Following Maps in Barcelona

I packed a hard-sided journal – 8.5 by 6 to Spain.  Since the size was so accommodating, I glued, taped and stuffed everything I came across that was interesting or evocative.   The larger notebook even accommodated a city map and the full brochure for Casa Batllo  (mom climbed to the very top using the stairs even though many panicked bystanders kept gesturing to the antique elevator).Journal with Barcelona Map

I love illustrated maps.  I know they are not to scale but they are tremendously handy and immediate. I gratefully accept them at the hotel reception desk and allow the receptionist to mark up the directions in blue ink.   As handy and easy and as direct as Google maps are, they are difficult to annotate, cut and paste – save.  Not as fun.

Map in hand, it’s now permissible to get lost. The hotel is circled, here.  The cathedral or castle or department store is circled there.  How you get from here to there is entirely up to you. Yes I know that’s also a metaphor for life.

Since my mother and I made it to the cathedral in record time, I set her down in the shade close to where we were to join the rest of the tour group and  brandishing the not-to-scale map  I wandered as far as I could for as long as I could and still be back at the meeting time (there are many meeting times on a tour, and always, always be on time,).   The sound of Spanish guitars followed me like a soundtrack as I explored the stone-lined narrow streets.  I found the musicians playing in an almost empty courtyard, the acoustics of which were fantastic.     Naturally, I bought their home-made  CDs.  I bought both the red and yellow one.   I stored the CD’s into the back of the notebook and made a note on the map.  That was all I could write in the time allotted.  But it was enough.

There are a couple museums in Madrid. Since I am allergic to following guides through museums like a Celiac is allergic to baguettes,  I would like to personally thank Grand Circle Tour for not insisting that a group of 45 tourists, stay together for four hours as we all shuffle through the Prado admiring enormous dark paintings by El Greco.  This particular afternoon, we were on our own to tour a collection of three museums anyway we wanted.

Our guide, who by Madrid was wise to my habit of wandering, handed me a map marked with a clear highlighted line.  You are going HERE and meeting the group at this TIME.  Mom and I gathered up two other fellow tourists and headed off. 

Mom and I began the museum shuffle at the  Thyssen, which displays many Impressionists and those influenced by same.    

I have visited museums and galleries with my mother since I was old enough to stand still for a lecture on Monet.  If you recoil in horror at the very thought of a museum visit, here is how to make it easier.

  • Don’t walk through the galleries together.  Seriously.  Schedule to meet anyone and everyone at the entrance.
  • For no more than two hours. 
  • After three hours in any museum, your ears will start to bleed, particularly if you are new at this.
  • Don’t feel obligated to like anything.
  • See the most famous paintings in the place, make a note, or if you must, take a photo for proof and if you do not fall in love, or even understand the damn thing, move on.

I am lucky because my mother is very good with time and very good finding the entrance of any building. 

Which left me alone,  cheerfully wandering through the Thyssen enjoying the art in no particular order.  On the third floor, I encountered a woman methodically photographing each painting.  Every painting.  Step, snap, step, snap.  I tend to not take photos of artwork, preferring to buy two or three postcards of my favorites and gluing them into my notebook.  But here she was, cataloging exactly what she was seeing – Step. By. Step.

She paid no attention to me at all, affording me a moment to observe her and wonder about how to see art, how to see the world and the idea of a camera between you and reality, if you will.

I wrote a poem about it.  It was not very good.

It is a short walk from the Thyssen to the Prado. It’s a longer stroll to the Sofia where Picasso’s Guernica is displayed. Mom and the ladies agreed that they couldn’t possibly all the way down that (to me enticing)  that tree-lined sidewalk to the  Sofia.  The  Prado would be enough for them (average age – 80, at least they knew their limits).  Reluctant to abandon them,  I missed, Guernica expressing my dismay by marking the museum on my map with a sad face. 

I scribbled a neutral face next to the Prado.   While Mom and the ladies wandered through the beautiful museum in, I hope, complete ecstasy,  I found that after about seven El Grecos and just as many  Goyas, pausing before The Third of May  1808    because it was famous, I was done. With forty-five minutes left, I escaped to the cafe, bought a cup of tea and created this poem. Which is better than the one about photographing art.

In The Prado

In The Prado

I live
He smiled
on the second floorMadrid map

On the Calle Canaletto de Gracio
Rolling the R relishing
The feel of the name between his lips

She shifted her bag
Squirted another measure of
Hand sanitizer

I live in the US on 5 45th St
Not pronouncing the long E
It took too long

His Greco eyes slowed her
She took his hand – forgetting
To clean

Come I can make for you
An afternoon that will last
Till the death of summer

(Included in Unmasked – Women Write about Sex and Intimacy After Fifty.  Marcia Meier and Kathleen Barry, Editors)

We didn’t realize that after  five o’clock, entrance to the museum was free. As we walked out, we saw an entry line that seemed to stretch to the Sofia.  (which was closed by now).  Since it was only 5:00 and it was Spain, we loathed to just haul off to dinner (a disadvantage of eating with a large group – early meals, so the restaurant can get the unwieldy crowd in and out before the civilized dinning hour). 

The four of us stopped at a cafe the card of which I did not grab.  But we  enjoyed a glass of rose and watched the traffic and people.   Such a lovely way to live!  Only after the wine was finished did we meander towards the yellow highlighted line to our early dinner.  We were late.  We were not sorry in the least.

I made a happy face on the map.

Try a Plotting Bootcamp

Why Boot Camp?  CS Lakin explained that boot camp is different from a workshop because a boot camp has more rules, an expectation of production and it fosters comrades among the participants.  If you are looking for progress in your novel, in this case, plotting out your novel scene by scene, Bootcamp may be a fit for you.

Susanne uses two of her books; The 12 Key Pillars of  Novel Construction along with  Layer Your Novel as the basis for the camp activities.  The goal is to work on the scenes and plot points of your book and after three days of intensive work, walk away with a book almost fully plotted along with a plan of attack (if you will). 

Harmony Lodge in Nevada City

  A good workshop /boot camp lasts two to four days.  To lure writers, workshops, like conferences, are held in beautiful locations like the Redwood Writers Conference, held in Sonoma and like this most recent Bootcamp held in South Lake Tahoe. Most workshops are held in event centers or hotels that are close to nature and/or good restaurants to take a break.  Ideally, you have your own room and bath. 

