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Posts from the ‘writing’ Category

once more, with feeling

December 17, 2012

fransiweinstein

Okay. This is the third, and final, post I wrote for my other blog, 365, I’m re-posting here. This time I’m not going to apologize to anyone who may have read it ‘over there’. Because if you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, this is one message you cannot hear too often. In fact, it should be burned into your brain. It’s definitely burned into mine. Thanks for reading my blogs. It’s much appreciated. Hope to see you here again.

Pete Armetta has a WordPress blog I very much enjoy. He’s a powerful writer of poetry, flash fiction, essays and short stories; and I’m always struck by how few words he needs, to say so much. Which, incidentally, is much easier said than done. His ‘style’ brings to mind a favourite Mark Twain quote:

“I am sorry to have written such a long letter, but I did not have time to write a short one”.

Says it all. Because the true measure of a writer is the ability to self-edit. To be ruthless. Brutal. To choose words carefully. To make every one work hard. And having talent is the least of it. It takes discipline. Love of the craft. The ability to let go. To love ‘em, but leave ‘em, on the cutting room floor. To know when you’re done.

So really, a writer’s best friend isn’t a computer. Or a dictionary. Or a thesaurus. It’s the eraser.

Luckily, I learned that very early in my career. It was hard. And painful. But the best thing that could ever have happened to a young writer, just starting out. Which is why I wrote a blog post about it.

When I commented on Pete’s poem, and how much I admire his ability to keep only what’s absolutely essential, he responded, simply: “Less is best, I think.” Again, says it all.

And it’s a philosophy that’s not restricted to writers. It’s one reason why I love Italian design. What Giorgio Armani has always done best, is to allow exquisite fabrics and flawless tailoring take centre stage. Italian cars and furniture, same thing. It’s about simplicity. Beautiful design. Perfection. Less is best.

Embellishments are not necessary, because they have no flaws or imperfections to hide.

It’s what I love about Apple. The computers themselves. The web browser, Safari. And the stores. Oh, how I love the stores. But really, everything they do all looks alike. Lots of white space. Everything in its place. A logical place. Easy to find. Easy to use. Efficient. Nice to look at. Sleek. Clean. Unencumbered. No gimmicks. So contemporary. Only what’s necessary. Again, simple and beautifully designed. Highly functional.

Less is best.

There are people who speak that way. I could listen to them for hours. Well organized thoughts. Succinct. Articulate. Focussed. No hesitation. No pausing. No grasping for words. No hemming or hawing. Never repetitive. Smooth transitions from one sentence to the next. No convoluted sentences. The complete opposite of verbose. Short, sweet and to the point. Yet warm. Engaging. Informative. And interesting. They’ve got my attention, that’s for damn sure!

I’m writing a book. My first. Very early on I decided it should come in at between 70 and 80,000 words. I’d read something, somewhere. As each chapter was completed, I’d frantically check my word count. And I’d go back and add more. And more. And more.

Until it was so filled with gratuitous nonsense, the story was lost. It had become incomprehensible. Then I remembered that lesson I’d learned years ago. And how “Tuesdays with Morrie”, one of the most successful books of all time, had less than 200 pages. My book has to be as long as it has to be, to tell the story. Not one word longer. The number of words isn’t the point. And that’s when I went back and started slashing. And slashing. And slashing.

Less is best.

I’m done.

the art of writing emails

August 8, 2012

fransiweinstein

I have a new WordPress blog — Three Hundred Sixty-Five (hope you’ll visit, by the way) and yesterday’s post — my first on that blog — was about how much I loved the email exchanges between the two main characters in the hot, hot, hot (referring to sales in this instance) erotic trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey”, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed”.

Yes, I know.

Of all the conversations going on, all over the world, about E.L. James’ novels you’ve never heard anyone talking about the emails before.  And that’s fine with me.  I think there’s a good point to be made about what makes for an effective email.  And, besides, there’s more than enough people already discussing the innocent virgin, Anastasia Steele … the handsome billionaire, Christian Grey who, when he’s not making money, likes to blindfold, gag, handcuff and dominate beautiful brunettes … his red room of pain … floggers … riding crops …  and virtually non-stop sex.

So emails it is.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  And if you’re not one of the 40 million people who’ve read the books so far, see if you can borrow them — just so you’ll know what I’m talking about:

With only a couple of exceptions the Fifty Shades emails are very short.  Some are more serious than others, but they are simple, frank (and I don’t mean sexually explicit), witty, charming and very engaging.  Qualities I rarely see in emails I receive — from friends and family, companies I do business with, and those who are trying to entice me to do business with them.  Most of them are deadly, deadly dull.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The subject lines in these three books do exactly what they’re supposed to do — grab your attention and draw you in to the email itself.  Not that I’m suggesting that your next email have ‘panting’ in the subject line — unless, of course, you’re writing your lover or selling asthma puffers.  And then I bet you’d get a great click-through rate.  But in all seriousness, direct marketers totally understand the importance of subject lines because their mission is the same as the envelope teaser:  Get the recipient intrigued enough to either open the email or the envelope so they can see your message.  And offer if you’re writing a business email.

