Window shopping for stories

Once or twice a week, I leave the comfort of my home sweatpants-and-sofa writing cocoon and spend the day at a community workspace, where for a monthly membership fee I can show up with my laptop, grab a desk or comfy chair, and do my thing against the backdrop of four different walls.

It’s not just the change of scenery that I need, though. There’s also a certain amount of stimulation that’s pleasantly, constructively distracting. This workspace is located in a historic building on a super-old street in Kingston, NY, an uptown district that’s slowly being revived with funky restaurants, offbeat shops, art galleries, and the like. There’s life here. I can chat with other workspace members who are all working on interesting projects, or glance up from my writing to people-watch through the front window. What I most love, though, is wandering around the neighborhood when I need a break. Because the neighborhood is full of the weirdest, funniest, WTF-type window displays.

I’ve always loved street window shopping, especially where the windows don’t belong to chain stores. Somebody put a bunch of objects together and stuck them somewhere for all to see. Sometimes they’re objects that should never be in the same place at the same time. Sometimes they’re objects that wouldn’t normally appear in your day. And sometimes they stay with you and show up in your writing, either as the spark of an idea or part of a character. Here’s what I found the other day:

"What do you believe in?" he asked. She didn't know. Angels were so beautiful, with their fashion sense and feathers, but the earthbound icons her mother worshipped seemed so much more serious and hardworking.












Grandpa didn't just collect old clocks because he thought they looked cool. He figured that at any given moment, one of them was bound to tell him the time he wanted it to be.













Sometimes all it takes to be someone else is the right accessory, and she would throw on a wig before going out the way other people throw on scarves or jewelry.














Her friends cracked up over the weird packaging and over-enthusiastic names for snack foods, but to the girl, they were filled with the colors, tastes, and smells of Saturday mornings at her aunt's house.

90 minutes

Some ramblings about “the process.”

The other day, my friend Kim Purcell and I were talking about how much writing we can get done in a single session. (Kim has her own debut YA novel on tap. It’s called “Trafficked” and it will be published next spring by Viking, and it is fabulous. There, I got in the plug!) I’m not sure how we started discussing this, because we were standing in the middle of a crowded aquarium at the time, our daughters arm-deep in a nearby stingray touch tank.

We were talking about fresh writing. The totally intimidating, going from nothing-to-something kind of work. Even when creating what I affectionately call a Vomit Draft, this is still hard labor. But I find that even if I just barf something onto the page, typing away all the while thinking, “This is terrible, this is total garbage,” I’ll usually end up with what can pass for a foundation…and sometimes a few things that even sparkle. Once I have a foundation, it’s easier to build.

So Kim said that on a good day, a day when creative mojo is rocking and childcare is plentiful, she can crank out ten pages. You go, girl!

I don’t go so much. I’m happy if I can get to four, but I focus less on page count and more on the actual length of time I’m working. Part of this is because I have other professional projects to fit into my day. Most of it’s because I know I’m only good for about two hours, max. I just flame out. The writing starts to suck and then, what’s the point? The short-session thing is also great because if I’m inclined to blow it off, I bait myself with, “You’re pathetic! You can’t even commit to 90 minutes of writing? You spend at least that much time f***ing around each day!”

Then I sit down, play a game of online MahJongg to help me get back inside my brain, and open up Mac Freedom. (In case you’re not familiar with it, Freedom is this great productivity program that will shut off your computer’s Internet connection for however long you tell it to, and you can be creative without the nagging tug of email-checking and random surfing. Side note: This doesn’t work so well if you have your smartphone sitting nearby.) I love that the software asks me, “How many minutes of freedom would you like?” I resist the urge to type in a number like 17 JILLION and commit to 90. And then I’m locked in. An hour and half to do nothing but fill a blank screen with words.

That may not seem like a lot to you. If you can do more in one sitting, I’m impressed. To me, writing is a lot like working out. There’s an endurance issue. And if I can do it for just a little while every day, I’ll feel great and guilt-free and eventually, see results.

On rare occasions when I’ve set aside a whole day to write, this method still works best for me. I just do several 90-minute sprints, broken up with other important tasks like cruising YouTube for wacky rodent videos, making crockpot chili, watching reruns of “Glee” or SYTYCD on DVR, and catching up on my catalog browsing. All part of the creative process, I swear.

Eventually, little by little, the nothing does become something. Your document file gets bigger, your word count rises, your page numbers climb. Hopefully somewhere in there are the minor things like great characters, authentic dialogue, pretty moments, and a decent story.

And maybe, if you’re extra-lucky, you don’t delete half of it the next morning.

A pic I snapped of the actual moment I started working on the draft of my second book. Is there an image more terrifying? Boo!