5 Things I Learned about Writing from Fishing with my Brother-in-law

Hemingway with trout. Flickr photo by Don the Upnorth Memories Guy

Hemingway with trout. Flickr photo by Don the Upnorth Memories Guy

Ernest Hemingway was known as an avid fisherman. There’s a fishing contest still running in Cuba that’s named after him. It’s been running since 1950 and he won the first three years it was held. He once caught seven marlins in one day. He’s the only person to ever pull a giant tuna into a boat in one piece. Apparently, the only way he could do that was by shooting at the sharks that tried to eat his catch with a sub-machine gun.

In 1935 he won every fishing contest in the Key West-Havana-Bimini triangle. After living on his boat, Pilar, for a while, he eventually moved into Room 1 at the Compleat Angler Hotel in Bimini in the Bahamas.

If you Google Hemingway and fishing, 2.57 million results show up.

I went fishing in Buzzard’s Bay recently with my brother-in-law. It wasn’t your typical “movie-version” fishing trip where we got up at the crack of dawn to hurry out on to the boat and be alone in the outdoors to learn more about ourselves. We left casually around 10:15-or-so a.m. when the tide was on its way out. We invited a neighbor to come with us by yelling through his window as we were passing by. He paused, thought about it for 2 seconds, then said, “Yeah, sure.” He threw on a shirt and sandals and came running out to join us.

We jumped in the whaler and headed out to the spot where they had caught several large striped bass over the past few days. Instead of being humid and overcast like the past few days had been, we had clear skies and a cool breeze. It felt good to be in a boat on calm water, to smell the salt air, to feel the wind in your face. My thoughts turned to Hemingway. While the guys scanned the radar looking for schools of stripers, my imagination took me to the Keys and the Bahamas with Papa Hemingway, rod in hand, reeling in the big ones.

We threw in our line, an eel rig with spongy white rubber eels on an umbrella set-up of massive hooks, and let it out to about 30 feet. We trolled back and forth to the number 26 channel marker, trying to avoid the lobster pots that were just below the surface. The first few passes we mostly caught seaweed and had to clear the lines before the next pass. Occasionally we’d notice that a hook had or one of the fake eels was twisted on the line, a sure sign that we’d had a hit but didn’t know it.

On the third or fourth pass there was a loud click and high-pitched whirr as the fish took the bait and started to run. My brother-in-law handed me the rod and I pulled, feeling the weight of the fish pulling against my arms. I could barely move the reel and I sat back, adjusting the rod for more leverage.

“Keep the rod tip up.”

“Don’t sway from side to side.”

“Keep reeling or he’ll get away.”

The guys coached me and I reeled with as much strength as I could. It was tiring and the fish felt like it was fighting hard to avoid being pulled in. My arms started to feel weak and numb, but I kept reeling, reeling, hoping to see the fish as it got closer to the boat. The way the rod was pulling down, we all thought we had a monster of a fish on our hands. As I got near the end of the line, the guys stood up to get a better look.

“There he is, bring him around to port.”

I moved the rod around to my right, since I was facing backward, and my brother-in-law gaffed the fish and dragged it into the boat. It was a good-sized fish, a keeper, but not the monster we all thought we had. The silver scales and white belly flashed in the sun and a small pool of blood drained onto the deck. I put a foot gently on the fish’s tail to keep it from flopping around on the boat.

“That’s why it was so hard to reel in.”

We all looked at our catch and saw that the fish had gotten hooked in the back, not the mouth. What made it so hard to reel in was that I was pulling the fish through the water sideways.

Our neighbor put the fish in the live well and we went back for about fifteen or sixteen more passes, but we had no more luck that morning. Time after time we trolled the passage from rocks to channel marker but the fish weren’t biting. It was time to go home.

We came in to shore and cleaned the gear and the boat. I posed for a photo with the fish on the dock and we cleaned it right there. I was grateful for the camaraderie, the challenge the fish brought and for the meal we had later that day. As I walked back to the cottage, freshly caught fish in hand, I thought about how what I had just experienced was a lot like writing.