A workshop leader will offer pre-information so you know what to expect and what to write.  You need to write, you need to follow along with the ideas and the goals just so everyone is organized and literally on the same page.

Harmony Lodge, Nevada City

Writers are expected to bring their work and share.  Sharing is key –  and beneficial. A workshop offers three day, twenty-four-hour access to a critic group. For three days these fellow writers are at your disposal with little else to distract them, or you.  You can work out plot points and scenes with a group that is not only interested but also are deeply into their own work and are sensitive to your efforts.

You can talk writing morning, noon and night.  It’s heady stuff, the intensity and fellowship is energizing and illuminating.  Every participant at the South Lake Tahoe loved the work, love the process, and in the end, loved each other.

If meeting strangers freaks you out, an intimate setting like this may not be for you.  A conference with structured classes (like the con

But if you need or want help with your novel, and want feedback right at the beginning so you don’t launch into the wrong direction and waste your time – Bootcamp may be the perfect investment.

Want to try it out?  Susanne is offering another Plotting Madness Bootcamp at Harmony Lodge, about
five miles outside of Nevada City, CA.  Nevada City-Grass Valley is a Designated Cultural Area packed with arts, performances, theater, music and yes, many, many bars.  It’s one of the most inspirational places you can write in.

I will be on staff to help with your book.

Writing On Your Blocks – Part Two on Writer’s Block

What we learned from our five year podcastThis blog is from our book, Don’t Write Like We Talk, which in turn,  is not a compilation of podcast transcripts (Newbie Writers Podcast), hell, it’s not even our show notes.  The book is a collection of blogs, essays, and presentations that capture the essence of what we learned in the last five years and what we want to pass along to new as well as experienced writers.  And in the spirit of the project – read here twice a month and you can learn everything we know for no financial outlay.  Be our guest. 

There is nothing more daunting than a work in progress.  Works in progress (sometimes called the WIP, as if we needed more acronyms) often knock at your door loaded with baggage:  Great expectations, Fame, Money, The Futility of It All.

Our  first impulse is to take  in the bags.  Drag them into the house.  Spend the afternoon unpacking all the cases and finding the correct places in which to store all the emotions and thoughts neatly away. Only after it’s all tidy do you think to converse with the visitor who delivered all  that luggage.   

Stop.  Don’t unpack.  Leave the bags at the door, let the Work in Progress inside.  Talk to him or her.  Ignore the bags.  Even if it starts to rain.  Leave  them.

What do you say to your WIP guest?  Nothing until you manage to think differently about the whole damn thing.  In other words – re frame the project.

Instead of sitting down before the big, blank glowing computer screen (and thinking, hey, I need a better screen photo for the background, where did I store that great sunset photo I took on our last vacation?  It should be in this iPhoto album . . .)

Instead of thinking, Okay, I am WRITING THE BOOK. RIGHT NOW. TODAY.

Instead, think:

For ten minutes I will organize my material.  Trick your monkey mind.  Unearth all the  speeches, presentations, sketches and ideas you’ve created over the years and place them into a brand new file on the desk top.  That’s it.  It’s a perfect, low impact way to start THE BOOK.

Tell the Muse you aren’t really writing, you are just sketching out a couple of  memories.   Memoirs can be difficult to start.  Maybe you have already begun yours with your birth date  and the weather.    After that portentous event, there wasn’t much to say about the first 12 years or so. Re think the approach. Start again simply by writing down random stories as they come to mind – one story a day.

Claim to your subconscious (and the flying monkeys of distraction) that you are simply recording a few impressions.

Transcribe that popular story you always tell your friends or audience – I start many of my non-fiction writers this way.  Are you working on your nonfiction work?  Either as a very expensive (and effective) business card or back of the room sales, what sells most business books are the examples and stories.  The best way to start a business or nonfiction book is to capture those stories first.  That’s all, just write down your favorite client examples and stories.

Outline two or three features critical to the overall project. What would you say if – say – you wrote a book?  It sounds twisted, but it works because it takes the pressure off.  Your Muse is more likely to help you out if you are just noodling around.

Convince your Muse that you are doing little more than just filling in some character motivation.  For fiction writers that dreaded middle, the word count between 50,000 and 80,000 can be overwhelming and induce serious blockage.  Instead of thinking, I’m dragging my sorry ass through the sloppy middle of this novel, think instead of telling the reader more about each character. Check in and make sure your favorite characters have been adequately described. Can the reader visualize them?  Can you?    Once you start describing your characters, they have a chance to speak, as well as move forward.  They may surprise you.

Reframing the activity can trick your brain and that monkey mind, into thinking you aren’t really doing anything amazing at all, just working a bit here, jotting down some ideas over there.  Nothing to see here, move on.

The less portentous the project, the easier it is to approach. And even a half hour of work in the face of paralysis is a win.

Breaking down that block can be as simple as naming the project something else. Something smaller. Work on what you can work on and continue to ignore what’s packed in all those bags of expectations.  Don’t focus on the outcome, or the imagined consequences or accolades the finished project will bring.  Stay with writing the next paragraph. You’ll get more done and as a result, will have conquered both boredom and the block.


I don’t care what anyone says, writers’ block exists. Maybe we can focus that term down a bit. Writer’s block for the current story exists. As I write this, I am stuck on my medieval fantasy story. It sits on the virtual shelf for a few reasons out of my control, but one is also that I’m stuck. I can re-read the 20 odd thousand words and am happy with it, but I can get to the end of the half sentence I left and literally just shrug. One cannot explain why I am stuck where I am. Perhaps I need to sit and sort out another part of the story first and join the dots to make it convincing.

Also, my brain refuses to just write anything down. It needs to be correct in my head first before the words can flow.

There are many tasks/tips on how to break writers’ block and many involve writing something else, writing anything, but in the end, that is writing something else and not your story. Perhaps the best way to overcome it is to spend some time writing around your story, follow another character, or develop some back story. You can keep this in a separate folder later, but maybe, just maybe you’ll hit that connecting dot and run with your imagination until you hit the next block.

Or drink a lot. I know I do.


Listen to your favorite song – take the lyrics and turn them into a story.

Don’t Write Like We Talk
What we learned after five years and 200 episodes
interviewing Authors and Agents, Publishers and Poets

Damien Boath & Catharine Bramkamp
Authors and podcast producers of the Newbie Writers Podcast.

