remember" and take a break.  Come back and write ten minutes on "I don't remember" and see what comes out!
  • Treat writing like a job.  Schedule yourself for writing hours and keep to that schedule.
  • The more you write in the second or third person, the more you will believe in your own story.
  • In the course of reading our story, we want to see a character become different.
  • Consciously use dialogue, exterior monolog, interior monolog, stream of consciousness, etc. in your writing.
  • Writing practice - 5 minutes short sentences, 10  minutes "chaining," 20 minutes long sentence release (do not lift your pen from the paper) and (finally) 5 minutes writing dialogue.