What was the first thing we did when we saw someone who had not been fishing with us?

We told them the STORY of what happened.

Here are 5 Things I Learned about Writing from Fishing with my Brother-in-law:

  1. Thinking about and doing are NOT the same thing.
  2. Sometimes you have to make a lot of passes to get something worthwhile.
  3. Making a choice about where to start is important.
  4. You probably won’t be good at something the first time you do it.
  5. What you think you’re going to get is not always what you get.

Thinking about and doing are NOT the same thing.

I’ve often thought about fishing on Buzzard’s Bay. I imagined how I’d toss in a line and wait patiently for a fish to jump on the line. I thought we might have to go into deep water to get the big fish and I worried that I might get seasick on the open ocean. But when we actually went fishing we were in fairly shallow water, very close to shore. The fish were right there and we trolled, pulling a single line with a lot of hooks and it was slow, tedious work.

This is what I’ve found writing to be like, too. I have two different ways of thinking about writing. In one fantasy, everything is going smoothly and I write the next great novel in 30 days. It flows from my fingers fully formed with no rewriting or editing necessary. The other fantasy is that I sit down to write and NOTHING happens. No words come. I’m mute and have to give up writing forever. The reality is that like fishing, the thinking about and the doing are very different things. It is rare that the writing just flows, fully-formed, with no need for rewriting. It is unrealistic to think that is even possible.

On the other hand, I’ve never sat down to write and had nothing to say. I’ve resisted the sitting down many, many times. But when I do sit and write, something comes. The lesson learned, “Fishing and writing are achieved by DOING the fishing and writing, not by sitting around thinking about doing them.” If you’re stuck, get in the boat and throw in your line. You might be surprised what comes out of the water.

Sometimes you have to make a lot of passes to get something worthwhile.

As I said, we must’ve made twenty trips back and forth along that channel to catch one fish. That means there were 19 times when we failed at catching a fish. I think this is a good lesson for many things we do in life. For writing, it reminded me that a lot of writing is rewriting and that I might have to make a lot of attempts at telling a story powerfully before I find that way that works. Those twenty passes weren’t failures, they were the journey leading up to the one fish. That fish was delicious and the journey to land it made for a great story. When you’re working on your third or fourth or twentieth draft, you’re just fishing for the best story. Make sure it’s a doozy.

Making a choice about where to start is important.

Buzzard’s Bay opens out into the Atlantic Ocean. There were a LOT of places we could’ve started fishing. We could’ve spent all day searching for the best place or another place, but we started where we started because they had luck there before. They went to the same place and started there and then stopped there. We didn’t waste a lot of time trying lots of different places to see which place might work better. I think this is an important lesson for writers because too often, I decide that the way I’m doing things isn’t working. I think, “Maybe I need new software to write. What’s the latest? What if I went to a coffee shop instead of the library? I started this novel but now I’m going to switch to a short story. What if this short story idea is stupid and I never finish it?” 

If I don’t plan where I’m going to start my writing day, I find that it’s half over before I get going because I spend so much time getting ready to write instead of doing the actual writing. If you find yourself doing the same thing, pick a place to start and stick to it. You’ll get a lot more done and can always a make a change after you’ve gotten your words in for the day.

You probably won’t be good at something the first time you do it.

I’ve done a lot of river fishing, but never fished for big fish like stripers. I thought I knew what I was doing, but the guys coached me about how everything worked for fishing in the bay. I wasn’t very good at fishing for stripers. I held the rod wrong, stopped reeling when I shouldn’t have, moved the rod too much and I’m sure a lot of other things. The important thing was that I didn’t let that get in the way of catching a fish. If you’re a new writer, or coming back to it after a long time of not doing, you’re probably not going to be very good at it. (There are always exceptions to this, but for most of us mortals, that’s the way it is.) That’s okay. The first time you do something, you’re not expected to be good at it. You might not be good at it the 100th time you do it.