Learn more about writing:
Newbie Writer Podcast on iTunes
Don’t Write Like We Talk – on Amazon

Playing with Unhappy Blocks – What we Believe About Writer’s Block

This blog is from our book, Don’t Write Like We Talk, which in turn,  is not a compilation of podcast transcripts (Newbie Writers Podcast), hell, it’s not even our show notes.  The book is a collection of blogs, essays, and presentations that capture the essence of what we learned in the last five years and what we want to pass along to new as well as experienced writers.  And in the spirit of the project – read here twice a month and you can learn everything we know for no financial outlay.  Be our guest. 

There are some authors who do not believe in Writer’s Block and some do.  And most believe that if you believe in Writer’s Block the condition will immediately manifest in your life evidenced by the blank screen before you.

Writer’s block can be very real.  But there are ways to understand it and conquer it.  Because at Newbie Writers,  we are all about conquering fear. Advice for Writers

There are three categories of non-writing:  thinking about, blocked by it, unhappy about it.   Thinking is self-evident, you must spend time thinking about the writing in order for more ideas to emerge and insights to come to light. We aren’t discussing that here. We are talking about unhappiness and  blocks.

I came across the idea of unhappiness after reading the Seven steps on the Writer’s Path by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott.    And if I could have hunted these two fine ladies down, I would have booked them as guests on the show. No luck.  Surprising there are some authors who don’t want to be found.

They write that the seven steps to writers block are:  Unhappiness, Wanting, Commitment, Wavering, Letting Go, Immersion, Fulfillment.

I will not belabor the points here; you can read the book yourself.  But I do want to point out that the authors cover something that is sometimes over looked and misunderstood:  unhappiness.  I think this unhappiness or restlessness is a critical step and key to the writing process.   I appreciate  Pickard and Lott for addressing it.

Newbie Writers interpret unhappiness as failure. Other writers and creatives consider this unhappiness as an inadequacy or worse, a sign they should quit creative work and take up insurance sales, just like their father told them to do.  I even lost a client because she wanted me to fix her unhappiness right now, rather than work through the steps that would have taken her from unhappiness with her creative project back to writing (or commitment if you like to follow your steps in chronological order).

“Unhappiness, to one degree or another, is where all creativity begins.”  And the even more interesting observation:  “Boredom is a dead giveaway to the probability that creative is lurking in your psyche.”

What does unhappiness look like?  You aren’t crying, you aren’t tearing your clothes and lamenting, tossing ash into the air and spilling your guts out during a book club meeting.

Unhappiness does often look like alcohol in inadvisable amounts.  Or chocolate in Ben & Jerry’s amounts, or the family size pizza for one.  But none of those options will really do the trick – sorry.

Unhappiness isn’t quite like Writer’s Block, although it can develop into a block fairly easily, which should be prevented at all possible. And unhappiness isn’t exactly the problem we have with our internal editor – those flying monkeys of our conscious mind.

Unhappiness, in the writing world, is closely associated with boredom.  You hate the book; you hate the project.  You hate your hero, he is boring and does nothing but fight in a pub all night and never steps out for  a breath of fresh air.  You are bored with your own mind –  that is why you are unhappy.

But the trough of despair doesn’t have to become a permanent, deep, rut.  It can be just a brief resting place.

So how to manage this?

Crawl  out of the trough, and jump right back onto the same path.

Step away from the project.

Boredom and unhappiness is your brain revving up, about to launch again, it’s closely aligned to creative  thinking.   Your brain, (I say this from experience) is on the verge of delivering a break through.  Your Muse is hovering, ready to descend.  It’s about to happen, which, ironically, is why you are so upset and yes, unhappy.

Denial is not just a river in Egypt, for my Scandinavian family, it’s a contact sport, but knowing that will not help you here.  Don’t deny you are unhappy, admit it.  If you don’t, you will stare at that computer screen for hours, picking away at a plot you hate – one tiny letter at a time.  You will most certainly feel dry and used up. You most certainly feel like a failure.   

Walk away.  Like writer’s block, like the internal editor, unhappiness is best managed off the court.  Go find another creative outlet that is different – sometimes very different, then what you are trying to create.  Just the inattention will sometimes do the trick and reduce the unhappiness time and lead you to the solution.

So if you write, dance, sing, collage, paint.  If you dance, write your memoirs. If you paint, write poems.   Walk instead of write.  Sports are even good – run, kayak, play a game involving any number and shapes of balls. Do something that makes you happy again.  The release will not only make you feel immediately better, but when you show up to work the next day, you’ll be surprised to discover that the work you hated yesterday afternoon looks pretty okay in the morning light.  You forgive, you forget, you will write again.

Look at your unhappiness and restlessness as outwards manifestations of your inner turmoil. Once you see it and feel it, and after you indulge in an activity that takes you out of yourself, you will feel better.  After a few days consciously avoiding the page, you will be able to return and say what you really want to say – take your heroine where she really needs to go, and do it all faster and more easily.

Okay, that will help with unhappiness.  What about Writer’s Block?  Real?  Imagined?  Well, if you can’t write, if you are stuck, then it’s real.  More on Writer’s Block in the next blog.

Don’t Write Like We Talk
What we learned after five years and 200 episodes
interviewing Authors and Agents, Publishers and Poets

Damien Boath & Catharine Bramkamp
Authors and podcast producers of the Newbie Writers Podcast.

Learn more about writing:
Newbie Writer Podcast on iTunes
Don’t Write Like We Talk – on Amazon

My life is so interesting . . . I should write a book


This blog is from our book, Don’t Write Like We Talk, which in turn,  is not a Don't Write LIke We Talkcompilation of podcast transcripts (Newbie Writers Podcast), hell, it’s not even our show notes.  The book is a collection of blogs, essays, and presentations that capture the essence of what we learned in the last five years and what we want to pass along to new as well as experienced writers.  And in the spirit of the project – read here twice a month and you can learn everything we know for no financial outlay.  Be our guest.   

My life is so interesting . . .

No, it’s not.

No one’s life is all that interesting, fortunately, we think our own lives are pretty fascinating but if you’ve ever listened to someone on their cell phone, you know that isn’t true at all.

So why write a memoir if we just decided you aren’t that interesting?  No one’s whole LIFE is interesting but you may have something that happened during your life that is true and has a story arc that would be worth sharing with readers and the public at large.