And what can I say about the signatures?  Again, so charming and clever.  Great for personal emails.  But I do suggest you be judicious with email campaigns you’re creating for clients — not that you can’t try to see if there’s something appropriate you can do to humanize your signatures — just be circumspect.

Among all the other work I do for clients, I do often write email campaigns, and I’m happy to say they’re quite successful.  But since reading Fifty Shades I must admit that I am looking at them differently; and I’m definitely trying to have more fun with my personal emails.  So what do you think?

Is it time for all of us to ‘spice’ up our emails?  No sexual innuendos required, by the way.

what’s it all about?

July 10, 2012

fransiweinstein

Yet again I’ve found inspiration through WordPress; and yet again I found it at Magnificent Nose, a blog I refer to often.  This time, it was from two different writers, each authoring their own posts:  Angry Writing by Sara Goas and So What by Steven E.A.

Essentially, at least in my opinion, they’re both talking about a couple of key ingredients of successful writing:  Being honest about sharing your feelings and making sure that there’s a point to everything you write — whether it’s a letter, an ad, an article, a website, a screenplay, a joke, an essay, a blog or even a book.  Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.  First person or third.  An interview, a report, a white paper or speech.

Steven’s blog post made me reflect back on all the writing I’ve done — as far back as high school English classes. Writing I’ve done for myself and writing I do for clients.  And here’s what I realized:  For the most part, when it’s been a real struggle … when I’ve thrown out more than I’ve kept, there’s been one reason for it:  There was no point to the story.  As Steven’s professor said to him, I hadn’t found the “so what?”.  The moral of the story.  And when you think about it, it’s perfectly logical.  Without it, what are you writing about in the first place?

In Steven’s case — at least in the example he gave — it was the fact that he and his sister may have been doing stupid things while passing time at the mall, but it was bringing them closer together.  And suddenly, an ordinary moment, in an ordinary day became interesting — and unique.  Worth writing about.  And worth reading.

As I write this post, I am thinking about what the ‘so what’ is:  The aha moment I got from reading Steven’s story — there’s no reason to spend your life searching for something extraordinary to write about — the ordinary becomes extraordinary when there’s an idea behind it.  A reason for it.

Sara’s post, on the other hand, reminded me of an experience I had about a year ago.  I’m writing a book.  So is an acquaintance of mine — and one day, at lunch, she talked about her editor, and how fabulous she is.  Although I didn’t think I was ready for an editor yet, she encouraged me to email this woman and tell her what stage my book was at; and ask her when might be a good time for us to possibly meet.  I did that and she suggested that I send her 20 pages, my chapter-by-chapter outline and the synopsis — which I did.

My book is a story about my mother — and me.  Most of it takes place during a 7-odd year period when her health started to decline (physically, not cognitively) and I had to take more and more care of her.

The editor’s response was one of the most brutal critiques I’ve ever had — and not just because of what she said.  It was the anger with which she had written back to me.  Essentially she told me — accused me — of not being a credible storyteller because I didn’t write about the anger I must have been feeling all the time I’d had to deal with, and take care of, my mother.

I didn’t write about it because I wasn’t angry.

She (the editor) and I exchanged a few emails where I explained how I’d felt; and during this back and forth we had, a couple of very interesting insights emerged:

  1. She hated her mother and was projecting how she’d have felt if she had been me
  2. I did uncover feelings I didn’t know I had toward a cousin who — the day after my mother’s funeral — asked me to go to the hospital where her mother was and advocate for her, like I had done for my mother.  It was insensitive of her to ask me — especially as, for the last 4 years, I’d spent more time in hospitals than anywhere else, including my job.  I was done in — mentally, physically and emotionally.  Her timing was terrible and I was upset.  And, quite frankly, I’d had to figure it out and so would she.

These feelings needed to be expressed in my book even though it made me uncomfortable.  I certainly don’t want bad blood between me and my family, but if this book is going to be truthful — and resonate with people — then I have to find a way to include all the emotional stuff.