If you believe what Malcolm Gladwell has to say about getting good at something, you have to put in 10,000 hours to become proficient at anything. If I had thrown the rod and reel in the water after being terrible, my brother-in-law would’ve thrown me overboard to get it first of all, but I also never would’ve caught that fish. Every time I start a new project I try to remind myself that this is something new I’m doing. I’m racking up hours until I hit my 10,000. If I give up out of frustration of not being good at it right away, I’ll never accomplish what I set out to do.

What you think you’re going to get is not always what you get.

We thought we had a monster fish, but it was just average. In our minds, this was the big one. It was hard to reel in and the rod was bending and bowing as I brought the fish closer to the boat. It was still a keeper, but it wasn’t the monster we were hoping for. I’m an outliner. I like to work out beats before I start writing. I put together story boards for small videos I make with my kids on YouTube. A lot of the time I think the story is going to go one way and by the end of working on the story and re-writing draft after draft, the story has completely changed. When I resist this process, I’m get much more frustrated and find myself giving up on the writing I’m working on. When I realize that my writing is a journey, like our impromptu fishing trip, I’ve had much more success and enjoy the process so much more.

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Paul and Striped Bass

Enjoy your writing journey by actually taking it. Decide where to start and stick to it. Take as many passes as you need to get the story you are looking for. Don’t worry if you’re not good at writing at first, we all take time to get warmed up and get better. Don’t be discouraged if the story has turned out a lot differently than you thought it would, you’ll surprise yourself and us.

Stories are the Wildest Things.

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Annie Dillard – Writing Quote Wednesday

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Created by Paul Jenny using a Flickr photo by Julie Jordan Scott

Annie’s writing keeps me thinking deeply about the writing process and I keep a copy of “The Writing Life” on my desk to refer to often. If you don’t have a copy, pick up one HERE.

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Watch this inspirational writing video by WritingAlchemy.com about Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life and her idea to “follow the line of words“.

Unhappy with your Writing Progress? You Need This Secret Power

In this TED talk, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi asks the question, “What makes a life worth living?”

He says that a lack of basic material resources contributes to unhappiness but the increase in material resources does not necessarily increase happiness. He shows in this video and his books that those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction are engaging in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

I know that when I was in “flow” mode today while working on my MG adventure novel, I was very happy. I hit my word count goal for the day. I enjoyed the food I ate and the music I was listening to while writing. When I picked up my four-year-old after daycare we played and laughed and ran around more vigorously than when I haven’t been able to get any writing done for the day.

When we are in flow, Czikszentmihalyi says, we disappear. Our existence is temporarily suspended. I feel this way when I write or perform. I disappear into these other worlds for the time I am engaged in my story.

Seven things he mentions that are important for flow:

  1. We are completely involved in what we are doing, focused, concentrated
  2. A sense of ecstasy – being outside everyday reality
  3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable – that we are up to the task
  5. Serenity – no worry about self, feeling of growing beyond the ego
  6. Timelessness – focused on the present, hours seem to pass in minutes
  7. Intrinsic motivation – engaging in flow is its own reward

Stories are the wildest things.

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Writer Dad by Sean Platt

All participants in Fiction Unboxed with the guys at Self Publishing Podcast got a free copy of Writer Dad by Sean Platt. I started reading it on my phone as soon as I was able to download it and finished it in one sitting (with a few minor breaks for coffee, tousling my four-year-old’s hair, nodding to my wife and cooking some food).

It’s a moving story and one that will be familiar to any writer parent. Sean talks about his struggles with school, money, relationships, parenting and trying to break through as a writer. It’s a very personal book and Sean wasn’t even sure he was going to publish it because it felt too private, but in the end his wife, Cindy, and those who read it encouraged him to put it out there in the world.

I’m glad he did.