Or say you survived an interesting period of history in your area and you want to share that time with your children and grandchild.  That is a good reason to write.

What if you have family history to pass along?  Please do, but not through all the genealogical research, write up the information in narrative, story form, or no one, not even your favorite grandchild, will read it.  Oh, they will say they will read it, but after you are gone, how are you going to know?

We recorded an in-depth podcast – episode 45 –  with Linda Joy Meyers, the president of the National Association of Memoir Writers and author of the Author: Power of Memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother 

Linda recounted the time she visited her great- grandmother and realized the only way to discover how history was lived, was to ask.

“Great grandmother was 80 and I was 8.  She remembered Custer’s last stand.  And how people baked bread and delivered each other’s  babies.  It blew my mind that she lived all this. It was that moment that I realized that everyone has a story inside of them.”

It took her many years to write her memoir and during the process she founded the National Association of Memoir Writers to help others write their memories.  Along with Linda, we offer up some of the concerns and solutions for newbie memoirists.

Does everyone need to die before you can write your memoir?  No, but it helps.

Do you change names and details?

Write the memoir using the right names, if anything, to keep it all straight.  Remember, the memoir needs to be true to your memory and your experience.  Most people change names to protect the guilty, that said, if you write a memoir about your family, no matter what you write, they all know who you are talking about. Damien pointed out that in his memoir, which is about his father, he didn’t change the names because, at the end of the day, his father’s name is still dad.

And sometimes family members want to be in the book and are deeply insulted if they are left out.  Don’t tell people early on you are writing a memoir, or they will start bugging you early on.  Keep it private for a while.

Write the book first, deal with the family in question, second.

If you have a committee standing around talking in your head, you will never get started You need to start!

Memoir by definition is a perception of what happened according to you.  The memories and repercussions belong to you alone. When writers worry about telling the truth, in the memoir world – the truth is your own point of view about what happened.  A sibling may remember the same incident differently.  If so, they can write their own damn book.

How do you even start a memoir?  Remember that a memoir a part of your life and experience, not your whole life – that’s autobiography, which can be more unwieldy and may lack a clear story arch.  You are telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Sometimes the easiest way to start your memoir and to get going is to consider not only the big events in your life but also the small, seemingly insignificant memories.

Why do we remember these at all?

Damien had some big memories that he began writing about, and they are very powerful.  But what about the smaller ones?  Here’s why I bring that up.  The small memories, add to your work and give depth to the memoir as well as give the reader a brief rest from the intensity of the stronger or more dramatic scenes.

I would also argue that these trivial memories are not as unimportant as they first seem as we write them down.

Why did we remember that particular Halloween?  Why did we forget the details of our prom, yet can recall, with spooky clarity, that campout?

Because as unimportant as they may seem, our remembered moments are revealing, and often we don’t understand how revealing until we begin writing about them.

Consider one of your clear even cherished memories?  Why do you remember it at all?   What is telling about that memory?  Why is it lodged so deeply in your brain, in your sense of smell, in your mental catalog of evocative sounds?

One reason we remember these moments is because they came before.  If you reflect back on big events of your life, you can often remember the day, the hour, the moment before just as clearly. So it becomes a two-part memory.  What you were doing before the divorce, the death, the accident.  You can recall those moments just before everything changed.

Call up the odd particulars of your childhood.

Toys and games from your childhood.  My favorite example of this is when we were kids, a popular game was Lawn darts.  Big, pointed darts we hurled at a target set on the grass.  Great fun, imagine when your little brother got in the way.

During my childhood, two plastic relief maps that hung in the hallway leading to my bedroom.    One was a map of the US, the other was a map of the world.  Stopped by often to trace our trip from California to South Dakota, fascinated that the black hills were these isolated little bumps in the center of essentially flat states.

I loved to examine the world map and imagine where I would go when I could finally grow up.

This is a small, isolated image, but one that can be used to launch a memoir, a short story or launch a whole novel.  Your memories and impressions can be used, stretched and manipulated into great fiction if you want.  And this may be another option as you explore your memories.

In all deference to Woolf, sometimes recalling calm, unimportant moments are exactly what we need to do in order to launch the bigger life changing moments.  The average can set the stage for the remarkable.

Some good memoir examples:

The Glass Castle: A Memoir  by  Jeannette Walls

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Don’t let’s go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

These are good because they do not over analysis or even editorialize their own story, they do not give away the ending, even though you know the author survived if only to write the book.

As a contrast, what books are not good examples of good memoir writing?

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey   

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

When you write about your past or childhood.  Avoid blame and editorializing.  Just write what happened and what you felt at the time, not thirty years later in hindsight.

First, you lose the immediacy of the narrative and scene if you write from a high perspective your work will become pedantic and dull.

Choose one scene, one time and experiment.   It took me a few tries and about 30,000 words before I realized I was REALLY BORING.  I mean, startling, elaborately, unbelievably boring.  I have a happy marriage and happy children and a mostly happy mother.  Really, my husband’s siblings are all lovely people.  See the problem? I have no problems.

Good memoir needs more than just happy all the time.  What was a difficult time for you? If you write about it will it help others?  Is your story strong enough to build a platform on?  If not, don’t panic, just makeup stuff.  That’s called fiction.   


I’m not sure on memoirs for the everyday person. I certainly am against memoirs of famous people who are yet to reach their 30’s as I don’t need to be reminded about those talentless sods who win the life lottery.

If you are considering writing a memoir, have a look back on your life and take note of the events in your life that are truly different, or extraordinary. Pick one or two of these events and explore that for your memoir, not your whole life. We (Maybe more like I) don’t really when you were born and why you were upset because Daddy didn’t hug you enough. But what is interesting is that time you were sent off to war and what happened there, or perhaps the time your wife had a baby that was severely disabled and how your life changed, the lessons you learned.

Focus down your memoir and cover that. If it’s not enough for decent length book, then write it down and share it with your loved ones. Not the world.


Write your own Wikipedia entry.  Describe yourself, your career, or what you want your career to be. Who do you want to be?  Rock star, super star. Newbie Writers Wikipedia

Write your own

Don’t Write Like We Talk
What we learned after five years and 200 episodes
interviewing Authors and Agents, Publishers and Poets

Damien Boath & Catharine Bramkamp
Authors and podcast producers of the Newbie Writers Podcast.