I chose not to work with that particular editor — not because she was critical, but because she couldn’t separate her feelings from mine.  I didn’t trust her to edit my book without making it her book.  But she did have a positive effect on my writing and for that I am grateful.  The point she’d made has stuck with me, and last week I had another breakthrough:

All the time my mother’s health was getting worse, making her more frail and more needy I was the one in denial — not her.  She owned it and took control each and every time, making the decisions that were necessary.  I, on the other hand, always asked “Are you sure?”  “I don’t think you really need a walker … or help showering, etc.”  I wasn’t reacting this way because it meant more work for me.  I was reacting because I was not ready to acknowledge that my mother was getting older, sicker, more frail and was, in fact, clinging to life with dental floss.  I was scared.

Never angry.  But scared.  So now I am going back to the beginning of my book.  I have added a new first chapter.  And I am deciding what needs to be changed, what needs to go and what can stay.  A lot of work, to be sure.  But it is necessary and I am thrilled to do it.  This will make for a much better book.  And probably a much better ‘me’ for having examined my feelings.

at a loss for words …

May 25, 2012

fransiweinstein

It’s not close to being a life altering epiphany.  It’s not as big as an AHA! moment either.  But a small current of self awareness and understanding did just buzz its way through my consciousness:

Must start writing my client’s website.  So here I sit, at my neighbourhood Starbucks, where I often come to work.   I’m all ready to go.  Notes at my side.  Laptop on.  Fingers poised over the keyboard, tingling with anticipation (hmmm, wonder if this is how Mozart felt when his fingers were flexed over his keyboard??).  Grande iced coffee far enough away from my computer and my iPhone to cause no concern (I’m a klutz — spilling is second nature to me).

Fingers stay poised.  Turns out I’m not ready, after all.  Seems I’m not in the mood yet, so I decide to take my mind of the task at hand by blogging.  Hmmmm …

Surprise!   I’m at a loss for words.  And just then, it hit me:

This is not writer’s block.  I am so filled up with the words I plan to use for my client work, there’s no room for me.  For now I’ve turned my brain over to him.  I’m in his head now.  There is absolutely no cause for panic.

So now I’m thinking that maybe this is a bigger revelation than I first thought.  Like actors, writers are chameleons.  We leave ourselves behind when we take on the personas of the brands, the companies and the personalities of the individuals we’re portraying or, as in my case, writing about.

As long as I’m not at a loss for my client’s words I have nothing to worry about.

the weekend my life flashed before my eyes (ok, maybe not my whole life)

April 23, 2012

fransiweinstein

It’s been an extravaganza of memories for me over the last 4 or 5 days.  It started with a blog I read, right here on WordPress, that took me all the way back to when I was 3 or 4 years old, reading and telling stories with my aunt.  That conjured up even more memories of wonderful times spent with Auntie “Nette:

There are tons of them, but the one I flashed back to this time, was when I was about 14 or 15.  Both my mother and aunt loved movies.  But to my eternal frustration, because there had been a fire in a Montreal movie theatre years and years before, where many children perished, they instituted a law where you had to be 18 to go to a movie.  Until the day Auntie Mame and her accomplice decided to take matters into their own hands.

I was a sophisticated teenager and didn’t look my age.  So they decided that they’d put some make up on me, find something of my mother’s that fit  and they’d sneak me into a movie.  In those days my mother wore stilettos, so they had me practice walking in them every day for a week.  Last thing we needed was for me to fall flat on my face at the theatre.  Because my father played cards with a group of his friends on Thursdays that was the chosen day of the week.

On the appointed Thursday I was a nervous wreck all day.  By the time I got home from school I was in a cold sweat.  They, on the other hand, were totally excited and looking forward to this little caper.  They did a fabulous job with my hair and make up — they did use discretion and thankfully I didn’t look like a drag queen on Hallowe’en.  They stuffed my bra with some tissues and put me into the tightest skirt my mother owned — which still required a belt — which one of my mother’s pullovers did a good job of hiding.  The heels, a purse, a string of pearls and we were good to go!

I was nauseous and wanted to call the whole thing off.  “No way”, they insisted.  Off we went.

They had a plan.  My aunt and I would stand in line and I would face the wall.  They didn’t want anybody staring at me too long — they might figure out I was only 14, after all.  My mother would stand in line to buy the tickets.  When it was time to go into the theatre I was simply to look straight ahead and keep walking.  We still had the ticket collector to get by.  Assuming we pulled that off, we’d find seats and then my mother would get the popcorn.

It was all going very well until a cousin of mine and her husband showed up unexpectedly.  Shocked to see me there, she was just about to say something that would have blown our cover.  But thankfully my aunt picked up on where this was going, and started shaking her head, rolling her eyes and then whispered, “Sshhhh!”  We all got a case of the nervous giggles but settled down by the time the line started to move into the theatre.