As a writer dad myself, struggling with many of the same issues, Sean’s book inspired me to keep going, to keep writing, to keep discovering what my journey will be.

Writer Dad is a romantic love story, an adventure in possibility and an inspirational book for all the “writer parents” out there. Buy it and read it, you’ll be glad you did. Click on the cover below to get your copy now.

ImagePlease leave me a comment about your experience as a Writer Dad or Mom. I’d love to hear your story.

10 Things to Learn about Writing from Swiss artists Fischli and Weiss

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from Cléo Charuet´s studio wall and / or Peter Fischli & David Weiss

I found this photo on a great blog on redbubble.com and think it is really has a lot to teach us about writing. Peter and David are fine artists, but I’ve thought a lot about these concepts and how they apply to me and my writing work.

1. By working on only one project at a time, I find I am less distracted and better able to get quality work done. Putting down one word right after the other will get me to the end. Sitting at my desk thinking of all the projects I haven’t done gets me nowhere. We are not as great at multi-tasking as we think.

2. What is the problem your MC is trying to solve? Is your character just telling us their thoughts and feelings or are they doing something to solve a problem? A great fix for writing that doesn’t move your audience in any way. Check out this funny post by Ash Ambirge of The Middle Finger Project about The Secret to Creating the Elusive Emotional Connection in Writing.

3. Instead of listening, try to be a listening for possibility in your life. I try to be a listening for what it is I want to accomplish with my writing as well. By being a listening for something very specific, it will often show up unexpectedly. I also like to make my computer read my works in progress. Even though it sounds like Stephen Hawking is reading my words back to me, I still get a sense of rhythm and timing and whether I’m repeating certain phrases or using confusing language. It also makes me laugh when the computer pronounces things in a completely inappropriate way. The Listening Project is an interesting documentary that asks the question, “What does the world think about America?”

4. A lot of my writing time is spent asking questions. What does my MC want? Why do they want that? What are they going to do to get it? What obstacles are in the way? What tactics are they using to try to get what they want? Also, “Is my coffee mug full?” If it isn’t, time to take a break and refill it.

5. I always wait until polishing for this one. I try to turn off that inner voice that keeps saying, “This is nonsense” over and over, endlessly repeating itself in my head like my four-year-old when he wants a piece of candy that I’ve said he can’t have. Just let everything out in the first draft and then go back and find the sense in the nonsense.

6. Change is inevitable. I’m a plotter. I like a to have my beats worked out before I start. I often find the story changing as I work on it. The characters will say or do something that takes the story in an awesome direction but veers from the original idea. I try to let this play itself out and not worry about it too much. I try to trust that my brain has worked on the problems of the story while I’ve been doing laundry, taking a shower, trying to get the four-year-old down for a nap. I hope I never get too rigid not to embrace change, because every time I have, I’ve had an amazing adventure because of it.

7. Sometimes, I write for several hours and realize that what I’ve spent all that time on won’t make it into the final draft. But I know that these “mistakes” are important to get to the next level of writing that I have to do. I often teach my students that mistakes are an important part of the process. We are all human. We do not know exactly how to do things perfectly every time. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be as fun to do. Make mistakes, admit them, and move on. “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray from Goodreads.com

8. Say it simple. Going back through first drafts I search for where I’m trying too hard. Having an editor or a beta reader can be really useful for this.

9. Breathe. Everyone, at some point, feels exactly as you do now as you are trying to write. Know this and be calm. Keep putting one word after the other. Get to the end. Read this great article on How Succesful People Stay Calm on Forbes.com.

10. If you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, neither will your readers. Smile, even in the midst of the difficulties, knowing that you are doing something that other people only dream about doing.There is even some research to suggest that the physical act of smiling, even if you don’t feel happy, can lead to feelings of happiness. Try it!

6 Reasons Your Novel Opening Doesn’t Work

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Flickr photo by Myk Martinez

We all know how it happens. You decide to stop by a bookstore on the way home and you tell yourself, “I’m not going to buy anything.”