Learn more about writing:
Newbie Writer Podcast on iTunes
Don’t Write Like We Talk – on Amazon

Journaling – the New Selfie

Travel journaling is like one long, continuous selfie.

And like wielding a camera, your journaling can be reflexive or reflective.

There is usually a large crowd before popular paintings like the Mona Lisa or Night Watch.  Tourists used to just tour and observe but now it looks like the kind of mob the figures in the painting are charged to prevent.  Tourists block the view as they hold up phones and pose. Selfie sticks block the perfect view.  No one leaves as more and more people push towards the painting.

  Three steps away are a wealth of lesser known  Rembrandts.  Take a picture with one of those faces Night Watch - Amsterdamsince you yourself may be just as lesser known.  Write about how that feels.  Describe the crowd. Describe how you may or may not purchase a postcard of the Night Watch particularly when you know that just down the street stands a life-size sculpture of the Night Watch. There, a person can stand in the middle of the moving men and take better, more interesting selfies.  Or take additional notes.  Or do nothing more than admire it.

One could argue that journaling is, even more, self-absorbed than selfies.  Many of us don’t even share what we write.  Even though sharing is caring.

Sharing is also annoying.

But if you are a millennial you have always, always been in the picture. You were always in the foreground of every family photo and video.  I am rather grateful during the bulk of the boy’s childhood, we consistently forgot we owned a video camera and defaulted to being in the moment in real time.  I don’t know if it worked, but their selfie count is a fraction of their peers.  For which we are grateful.   

To continue the generational idea.  If you are a Xer, or trailing Boomer (those who don’t remember the Vietnam war) you were not raised to be the center of attention at all, in fact, your parents often forgot to pick you up from school.   We of this generation do two things – never forget to pick up our children and often avoid being photographed.  We are not happy with evidence of all the pasta and wine we consumed in Florence.

But journaling!  You can make snarky comments, you can scribble a sketch of the bachelorette party riding the bus, the bride wearing a tiara in the shape of a tiny penis (for her sake, not to scale).  You can take notes describing a young women photographing her friend dressed in a stunning red gown dramatically contrasting against the blinding white marble of the Taj Mahal.  UNESCO as back drop.

The good news is that the selfie boom has increased the general appearance of tourists.  Because everyone is in the picture, everyone looks better. Young women  stagger through national parks in high heels,   refresh their lipstick for the Eiffel Tower climb and lacquer their hair against the fog at the Cliffs of Mohr.   

My mother has expanded on the childhood mandate that she should be seen and not heard and is now both.   I have hundreds of photos of her in the foreground and beautiful places like  Croatia in the background.  But she doesn’t take her own photos, I do.  I am her photographer.  I’m so busy with her that there is no time for me. An old story, an established metaphor.

Between mom and all the adorable children bludgeoning surrounding tourists with selfie sticks,  there are enough portraits in the world. But there isn’t enough time.

You may be like me. When I travel, I want to see as much as I can in the time allowed.   I do not want to waste an hour or more of every morning wrestling with my hair,  complaining about the hair drying speed, unearthing a cute new outfit and ironing it, and applying make up because we are taking a picture over breakfast this morning. Forget me, there is so much to see, so much to capture and record.  I already know what I look like.   

To travel is to be busy.  To travel is to look like you look, not create that idealized version of yourself.   To travel is to make a pact with your fellow travelers that every day is a bad hair day and every day we get a free appearance pass.  My husband and I spent a spontaneous weekend in Chicago (not paid for by United, we were on our own for that 48-hour  layover) with no luggage. Chicago was fascinating, beautiful, exciting and by advanced agreement, all the photos are of Chicago, none of me.

I want to look out.  I want to write and remember, not how I look, but how I felt, what I saw and what others look like.

The journal is your selfie, you narcissistic, opinionated, nasty, wondrous, selfie.  Smaller than the additional luggage needed for costume changes, faster than full makeup very morning of a trip, and while I wield my journal, I hardly ever smack a fellow tourist over the head.

Injury Free Photo Sharing – What to do when no one wants to see your travel photos

My journal is the only space that patiently listens to every detail of my travels.  Every. Detail.  I need my journal because no one else cares.  Not my family, not my friends and not my traveling companions.  Especially not my travel companions.

It is reasonable then, to reach out to acquaintances and distant relatives who have not traveled with me and share all that I know and experienced.

But they too.

Do. Not. Care.

Unless your best friend has just returned from the same country. Unless your children just lost their phones, unless you want your dinner guests to leave early, you are sharing SOL.

That’s okay.

My Great Aunt and Uncle and Grandparents lived in our town.  Both couples traveled after their retired.   The two couples did not travel together, they didn’t like each other very well, they had nothing in common really.  Except for travel, the method of which they disagreed, and photos. Both couples took many, many photos.  On film.  To make slides.

To share.

When my great aunt and uncle returned from their incredible safari in Africa, we were treated to 5 carousels of slides documenting every step of the trip: the lions, the tigers, the elephants, the lions.  Not to be outdone, my grandparents showed us 6 and a half carousels of slides (each carousel holds 100 slides).  I exaggerate, the personal land speed record for slide shows to narcoleptic children is 700 slides.  My father exited these marathons uttering a single word: edit.

My brother and I would squint at the photo of the 47th  lion and wonder, is that the same lion? Is there an official lion supported by the Nairobi government that poses for the bus loads of tourists?  Because she LOOKS like the same lion we saw at our Great Aunt’s house last Sunday.  That even looks like the same tree.

After a safari in India, I find the idea of a  single, well fed, paid off lion, very easy to believe.

Arrowhead, tiger in India

Arrowhead, a well-compensated tiger.

But that’s another story. This story is about editing and sharing.    Not since those epic nights has anyone shared their photos with me and  I have not shared with them.  “Want to see slides of our trip?” is my trigger phrase.

Back to you.

Let’s say you retired early, and you finally get to travel.  And that is more than fantastic, it’s amazing. You are suddenly footloose and free and now can’t get the song out of your head.  You and your loved one can embark on one long honeymoon.  You can even travel off season to save money, or shoulder season to save money but have some sun. You don’t need to travel in August when northern Europe empties into the South.  You circumvent the crowds, you dodge the heat, you miss the lines,  you are the queen of all your survey.