The long and short of it is, we pulled it off and the three of us had a standing movie date every Thursday thereafter.  And I will always remember the movie we saw that first time:  Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

Still enjoying this memory, on Saturday I got an email from a former colleague.  He founded a not-for-profit not too long ago, with the intent of stopping abuse.  He wanted to know if I’d write a fundraising letter for them.  “Of course”, I responded and he said he’d send me a brief one of his associates had written.  Within minutes I got an email from him telling me to ignore the brief — that he’d send me another one.

Of course I did precisely the opposite.  Whenever you’re told not to do something what do you do?  What I did.  I looked.  And laughed.  It wasn’t a brief.  It was sort of an outline and sort of a draft of a letter.  Took me right back to one of the first projects I did when I joined the ad agency, Ogilvy.  Because I was ‘new’, the creative director sat in on the briefing session.  It was a job for a trust company — a 3-wave direct mail campaign.  Within a couple of minutes of listening to the suit on the business read his brief, I put my hand up.

He had decided what each letter would talk about.  He had decided what point each paragraph would make.  He had decided how many pages each letter would be.  He had decided what else would be in each package.  He had decided the campaign would include 3 waves of mail.

Afraid I was going to go for the guy’s jugular, the CD pinched my thigh.  Ignoring him,  I asked why he (the suit) needed me at all, and suggested that he might like to do the writing as well.  He’d practically done it all, already.

That was when he challenged me, and asked if I had a better idea.  As it happened, I did.  And despite the egg on his face, he had to then ‘unsell’ and ‘resell’ the client on a new direction.  I won’t go into all the details but my idea was built around a memo, sent from the Chairman to all staff.  The client (Chairman) loved this idea so much, he decided to make it real.  And that meant that instead of just getting marketing department approvals, my work was going all the way up to the big Kahuna.  It also meant that he wanted to participate in the writing of that internal memo (fair enough — it was going to all staff, and it did have his name on it.)

I must have re-written that lousy memo a hundred bloody times!  But the worst of it took place one Friday night, just as we were getting to the end of what was rapidly becoming my worst nightmare:

I had concert tickets with friends.  At around 4 pm the Creative Director strolled into my office, slightly green around the gills.   It seems that the Chairman thought “we were almost there”, but wanted one of his ‘consiglieres’ to wrap up a few points with me.  That night.  So sad, too bad, no concert for me.

Somewhat miffed, off I trotted to the very top of a tower on Bay Street, where I was ushered into an office the size of a hockey rink.  We were there until 10 pm, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  These were pre smoking-ban days.  The instant I got there Consigliere, who was lounging in a huge leather executive chair that was tipped all the way back against the wall, with his feet crossed neatly on top of his desk, gestured at a chair across from him where I should sit and poured each of us the first of many stiff scotches we drank that night; and then he reached behind him to a sterling silver humidor, out of which he took 2 cigars — one for each of us.  Neatly trimming the end of both, he handed one to me.

Already gagging, I begged him to let me smoke cigarettes instead, but he was having none of it.  Twenty-seven years later I can still taste that wretched cigar.  I still feel the head-pounding, blinding migraine I had, too.  Not to mention the hangover.

But the campaign was an absolutely wild success and the client would never let anyone other than me near their work.  And the suit never made creative decisions again.

Seems I wasn’t done remembering, though.   Desperate for something decent to watch on TV Saturday night, I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled.  Suddenly I saw the name, Roberto Clemente on ESPN.  Well … I had to see what that was all about.

You see, back before I moved to Toronto, when the Expos first arrived on the baseball scene a friend and I rarely missed a game.  So let’s fast forward to 1971.  It was an unseasonably warm Sunday in late September.  Truth be told it was the second day of  Rosh Hashanah and it took a bit of convincing to get my parents to agree I could go.  Not that we were religious — it was more about appearances.  But the friend of theirs who had offered me the tickets finally convinced them.

In fact, it was a double-header; and he said I could have the tickets for the first game but then had to leave them for him at a motel about a 15-minute drive away from Jarry Park because he was going to the second.

It was the Expos versus The Pittsburgh Pirates and it was a very important game.  The pirates were leading the league and were headed to the World Series.  They were intent on wracking up as many wins as they could.  When my friend and I arrived at the stadium and settled into our seats I noticed a client of mine was there.  He came to say hello and asked if we were staying for both games.  I explained why we weren’t.

He said he had 2 extra tickets for the second game and we could have them.

Nobody has ever driven, in city limits, as fast as I did that Sunday.  Suffice to say we watched all 9 innings of the first game, got to the car, drove to the motel, left the tickets, drove back, parked and made it into our new seats before the first pitch of the second game was thrown!