I also find myself browsing through Amazon.com and thinking, “I’ll just read a few samples, but NO buying tonight.”

My “to read” list keeps getting longer and longer.

But then…

You open that first few pages and the author’s words GRAB your attention. You want to know from the beginning what is going TO HAPPEN NEXT.

There is a trigger followed by a heap which leads to the next action that causes the next trigger and on and on and before you know it you’ve purchased the book and have finished it instead of correcting all the papers that you were supposed to be correcting.

Triggers and heaps come from the language of thrillers. Someone pulls the trigger of a gun, and someone else falls into a heap. With a story, your main character does something (pulls a trigger) that causes something else to happen (a heap). The story progresses through these triggers and heaps until the last one is cleaned up. If the first trigger doesn’t grab our attention, though, we stop reading and move on to the next story.

I was reading a post by Julia A. Weber over at her blog Pub Hub on Blogger.com and she talks about ways to NOT BEGIN your novel. These are her personal pet peeves and I want to talk about why they might be making her a bit peevish.

Some of things she mentioned are:

  1. Your character wakes up, which is followed quickly by your character having a dream and then waking up.
  2. Looking in a mirror and describing yourself.
  3. Any kind of lengthy description.
  4. Backstory logorrhea.
  5. Just being confusing.
  6. Nothing happening at all.

Most of Julia’s pet peeves come from the character not being in any kind of ACTION or dealing with any kind of CONFLICT. Most of us want to read about how a main character overcomes some difficult situation.

When a character simply wakes up there is nothing really happening except a “coming to consciousness.” Try having the character being in some kind of action from the beginning. We might sometimes read to help us sleep, but reading about characters sleeping and waking up will certainly put us to sleep faster. Your character could be driving, mowing the lawn, having sex, farming, shopping, jumping rope, so many great activities to choose from, why choose “waking up”?

The “waking from a dream” trope has been so overdone that I could read a hundred books and hope to never read it again. I want to see the protagonist DOING not BEING. I’d rather see a character picking their nose (but just slightly more) than read about them “waking suddenly from the dream and finding that they are in their own bed” ugh.

Although it is good to see what your main character looks like, we don’t need to see them seeing themselves as the opening of your book. How are going to CAPTURE my attention? Probably not with a lengthy description of your character’s “full lips and straight nose, slightly upturned” that seems to be a staple of bad romance novels. If your character is gardening perhaps they could brush a strand of hair out of their face noticing the graying tips or if your character is driving and keeps checking the rear view to see if the bad guys are still in pursuit, the character could notice that their eyes look dull and glassy from too much coffee and cigarettes and not enough lounging by the pool.

In fact, any kind of lengthy description should be done in your notes and not necessarily make it into that final draft. When we are world building we might want to be verbose about locations and appearances, but when we start our novels, let’s get to the good stuff, those triggers that are going to get our characters in trouble.

Some thing with backstory. If we talk too much (logorrhea) about what happened in the past right at the top of the novel, we haven’t given our readers a chance to get to know who the characters are through their actions and we don’t really care that much about their backstory. What is the essential information I need to know as a reader? Then start throwing slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at your character and watch them dodge and weave.

I keep trying to convince myself and others that the best way to get a first draft done is by making a big mess. I am sticking by that. I am failing at it miserably right now, but I am sticking by it. The problem sometimes comes when we don’t go back and clean it up. If we lose track of what is going on right from the top of the story, we tend to stop reading completely. If you have a bunch of dialogue and we don’t know who is talking or why they are saying what they are saying, we’ll get confused and just stop.

The last point Julia makes is that it just doesn’t make sense to not have anything happening at all in that first chapter. I know I want to read books about people engaged in life fully in a way that is unique and interesting enough for me to want to spend my time with them.

Like Julia, I think the best way we can learn to do this is by looking at the books we admire and seeing how other authors have accomplished this. What are your favorite opening lines or chapters? Send me a few.