Of course you are excited. And it’s only natural   you want to share

But your enthusiasm will be met with rather blank stares.

You want to talk about Paris but your friends are all hot to discuss their latest dental work.

Or all they want is for your to reinforce their own prejudice.  When I returned from India, the only question was – what about all the poverty?  Well, I replied, it’s not like Flint Michigan, where it’s all so depressing and dark that you want to kill yourself.  It’s more like happy, dirty, there is a pig rooting around in the garbage, but he’s a fat pig, poverty.  Completely different.  The woman with the question did not believe me and returned to her rant based on what she learned watching  Slum Dog Millionaire.

Or you want to share how emotional it was to again stand in awe before Matisse – The Dessert: Harmony in Red, a  painting you first saw when it was on loan in Venice back in the 80s and you happened to BE in Venice in the 80s. The painting was amazing then, and it was fantastic now.  And the white nights of St Petersburg!  Your husband’s second cousin instead asks about the food on the flight and doesn’t wait for the answer before being lured away by the bacon wrapped bacon.

  Here’s what I do.

I put together a collection of highlights from the latest trip on my phone. I label it favorites or highlights –  favorites help, mark the best photos with hearts and categorize them that way.

When someone who knows a little more about travel than your husband’s second cousin, and really does ask  to see photos (everyone says they want to see your photos, they don’t mean it, they are being polite)  hand them the phone, let them scroll through at their own pace, keep talking about something else.

If the viewer is paying attention, they will pause at a photo, show you the phone screen and say, what the hell is that?

You will answer, they will return to scrolling.

How to you describe all that fabulous stuff? All that wonder and joy? How do you keep up with the pace of their swiping?

From your journals pick a couple of stories. Tell the stories while your new best friend scrolls and in about 15 minutes you’ll be all finished with both the stories and their tolerance for viewing photos that don’t feature them.

If you are on Social, post on Instagram and connect that account to Facebook, post a couple of times during the trip so friends can say, oh yeah, I saw your trip on Facebook. Now you can tell them about the amazing lion who has been draped on this tree branch since 1972.   

Share with me –  Join our Facebook group – Travel/Write and we will listen to your story.  And look at your photos.

To Tour or not to Tour, that is the Troubling Question

Everyone likes to dis tours. Tours were for lesser, less adventurous, less intelligent tourists.  We were travelers armed with AAA maps and   Fodor’s $5.00-$10.00- $50.00-Never Mind, a Day.    

Tours were for those who didn’t know what they were doing, or why.  Tours were restrictive, crowded, uninspiring and boring.  Tours diluted the foreign experience by isolating you with your own kind on a big bus. Tour food was bland and catered to the lowest common taste bud.

We do not tour.  My mother didn’t even tour with her mother – apparently travel by enormous cruise ship that empties a thousand American’ tourists into port experiences catering to Americans tourists fresh off the cruise boat is completely different.   

Tours were out.  Until my mother lost both her favorite travel companion, my father as well as her travel bete noire, her mother. Until she wanted to travel to Egypt.

At the time – about 15 years ago, a woman could not comfortably travel

Luxor, Egypt


through Egypt without the protection and the organization of a tour.  It was a scary first time for both of us.  Not Egypt, the damn tour.   

We chose  Overseas Adventure Travel, I don’t even remember why except the price was probably right for what we got.  It always is.

Mom still brought maps and ideas but we did not pack   Fodor’s Egypt on $100 a Day.  Instead we clutched a copy of our pre-determined schedule and hoped we could endure the experience of bus rides that were necessary if you wanted to see the Valley of the Kings.    

There were a couple of features of a tour that dramatically differed from doing it yourself

Before-  Landing

Back in the day when we did it ourselves, we landed in London. My parents gathered the luggage, yelled at my brother and I to not wander around Heathrow and with much debate shuffled us all towards the car rental parking lot.   Because we are driving in London.  I remember my dad experimenting with the left hand gear shift while telling us he didn’t care if we were hungry.  Mom found the dot on a complicated London A to Z map and announced it shouldn’t be long.

I don’t remember being particularly terrified.  I should have been.   A car in London is a terrible idea. Clearly, we survived.

After –  Landing

We disembark in Cairo.  The airport is crowded and disorienting.  Streets even more so.  I keep an eye on mom so she doesn’t wander off searching for a restroom. Instead of dragging to three successive information booths to learn where to pick up a car that may or may not be a good idea, we are greeted by a professional guide holding an easy to recognize sign.

The guide escorts mom to the restroom.

The guide fetches the rest of our luggage, she walks us to a waiting bus. The bus driver already knows the route to our hotel.  In fact, the hotel is already taken care of, which is an ordinary thing on paper at home, it is a bloody miracle on your first day in a foreign country.

So when you descend the  switch back single lane road out of the mountains and down to the planes of Thermopylae in a big bus praying to whatever god strikes your fancy (in Greece there are still many to choose from: worship Mary if someone you loved did not survive the road down to Thermopylae, St Christopher if you did)  you can take comfort that your husband is not driving and your mother is not helping

Before – Getting Around

Even with Siri, even with GPS, even with a map, you can become terribly lost.  Or worse.  A best friend was guiding the rental car up in the hill towns in Spain and the GPS voice told him to turn left, and he did, and the car got stuck between the two narrow stone walls.  Trashed the car.   

Yes, if you drive or take the train, you can control the journey.  Take the road less traveled (which may or may not end up deep in sugar cane field), turn at the sign promising a castle (it did, it was amazing), and enjoy the day meandering up and down lush green hills.  You can also spend the day on a highway with unmarked exits, with your partner bringing up old grievances at the exact time the GPS delivered crucial directions.

After – Getting Around

On a tour there is limited opportunity to get lost.  However, if you are traveling on a time budget, it is worth the money to get where you want to go and back as efficiently as possible so you can spend the maximum time viewing the thing you came to see.  The bonus of the bus and of not having to worry about navigating the roads  is you can write about the monuments and experiences immediately after viewing them. And you don’t need to tell anyone where to go, either physically or metaphorically.

Before – Sleeping

You may already know to book a hotel room for the first night of your trip. You already know that the mind-set for such a hotel and first night is that it will be the most expensive hotel and dinner of the whole trip because you had no time to explore the area  and figure out the cheaper options.  As long as you can get to the hotel – from the air terminal, to a water taxi, to the dock, dragging the luggage over the cobblestones and discovering the right hotel a second before a storm. As long as you do that, you’ll be good.