No sooner were we seated, still slightly out of breath, the guy beside me tapped me on the arm and asked me for my name.  I looked at him like he’d just crawled out from under a rock.  Smiling, he pointed to the visiting team’s dugout — from which we were no more than 2 rows up.  Waving and grinning at me was #21, Roberto Clemente.  He wanted my name.  My girlfriend handed me a pen and a piece of paper.  Next thing I knew, I was holding a signed baseball, and a note he sent me, asking me to call him later.

The pirates won the double-header, and the World Series.

Roberto Clemente and I became friends.  Instead of taking the team bus to and from the airport I drove him.  Usually Dock Ellis and Manny Sanguillen came with us, as well.  At the time I thought nothing of it, but yesterday all I could think was, I had 3 of the greatest baseball players the world has ever known in my car!!!   Holy cow!

I remember being shocked at the news that Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash, on New Years Eve, while on his way to Nicarauga.  I had a boyfriend at the time who played bass guitar for a band based in Puerto Rico, where Clemente lived, and I was going to see him while I was there visiting KB.  Sadly, that never happened.  And the documentary I watched, brought it all flooding back.  What a great player he was, and what a great humanitarian he was.  And a great friend.

I still have the baseball.

thank you Auntie ‘Nette

April 19, 2012

fransiweinstein

So many of my posts are a result of a particular post I’ve read on Magnificent Nose I know it will come as no shock to see that I’m doing it again.  This latest one, “And Then What Happened?”, is a wonderful story about stories, and what makes a good one.  I’m not going to go into detail because I really think you should read it for yourselves, but it was when the author, Martha F., was telling stories to her 3 1/2 year old niece that she realized that the key to a good story is when it’s relevant to the listener — or reader.

Reading about how her niece kept asking “and then what happened?” every time she paused, I was instantly transported back to when I was 3 or 4 years old.  My mother had two sisters, one an identical twin and another, seven years younger.  They were all close, but the relationship between twins — especially identical twins — is like no other relationship.  They said the same thing at the same time, without consulting with each other they’d show up wearing the same clothes, and if they didn’t speak to each other at least twenty times a day they didn’t speak once.  Sometimes my father and I just shook our heads.  I’m an only child, so you can imagine how foreign this concept was to me.

Not long after my aunt was married (mere months before my parents) she got sick and wasn’t allowed to have children for five or six years.  She and I spent tons of time together and, to the day she died, she and I had a very special bond.  I always said I had two mothers, and to a large extent, I did.

When I was with my dad everyone always said how much I looked like him.  When I was with my mother everyone said I was the image of her.  So it’s not surprising that when I was alone with my aunt everyone assumed she was my mother.  And I’d always grab her hand and whisper in her ear:  “Ssssh, don’t tell them you’re not my mother, Auntie ‘Nette (her name was Annette but when I first learned to speak ‘Nette was as close as I could get, and it stuck).  It was our little secret, a private joke we shared.

Unfortunately my aunt had more than her fair share of sorrow.  She was finally able to have a child.  When Cheryl was just 13 months old my aunt’s husband, Cheryl’s father, died very unexpectedly.  My aunt was 32 years old.  I was five.  Needless to say, we all spent even more time together.  And in one woman, I had an adored aunt, a second mother, an older sister, a best friend and a confidante.  It stayed that way until the day she died, in 2000.

She always had the patience of a saint.  She would play with me for hours and hours.  We’d read.  She loved reading — always had her nose in a book.  Before I could read she’d read to me.  But what I loved the most were the stories she made up.  And like Martha’s little niece, I’d also always ask, “What happened next, Auntie ‘Nette?”

What I’ve never thought about, until Martha’s post sent me wandering down memory lane is, most of the time my aunt asked me what I thought should happen next.  She turned on the switch to my imagination.  She got me involved in the story.  She introduced me to storytelling.

She’s probably the reason I became a writer.

Thanks,  Auntie ‘Nette.  I just want you to know you’re still encouraging me to share my stories.

looking for an idea? Just look around …

March 27, 2012

fransiweinstein

If you follow my blog you know I love Magnificent Nose.  It’s another WordPress blog.  Recently Sara Goas, one of the writers who contributes, had a great post: “Inspiration” — a fictional story about an English teacher, her students and ideas — and where they come from.

I loved this story because my entire career has been about ideas.  So for me, it was very personal.  Thankfully, it’s only happened to me once, but I have suffered through writer’s block, and let me assure you, it’s terrifying.  So I know first hand just how hard to come by an idea can be; and, like the teacher in Sara’s story, I also know where to look for inspiration.

All around me.

People watch, in other words.  Listen to what people say — about everything.  About the books they’re reading, the movies they’ve seen, the fights they’ve had with their spouses, how their kids are driving them nuts, why they want to lose weight, why they want to gain weight, why they hate their job, what they’re looking for in a relationship, what they like to eat, why they can’t eat broccoli, where they like to travel, what the dog did, what their mother-in-law said, why they broke up, what they like and dislike about themselves.

