I’m Margaret Hammitt-McDonald, a naturopathic physician, licensed acupuncturist, elementary-school librarian, college writing instructor, and writer. I contribute a monthly column on bicycle commuting and cycling culture to HipFish, an alternative newspaper for the North Coast of Oregon. I also make periodic contributions to Upper Left Edge, an online and print literary journal, featuring writers from our upper-left corner of Oregon. I’ve been writing and rewriting, demolishing and polishing science fiction and fantasy novels since I was a teenager, and now, as a better-trained and hopefully wiser writer, I’m embarking on the journey toward publication to share my work with a wider audience.
I live between the Coast Range and the coast itself, enjoying the beauty where forest, beach, and mountains meet. Hiking, backpacking, dragonboating, bicycling, gardening, and just being outside with my family inspire my writing. My favorite writers include Ursula K. Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Patricia McKillip, and David James Duncan. Here are my odd…um, unique writing habits:
I’m sure I have other writing peculiarities, but the most important advice I can give is this: write regularly, preferably every day. Some folks wait until inspiration strikes, but inspiration is a fickle being, crash-landing in your head to wake you up one night and then, rather than striking, going on strike for days, weeks, even years. Daily writing creates the physical-mental space that invites inspiration to visit and then to stay. Alas, writer’s block can pay a visit too, but never fear, you can conjure your own sneaky ways to get around this big, bad wall. My favorite is to read what I’ve written the day before and do some editing. This uses a different branches of my brain but also pulls me back into the story, and soon enough, the writing flows back into that dry streambed.
I welcome you to join me in my explorations, experiments, adventures, and occasionally advice, and I invite you to share your own thoughts from your writing journey!
When I was in my twenties, I took a Ninja Taijutsu martial-arts class on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Adrian, the class’ sempai (senior student), was a physics doctoral candidate by day. At night, he donned his gi, tied on his black belt, and assisted the instructor in pounding us new recruits into fighting form. One night, he approached me with a forward roll, leapt up into a defensive stance, and said, “Consider a spherical cow!” While I was considering, his opening move in our undeclared sparring match sent me sprawling. My surprised laugh turned into an even more surprised “oof!” as I struck the mat.
Adrian’s message? Always expect the unexpected and never get caught off guard. It’s hilarious to picture a cow as a beach ball. Just don’t get so absorbed in your Holstein hyper-sphere that you end up airborne when the real world crashes into that amusing picture in your head and sends you flying.
Later, he shared the joke that had produced that punch line. In condensed form: a beef farmer consults with three professionals about how to make his feedlot operation more efficient. The first two consultants are an agronomist and a business coach, and they furnish the expected advice, complete with charts and stats. The third consultant, a physicist, begins with, “Assume the cow is a sphere…”
So what do spherical cows have to do with a writer’s journey toward publication?
The journey to publication features similar waypoints and rules of the road for all travelers. You’ve encountered these before: why it’s essential to get an agent, how to attract the agent, why you need to revise, revise, and revise again, how a writer’s critique group can provide useful feedback, why it helps to share your manuscript with editing professionals (developmental editors for plot and style problems, line or copy editors for making the grammar and syntax road-worthy)…and all the rest.
If anything, publishing professionals would seem to discourage the spherical-cow approach. A winning hook is one thing; getting noticed for some wacky gimmick is another. In other words, don’t send a manuscript printed on cow-patterned paper. (For that matter, many agents don’t want a printed manuscript at all, and for Bossy’s sake, don’t send it unsolicited.) With a first novel, I’ve read time and time again, don’t submit anything too “out there” for the agent to sell.
On the other hand, spherical cows do sell. Who wouldn’t jump on the chance to publish a bovine ball’s autobiography? A topic or take that’s truly original, a striking voice to die for…the unexpected, not just a joy to ponder, but the kind of originality that knocks you over (with a mat to soften the blow, I hope) while you’re immersed in its provocative questions.
What we remember about any journey are the unexpected, quirky, possibly frustrating but always exciting parts: the bird who landed on your head while you took that selfie atop the Great Wall, the friendly stranger on the bus who ended up hiring you for a fulfilling new job, the gorgeous view from the train that inspired you to move halfway across the country to your dream home. And, of course, your first glimpse of a cow rolling across a field at dawn.
Whatever point you’ve reached on your own writing journey, I invite you to join me—and to prepare for the unexpected.
19th-century cow image courtesy of http://paintingandframe.com/prints/others_cattle_19th_century-23612.html.