Why You Should Write Sloppy and Clean up Later

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Flickr photo by Steven Depolo

“Oh man!” my four-year-old shouts from the kitchen followed by a loud “CRASH!”

A mess has been made.

I run to the kitchen and see: the contents of a bottle of ketchup on the floor, a little boy sitting in the middle of it and an overturned chair, also covered in ketchup. He starts to cry.

My first instinct is to yell, “What did you do THAT for?”

But I know he didn’t do it for any good reason.

He’s four. Four-year-olds just do things to do them. Four-year-olds think it’s a great idea to balance on a chair while gleefully emptying the ketchup onto the floor to make a “painting” for Daddy. Four-year-olds make messes with joyful abandon and alarming frequency.

After picking him up out of the ketchup and checking for broken bones, bruises and boo-boos, I send him to the bathroom to clean up. That’s all you can do really. Clean up your messes and learn from them. Yelling about them just gives everyone a headache.

That’s what I have to keep telling myself about FIRST DRAFTS.

I have to remind myself to be a four-year-old gleefully squirting ketchup everywhere. By letting myself “write messy” I’m accepting the inevitable anyway. Finding a story is a messy venture. The writing process isn’t neat and orderly, it’s filled with wrong turns, purple prose, confusing details, bad, messy writing. That’s a good thing.

Mistakes and messes can lead to new discoveries, new combinations, new possibilities.

Think of all the great things that were invented in error. The Sticky Note. Ink Jet Printers. Potato Chips! (sometimes ketchup flavored)

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If you let yourself be messy, you lower your expectations of a what a first draft should be and you’ll give yourself the space for more of those accidental discoveries to happen.

Just like the ketchup painting my four-year-old made, your first drafts can be wild and wrong and free. The CRAFT comes along during the re-write when you can turn on your editor, clean up your mess and tell us a story that has the shape of your most meaningful experiences. If you never get those meaningful experiences down, though, because you’re too afraid to “squirt the ketchup”, you’ll never have the joy of shaping those experiences into something wonderful for us to read.

Here are a few tips:

1.  Care Less, Write Better

By not having high expectations you’ll get more done with less tension and more relaxation. Your writing will be better because you’ll be more free. Breathe. Write. Breathe. Keep writing. Care less. Write better.

2.  Let Everything Happen

No matter what occurs, a mess, a perfect writing day, a four-year-old squeezing ketchup all over your kitchen floor, it’s all part of the process. There’s a great saying, “That which we resist, persists.” (kind of a tongue twister)

This means that if you are resisting the bad stuff happening, you aren’t focusing on the good stuff happening. If all your attention is on avoiding the bad writing, your focus isn’t really on telling your story. Know that no matter what problem you might be coming up against, you aren’t the first writer to experience that problem and that those problems have been dealt with successfully in the past. Instead of resisting the problem and blaming yourself, acknowledge the problem and move on to the next thing. You can come back and clean up the ketchup later.

3.  The Road to Progress is Never Smooth

There’s a road in Pennsylvania that you have to drive slalom on just to avoid the potholes. Progress is like that sometimes. You’re moving along smoothly when suddenly WHAMMO! a road full of writing potholes shows up in front of you.

What do you do? Just like that road in Pennsylvania, you drive carefully around them when you can. However, you’ll eventually not see one. When you hit it, and hit it hard, stop, examine the damage and get back in the car and drive until you reach smooth roads again. You’ll still be making progress. If you stop and give up just because the road is a little rough, you’ll never get to where you’re going.

4.  Keep Writing through the Mess

Some days, you’ll feel like stopping. But don’t. Do your daily writing. Make messes. Lots and lots of messes. Then pull out the mop and bucket and scrub brushes and polish that mess of a story until it shines. Send it out into the world all scrubbed and shiny and new. No one will ever know that it started as a ketchup painting on the floor of your kitchen – except you.