Pay attention to what they do when they’re checking out the cereal aisle in the grocery store, when they’re stopped at a red light beside you, at the movies, in the departure lounge at the airport, at the dentist’s.

Become a voyeur.  Eavesdrop.  Just try to be discreet about it.

Which reminds me of a ‘discussion‘ I once had with a former boyfriend.  Okay, he was pissed off and decided to let me know it.  We were at a restaurant and when we were having our appetizers he suddenly stopped eating.  Waving his fork in my face he threatened to leave if I didn’t start paying attention to the conversation he was trying to have with me.

Instead of listening to him it seems that I was totally engrossed in a couple sitting two or three tables away from us.  They sat there like two total strangers.  There was no warmth between them … no familiarity.  They weren’t speaking.  They weren’t even looking at each other.  They were each lost in their own thoughts, and even looking in different directions.

Without really being aware of what I was doing, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.  And unconsciously, as I sat there watching, in my head I was imagining their entire relationship and what had led up to this oh-so-lonely dinner, where the only thing they were sharing was the table.  What’s more, I was writing dialogue — which I was sharing with my boyfriend, instead of having a conversation of our own.  Hence his frustration.

He wasn’t wrong, of course, but the writer in me was happy.  In the space of the hour or two that we all found ourselves under the same roof, between what they didn’t say, and their body language, I got enough material to write a book, or a movie or a play — or, as it turns out, even a good portion of this blog.

See.  Ideas are everywhere.  So let this be your warning.  If you ever feel someone staring at you, it’s probably me.  Don’t take it personally.  And please don’t think I’m being nosy or rude.  I’m just counting on you for some inspiration.

is it just me, or do you also find it easier to write in some places than others?

January 15, 2012

fransiweinstein

Don’t ask me why, but I’ve been thinking about my writing habits today — and how they’ve changed over the years.  No less weird, just different.

When I first started to write professionally we didn’t have computers; and yes, I did hesitate to ‘say’ that out loud for fear that you’d immediately jump to the wrong conclusion:  No, I am not living in a nursing home.  I have all my teeth.  I do not drool.  I have no need for adult diapers, pureed food, pull-on pants or a walker.  I was born post WWII, and 1984 (when Apple was launched) is not really that long ago.

I’m just saying.

So … back then we didn’t have computers.  We did have typewriters , but I didn’t use one — at least not to ‘create’.  My preference was to write everything out by hand; and only when I had a draft that I liked, did I type it up.   Even more bizarre, though, was the fact that I never used a whole piece of paper (I promise I am much more environmentally conscious/friendly now).  In fact I probably went through a pound of paper each time I wrote something.

I’d write a line on one sheet, then a couple of lines on another sheet, a thought here, a thought there — and on and on it went.  Once I had some critical mass, I’d start weaving all those thoughts and words and sentences together until I had a few paragraphs I liked — which could have taken countless tries on countless sheets of paper.  Then I’d carry on — again using many sheets of paper for many versions — until eventually, I’d have enough to type my first draft — which I’d edit by writing all over it, making the changes in pen, first.

I simply could not seem to sit at a typewriter and write from scratch.  I also needed total silence.  And every couple of sentences I had to have a cigarette and a cup of coffee.

In 1985 I moved to Toronto (from Montreal) to work for the ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather.  Needless to say we all had Macs.  Mine collected dust.  I continued to work the way I always had, until one day another writer — who had been watching me in disbelief (and disgust, and probably pity) for months and months — came into my office and shut the door.  She told me that she wasn’t going to leave until I started to use my computer.

I gave her every reason why I couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t and it all fell on deaf ears.  She removed everything I’d piled on top of it, dusted it off, turned it on and sat down next to me — ready to start my tutorial.  I don’t know if she follows my blog but just in case, “Thank you, Erin Moore!”  But the little writing muse inside my head was still hooked on quiet, coffee and cigarettes (I had an ashtray the size of a spare tire and it was always filled to the brim with smoldering butts).

Until I decided to quit smoking when all the anti-smoking laws started taking effect in Toronto — which dates back about 20 years.  Agency management were quite concerned — they were worried that my productivity and my ability to write might be negatively impacted.  Truth be told I think they were also worried about mood swings.  Smoking is an addiction, after all.  As I recall they did check my office for sharp objects and I also remember that my letter opener mysteriously disappeared one day.   Yep, you got that right — instead of encouraging me to stop, they encouraged me to “think it over carefully, and not to rush into anything.”  Only half in jest, by the way.