After the first comfortable night, each day of the trip is spent either finding the right hotel, or finding the hotel  or AirB & B you reserved but doesn’t seem to be located at the published address.  Again, with our maps and phones, it’s not as difficult as it used to be.  But the search, discovery, moving the luggage, all the  pieces, chew up sightseeing  time.

After – Sleeping

Flam, Norway

From the Flam Railway

Tours often book far more beautiful and well-located hotels than you could afford on your own.   We know.  We tried.  We priced a trip to Norway a la carte so to speak and the cost was prohibitive.  We gave up and booked the same countries (Norway, Finland, Denmark and st. Petersburg)  with Grand Circle Tours (which is different from an OAT and I will discuss that if you’d like). With the tour, we enjoyed five star hotels, a cruise that offered caviar for breakfast and the perfect ride on the Flam Railway   We had more time to enjoy – in this case – the stunning fjords and views and less time worrying about where we’d sleep that night.

Don’t care about hotels?

Wait a few years, you will.

Travelers have always hired guides. How else can you know what you are seeing?  How else can you get around in the best, and for many of us, most efficient manner possible?

I took comfort that if Herodotus, one of the first travel writers, needed a guide in Egypt (who by the way, told his Greek tourist that the hieroglyphs on the top of the pyramids were a list of foods, which Herodotus dutifully wrote down.  It wasn’t true, but even in 550 BC no one could read hieroglyphs), then we could too. And so can you.

Have a story about travel and writing?   Join us on Facebook –  Travel/Write, I also post on Pinterest, follow the Travel/Write board.

Get a pen and a plane ticket and write!

Who is Talking? Trouble with POV

Don't Write LIke We TalkWarning

This blog is from our book, Don’t Write Like We Talk, which in turn,  is not a compilation of podcast transcripts (Newbie Writers Podcast), hell, it’s not even our show notes.  The book is a collection of blogs, essays, and presentations that capture the essence of what we learned in the last five years and what we want to pass along to new as well as experienced writers.  And in the spirit of the project – read here twice a month and you can learn everything we know for no financial outlay.  Be our guest.   

POV, Who to Blame?

Point of view is the relative identification of the narrator with the character.  Point of view is the story as seen through the eyes of the narrator.  The most common narrator is Third Person Limited, (not his real name), followed by Third Person Unreliable, which was someone I once dated.   Third person POV is the simplest way to tell a story.  But writers can still get it wrong.

We are reasonably intelligent, even talented people. Why the confusion over point of view?

Film and Video games are part of the confusion; they are hell on   POV.

Film gives you the long shot, shows other people that the main character cannot possibly know or see.  Film gives you zooming perspectives close-ups ups.  Film mixes it up.  Film shows us who and what is around the corner.  Film gives us the character motivation visually.  We are used to knowing everything.

Video games are even better at violating POV.

You already know the cast of characters and their motivation and strengths because you reviewed them all before starting the game. When they pop up, you already know stories, motivation, and moves.

Great for a game.  Great for a film

Crappy for a novel.

If we already know everything, what is the point of the journey?  So how do we keep the point of view clear in our novel?

Here are some ideas:

Cleaning up POV

  • Does your character suddenly know what the other character is thinking?
  • Are you creating scenes of action or explaining motivation?
  • Is there action that accompanies the dialogue?
  • If the view from above a little mixed up?
  • Have you decided on who is filtering the story and sticking to it? Readers will forgive a great deal, but not an author who violates his or her own world.
  • In reviewing your second draft, ask the question, how does character A know that about Character B?

Solutions in the first draft

  • Write the action from one point of view, all the way to the end of the story.
  • Then write the same story from the other character. Now put them together. Sometimes all it takes is for us to be clear in our own heads who is talking to whom.
  • If each character has a secret, and a history, that helps keep each one clear in the reader’s mind.
  • Also if the other characters do not know the secret, then that will help notify you as you write if you’ve overstepped the POV and suddenly switched to mind-reading.
  • Be clear. Stay in the right head, stay with the right character. And everything will be okay.

First, let’s confuse the whole issue.  In her great book – Shoot Your Novel, CS Lakin advocates that writers behave more like directors and “shoot” scenes in your books.

One, because it will help make for a more interesting book and two because your readers are quite familiar with the jump cut, the fade out, the high point of view, the close-up.  We are steeped in visual storytelling, so if you can capture some of that essence in your book, you will be well served, and we hope, well read.

To summarize:  Is the scene a fully formed scene?  Can you clearly “see” the action or is there something lacking?  Did you mention the right things that will pop up in later scenes?  Is the heroine described well enough, is the villain described well enough?  And of course, in the second and third edits, did you write it all down or did you assume a few things because they are so embedded in your head?

That said, as you view your work with the eye of a director, what are the pitfalls of this approach? One of the pitfalls is point of view confusion.

Point of view is the relative identification of the narrator with the character.  Point of view is the story as seen through the eyes of the narrator.  The most common narrator is Third Person Limited, (not his real name).  Followed by Third Person Unreliable, which was someone I once dated.   It is one of the easiest ways to tell a story.  But writers can still get it wrong.

The third person view “sees” all the actin and knows what each character thinks and feels.  The trick is to make sure the thinking and feeling happen in different paragraphs.

So the problem becomes:  Glen opened the door, oops, there was Melissa, awake, fully dressed and angry that he was once again, late.

How does Glen really know what Melissa is thinking?

Glen opened the door, there was Melissa, still fully dressed, clutching an empty glass.  She lifted it as if to throw it, but changed her mind.  “Late again.”  She spits out.

Third person limited is akin to Third person omniscient, which, just as the label indicates, means that you, the reader along with your handy God-like narrator, know everything.

Glen knew that Melissa would be angry, he had of late, made it a habit of arriving home at all hours, this could be because of his growing ambivalence about the relationship, this was clearly his way of rebelling against Melissa’s controlling nature.

Mellissa waited at home, frantic because Glen was late. Why did she always take up with unreliable men?  There must have been some issue in her early childhood.

But First Person Unreliable is the most fun.  The story is told by an idiot signifying . . . sorry.  The story is told by a character deeply entrenched in the story itself.  The only views the reader knows are those of the narrator. The narrator cannot read minds, he or she can only respond to what they think they see and what they observe.  This helps build characters and keeps the plot on track.