I quit cold turkey and thankfully my talent stayed intact.  I did have the odd tantrum but I don’t think the lack of nicotine had anything to do with it — probably had a lot more to do with difficult deadlines and unnecessary revisions (I am all for constructive criticism — it’s the minutia that kills me.  All would not really be lost if we didn’t change the comma to a semi-colon, would it?)

And that was the way I worked for quite a while (with my door closed and bottles of water by my side) — until 2000, in fact.  That was the year I was recruited to be a partner in an independent start-up agency.  Up until this point you were defined by how big your office was, whether or not you had a window(s), whether or not you had a couch etc.  But now ‘cool’ was large, open-concept, loft-like offices with brick walls, wood floors (or industrial carpet), high ceilings with exposed pipes and play areas (pool tables or basketball hoops or putting greens etc.).

So that’s what we went for.  Most of the people in our agency hated the idea — at least at first.  For some unknown reason I absolutely loved it.  It was so much more collaborative.  And honestly, when I was engrossed in what I was doing I totally blocked out any conversations people were having.  I never heard a word and I was never distracted.

Now I work alone, from home.  When I first went out on my own I furnished myself a lovely home office.  Good lighting.  A nice desk.  A fabulously comfortable, ergonomic Aeron chair, bookshelves, good storage space — everything you’d need and want.

I hate working in there.  I don’t work in there.

If I must work from home, I prefer my dining room table.  Why?  God knows.  I guess some things don’t have to make sense.

What I’ve realized is, I don’t like working at home because it’s too quiet.  And by quiet, I don’t mean I want noise.  Playing music or putting on the TV don’t help.  In fact they make it worse.  It’s the ‘sound’ of human energy I crave.  It’s a ‘buzz’.

So now I work most of the time at Starbucks — primarily because there’s one just across the street from where I live.  But I have worked at other cafes and all sorts of public places; and while they’re all pretty good, some are better than others.  There are some Starbucks I don’t like.  The buzz isn’t right for some reason.  Again, don’t ask me why.  Just one of my peculiarities, I guess.  It appears that I’m not just strange, I’m also picky.

But it is working for me, so who am I to question it.

What about you?  I’m curious about your writing habits.  Hope you take the time to share them.

how a WordPress blogger inspired me …

January 9, 2012

fransiweinstein

Who’d a thunk it?

Not so long ago I was trolling through WordPress, as I often do, looking for interesting blogs — and found one almost immediately (oh, I know there are tons of them), but this was the first one I got to and I loved it — so I didn’t look for any more that night.  If you’re a writer — or even just love reading interesting, well-written posts — then you should check it out:  Magnificent Nose.  What I find really interesting is the fact that there are several writers who contribute to it.  It’s a neat idea and they’re all great writers.  In fact, I liked it so much, I decided to follow it, and subscribed so I would get email notices every time there’s a new post.

Over the holidays I was notified that Julie Goldberg — had just posted:  “I don’t have time to believe in writer’s block”.  I don’t know a writer who hasn’t, at one time or another, stared at a piece of paper (or a computer screen) hour after hour, day after day, maybe even week after week or month after month — and it just stared back.  So needless to say I was intrigued.  And once I got into her story I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

What Julie was describing was a scenario I am currently living through — or at least was living through until I read her blog post:  A novel she’s been writing for about 20 years.  A project she starts and stops and starts and stops etc. etc. etc.  The good news is, she’s finally making some good progress.  But that’s not why I’m sharing this with you.

I started writing a book almost 4 years ago.  Amazingly, I had about 6 chapters written in 5 months — and I had a full time job at the time.  Got off to a really fabulous start while visiting friends in Bequia, where I wrote 3 chapters in 10 days.  And then I hit a wall.

No, it wasn’t writer’s block.  It took me about a month to figure out that I was avoiding the chapter that came next because it dealt with subject matter I didn’t want to re-live:  The death of my mother.  Once I figured that out I had a decision to make.  Deal with it and write the chapter or abandon the book forever more, because the book would not be the book without that chapter.

By then I had become a freelance writer and a strategic consultant so I was working from home.  The quiet was too much for me so I took my laptop to a neighbourhood Starbucks and wrote it in 3 days.  I sat there for as long as 7 hours a day — and yes, I kept buying. I drowned myself in coffee and tea and water and sustained myself with yoghurt and cheese and crackers and the odd  slice of lemon poppyseed poundcake — so I didn’t have to feel guilty about being there all day.

And that was that.

Several times I tried to get back into it and couldn’t.  I was distracted.  I knew it wasn’t writer’s block — I have been doing all kinds of writing — just not on my book.  The longer I was away from my book, the more pissed off at myself I became.  I love the idea of this book and desperately want to write it; and finish it; and share it.

But I just couldn’t focus on doing it.  At one point I decided to go away for a month — to some remote locale where I’d have no distractions — nothing else to do but write.   Until life took over and I got a new client and was too busy (happily) writing for him to spend any time on myself.

Now, of course, I don’t care.  Because Julie’s blog struck a chord with me — a big chord.  And that very night I, once again, got excited about my book.  In my head I started working out the chapter to come.  I’m trying to write something every day — and so far, I’m succeeding — thanks to Magnificent Nose.

You see — inspiration can come from anywhere — even in your own backyard — which is exactly what WordPress is for those of us who blog here.  Is there a moral to my story?

You bet.  Don’t just come here to write your own blog.  Spend some time reading other blogs.  You’ll meet some great people who have some very interesting stories, many of whom have had or are having similar experiences to your own.

And who knows.  They might even be able to help you sort out a problem or two.  Look what happened to me.

 

 

and here I sit, uncomfortably, between a rock and a hard place

December 26, 2011

fransiweinstein

I just read an interesting article in yesterday’s Sunday New York Times — “Publishers vs Libraries: An E-Book Tug of War” — in Sunday Business, Digital Domain by Randall Stross.  Interesting, depressing and thought-provoking — all at once, and on many levels.  Not the least of which is, I’m writing a book, so the issue this article is confronting is bound to have a direct impact on me.

This story deals mainly with the fact that book publishers are now being forced to compete not just with e-books in general, but with the e-book sections of public libraries.

Not good news when, as Mr. Stross points out in his column, “Last year, Christmas was the biggest single day for e-book sales by HarperCollins.  And indications are that this year’s Christmas Day total will be even higher, given the extremely strong sales of e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook.  Amazon announced on December 15 that it had sold one million of its Kindles in each of the three previous weeks.”  But, as he goes on to say, “We can also guess that the number of visitors to the e-book sections of public libraries’ websites is about to set a record, too.  And that is a source of great worry for publishers.”

As if publishers didn’t already have enough to worry about.  In David Gaughran’s blog, Let’s Get Digital, his latest entry “Publishers Desperately Trying to Protect Print Sales, And Failing” shows the most recent revenue numbers as reported by the American Association of Publishers and they’re not good.  In fact, overall revenue is down significantly in print books but there are dramatic increases in e-book market share.

What’s this got to do with me?

Well, for a first time author, it’s already difficult enough to get a book published (even if you’re already a professional writer, as I am).  Unless you’re an established writer whose books are in great demand, or a celebrity, agents and publishers are loath to take a chance on you for one, simple reason.  They can’t afford to.  Not any more.  It’s as simple as that.

It’s tougher and tougher to actually sell them.  Book retailers are closing down one after another.  Go into any Indigo store and look at the amount of books that are on the “price reduced” tables.  There have been several interviews with Heather Reisman (Indigo founder and CEO) in Canadian newspapers lately.  Her future plans do not include the buying and selling of more books.  She’s now including more and more articles ‘related’ to reading like lamps, shawls, tea, cookies and even the odd piece of furniture.

What we’re dealing with here, is a vicious circle.  Because it’s harder to get published more and more writers are self-publishing.  Which only hurts the publishing industry more.  Which will, in turn, make it even more difficult to get published.  And round and round and round it goes.

And eventually those of us who love to write (and try to earn our living from it) may very well find ourselves with increasingly limited options and opportunities to sell and share our stories.  And those of us who love to read may very well find ourselves with fewer and fewer choices — especially if the publishers and libraries can’t come to terms — and, for that matter if the publishing industry can’t find a way to become more profitable in the face of all the e-competition and the economy in general — books, unfortunately are a discretionary spend — when you’re worried about the mortgage and putting food on the table books are a luxury many people can no longer justify or afford.

Which brings us right back to the problem identified in this New York Times article — because now publishers are threatening to limit, if not entirely block, libraries from having access to their e-books.  So much for the general population reading (and tempted as I am to speak about Toronto’s own special nightmare, Mayor Rob Ford and his view of libraries), it’s Christmas and I’ll spare you.

So I’m smack, dab in the middle of this stinking mess because I love to do both.  And my desire to have access to books wherever and however I want them, and for as little money as possible is the very thing that is making it more and more challenging for me, the author.

This is not an easy problem to solve.  But there is an awful lot at stake — and I am not referring to authors’ royalties and an industry’s revenue potential.  Books take us to places we’ll never otherwise see … they introduce us to people and ideas we’ll otherwise never be exposed to … they teach us things we’d never have the time or the opportunity to learn in school, in business or even in life.  They help us, inspire us, thrill us, make us laugh and cry.  And, lest we forget, they teach us to read.  Literacy is at stake here.

If ever there was an opportunity to be innovative, this is it!

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