I was late.  I’ve been late a lot, but Melissa didn’t need to take it so personally, I just like being out with my mates.

“Where have you been?”  She shrieked as soon as I opened the door.  I ducked as a scotch glass hurled by my head.  It crashed on the far wall.

“Not that late.”  I protested.

She dropped her hand and looked at me with what?  Pain?  Disgust. Sex, she definitely wanted sex, I could tell.

See?  How much more fun, especially when the narrator is so very, very wrong.

Seems pretty straightforward.  Why all the confusion?  Just pick a character and stick with him or her.

Ah, the reason we have such a difficult time with POV – Point of View, is movies.

Film gives you the long shot, shows other people that the main character cannot possibly know or see.  Film gives you zooming perspectives and close ups.  Film mixes it up.

And so we reasonably try the same in our novels and stories.

Doesn’t work as well – the grammar police, our editors call us on it every time – if we are lucky.


I think that just about covers it.


“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

What do you write for publication?  What do you write for the heck of it?  Are they two different activities?

Give yourself a couple minutes and write exactly what you want.

Don’t Write Like We Talk
What we learned after five years and 200 episodes
interviewing Authors and Agents, Publishers and Poets

Damien Boath & Catharine Bramkamp
Authors and podcast producers of the Newbie Writers Podcast

Learn more about writing:
Newbie Writer Podcast on iTunes
Don’t Write Like We Talk – on Amazon
Like us on Facebook – Newbie Writers Group

Travel/Write – Why Write While Traveling

For writers who travel and love to write.

Mom at a temple in India

Mom, avoiding the trampling elephants

Travel writing sounds so glamorous; get paid to see legendary places, sample unusual food, sleep in exotic hotels, all on a magazine’s expense account.  Wow right?  Except there are maybe four writers who get to work that way.  The majority of travel writers pay for their trips, write up the experience and work hard to publish those articles on a blog, newspaper or magazine and often receive about  $1,000 for their efforts.   So why bother?

Because Travel and Writing are in your blood and your blood is made of part oxygen, part helium, and part ink. Like all obsessive hobbies, writing about travel is pointless, costly and fun as hell – it can be found listed in the same category as water skiing, sky diving, or gourmet cooking, there is no why there is just expensive equipment.  The goal and you hope, ultimate outcome, is huge, massive satisfaction rather than any product.   Often my only takeaway after three weeks in a foreign country is a small ceramic elephant and a clutch of poorly rendered postcards.  And it’s all worth it.   

Travel will extend your year and extend your life, not those crappy years at the end, but next week.  Spent on foreign soil, next week will last much longer than usual.

But you know all this. There are blogs and blogs and blogs about the joy of travel: climbing Mt. Everest, hiking through North Korea, building schools in Afghanistan.  You can find all those missives, read them, believe them or not.

I love that travel is not a competitive sport. I don’t need to have a count or see “more” than another traveler.  I don’t need to stand in 100 countries.  In fact, that 100 country contest?  I actually counted the countries I did want to visit and arrived at 80.  What countries of you want to visit?  Five?  Ten?  Travel to where you want, not to rack up a number, because no one cares.  Most travelers will not ask your score.

For me, part of the adventure, of you can call it that, is traveling with my elderly mother.  ( I get to call her elderly because it’s my blog).  At 81, mom is no hiker.  She walks like one of those wind-up toys that teeter along,  half step after half step eventually falling off the edge of the coffee table.  So scaling Kilimanjaro is out.

But ushering her across the streets in  Mumbai was pretty damn exciting.

I know it was exciting because I made a note in my journal –  almost killed mom today.    I don’t edit while writing, but I do edit and editorialize on behalf of the blog or in telling the story to friends. With each telling, the traffic becomes denser, the street wider and mom slower.  It’s my story and I’ll enhance if I want to.

What about you?  You may be traveling this summer, do you think you’d like to write down some impressions, take a few notes, write up the draft for a poem that includes the bright summer sky, three new birds and your elderly parent?

All you need is a notebook. (See, this activity is already cheaper than base jumping).

Yes, you can make notes on your phone. Of course, you can.  When I pass by one of you doing this, hunched over, studious chimping away at the world’s smallest keyboard using just your opposable thumbs, I am amazed, impressed and can’t help note that more time is spent figuring out the keyboard and checking that the notes are correct rather than enjoying the surroundings.

Look up (especially if you’re writing about birds).

Bring the phone, but also bring a notebook.  Notebooks free you from the distraction of technology and encourage spontaneity.  Plus, no roaming fees. A good travel notebook is large enough for ephemera:  tickets stubs, postcards, coasters, business cards from the hotel, and small enough to fit in a pocket or purse.  Ideally, you can carry your notebook while wandering through a museum or sitting at a tiny cafe table.   

Don’t spend too much money on a fancy notebook,  it will just terrify you, you won’t want to deface it with your pen.

Pens, don’t assume pens. Take the pens you love and take more than just that one.  As soon as you think, oh, I’ll just pick up a pen at the airport or I’m sure there are pens available in Albania, there won’t be.  Take four or so, and scattered them through your luggage because a cluster of pens rubber banded together makes TSA personnel nervous.

Take a backup notebook.  Sure you found the perfect one, but just in case, throw another into the bottom of your suitcase, that way you won’t restrain your writing just because you have three pages to the end of the notebook, but four days left on the trip.

Should you aspire to create a Pinterest-worthy notebook?  Nope. I follow those boards and am amazed and impressed with the level of talent and creativity scuttling around the world.  I collect them on my travel/write board, but I cannot do it myself. Journals are filled with perfect square writing and elegant watercolors.  Stunning works of art. Impressive, impossible.

If you are worried about your mother pitching off the end of the felucca, you won’t have much time or bandwidth for stunning and beautiful.

But you will have time for notes and impressions.  Embrace the messy notebook, revel in creating something that will never be ready for its close-up.  The fun of a notebook is making the notes. Write a poem around the paper napkin filched from the trendy restaurant.  Make a couple of notes in your lap while your travel partners finish their coffee.

Record the sound of a bird, describe a tree.  Travel.  Write.

And join us on Facebook – Travel/Write.  A group of unrepentant writers and travelers.