Slogging

I hit 60,000 words yesterday. I was on a high, not just because of the word count, but because I knew I had found my calling.

I’ve always thought that expression, “found your calling,” meant that you had found something you were naturally good at. But since making it a daily habit to give an hour to my novel, I’ve discovered it means something else entirely. It has nothing, it turns out, to do with being good at it, except that when you do something regularly, you become good at it.

It’s about how you feel when you’ve found it. A sense of rightness, of “of course”-ness. I was feeling this feeling strongly the night before last, lying in bed next to Carey, and I told him this, that I thought this was my calling, this novel writing.

He rolled his eyes at me. Smirked.

Hmpf. What did he think was so funny?

“It’s funny because everyone else in the world has known this all along, Heather.” Oh.

So I spent all day yesterday on this high, because everything in the world is right when you’ve found your calling. When you realize that everything, everything you’ve ever ever done has led to this. That everything you thought was weird about yourself isn’t weird:

Obsessively reading drafts over and over because you want to see how it reads from everyone else’s point of view, one person at a time.

Obsessively researching every little thing that crosses your path.

Obsessively reading and re-reading blogs and stories that tear your heart out, and letting the tears course down your cheeks, and beating yourself up for “torturing yourself.” When it turns out you weren’t needlessly torturing yourself at all: You were researching. Researching your heart and the hearts of others.

You listen to this:

And you nod along. YES, that is me. I’m not weird. I’m a WRITER.

You find out that everything you’ve ever done–raising chickens, running a business, being a mom–all of it matters to this thing you’ve been called to. It all contributes. It all makes sense.

And so, last night, I cheerfully set my alarm for 5:30 even though I don’t have to be anywhere until 10. And this morning I rose cheerfully from bed and came to this computer to write. Write! Write my novel! And I opened my tracking document (tip: If something matters to you, track it–this does something to your brain to make it take you seriously. Even the brain science I read matters to my calling!), recorded my starting time and word count. I opened my beloved document with my incredible story, and the characters I have grown to love so very much. And I scrolled to the bottom and I re-read the last paragraph to get my bearings, and then I

blanked. out.

Nothing.

Geez.

So I did what they say to do, and I wrote anyway. About 1300 words of boringness. All description. I managed to eke out a dialog between two main characters, but not much of one.

Sigh.

Calling, schmalling.

This is slogging.

Nice blank page, man.

Parenting While Writing

Every couple of weeks or so, I decide it’s okay if I sleep in for a bit. Usually it’s a weekend, and I don’t have any appointments, so I’ll just sleep until 7 or 8, and then I’ll get up and write, right?

This is always a mistake.

Why? Because children. (Yes, that’s a complete sentence, Bloggess-approved, stop correcting my grammar. Why is my house a mess? Because children. Why aren’t my teeth brushed? Because children. Why are my boobs saggy? Yes, because children. It’s a very handy sentence.)

Why is sleeping in a bad idea? Because children.

By 7 o’clock, often much earlier, the first of my little ones is awake. Usually the littlest, who is 5, and completely insatiable in his curiosity and hunger for attention. Curiosity is a beautiful thing, delightful in a child when you don’t live with that child. Then it is torture.

“Mommy?”

“I’m working.”

“Oh. Can you go outside with me?”

“No. I’m working.”

“Awww. Please? I need somebody to come outside with me.”

“Baby. I’m working. Go somewhere else.”

Five minutes later.

“Mommy? Can I have some gum?”

“No. I’m working.”

“Can I play with your phone?”

“Whatever. Just go away.”

“What’s your passcode?”

“Here, let me do that.”

“Where do I go for free games?”

“If I get you to the free games, will you leave me alone?”

“Yes”

“Okay, there. Just pick what you want and hit download, okay?”

“Okay. What does this one say?”

Sigh.

Needless to say, this is not conducive to flow. And I wish I knew a way around it that does not involve either getting up at 5am or abandoning them at the pound. Five am is really early and the pound doesn’t accept human children. I am just in awe of authors like Lev Grossman, who just had a baby and nevertheless is plugging on with his book in small batches (check his blog, please, but don’t get too uppity and start posting comments, because then mine might get lost in the jungle. Right now there are only 10 comments on his latest entry. If you haven’t read his books, read those too. Best-selling author and all).

I suppose you could argue that an hour a day qualifies as small batch writing, but I think of an uninterrupted hour as long long batch writing. Because children.

When I get up at 6 or, better, 5, I can usually get this uninterrupted hour of flow. Beautiful. Otherwise, it’s miniscule batch writing for me.

So here I am yesterday morning. Everett has finally settled on a phone game, glorious silence, I’m a terrible parent but at least I get to write. Five minutes later the 9-year-old is up.

“Mommy?”

Sigh.

“Hi baby.” Hugs.

“I’m working, okay? So… just… you know. Let me work?”

“Okay.”

“Mommy?”

Sigh. “What?”

“What do you have to get to get a blog?”

“What do you mean?”

“If … how do you get, if you had to have something… like, you know how… it’s um, it’s um, it’s like Elihead on WordPress.com, well what would it be if you made a different one. ”

“If you made another blog?”

“Yes.”

“It would be something.wordpress.com.”

“Ooohhh. Can we work on my blog today? And we haven’t written in my book in a long time. Can we do that today?”

Ya know. Maybe I’m not such a terrible parent after all.

Check Eli’s Mythical World here. And his novel in bookstores someday. Why check out his blog? Because children.

 How do you write while parenting?

Novel Writing as a Multi-Disciplinary Activity

This morning’s writing session did not begin with writing. It began with cartography.

And as I was researching the size and physical organization of NYC and the Mammoth Caves, drawing maps and calculating distances, it occurred to me how much of writing a novel is not writing at all.

This novel-writing journey has, if nothing else, taught me to dearly respect the work of novelists. To do it well, there is so much you must do and be or become good at, even beyond the usual skills you might think of. Behind every well-written scene are hundreds of nuggets of information and understanding and skills that are never explicitly mentioned in the scene.

Case in point, the novel I’m working on has so far required, among other things, a working understanding of the following:

Geography, politics, war, weaponry, anthropology, evolution, map-making, photo manipulation, geology, energy generation, plant biology, acute radiation poisoning, weapon-making, animal experimentation, history of animal rights activism, factory farming, animal husbandry, linguistics, chemistry, fruit fermentation, methane production, and military defense tactics.

Thank goodness I like to read.

You go into a story, or at least I went into this story, carrying much of what you need inside you already. But as I’ve proceeded, I’ve had to accumulate more. More knowledge, more understanding. Even though my story takes place in an imagined world of the far distant future, it still has to be grounded in an understanding of the underlying principles of this world.

Or, perhaps, *I* want to be grounded here. Perhaps if I were more “imaginative,” I could create an underground city out of my head without the need for maps of Mammoth Caves and New York City to hang the hooks of my city upon. Do other writers do this, take real things and study them and take them apart, and construct their imagined worlds from the pieces? I think probably.

So, yes. Be impressed. Be very impressed. I have mastered many arts in order to progress in becoming a novelist. Just look at my masterful cartography. This impressive map was created by printing out a cut-away of Mammoth Caves, converting it to a negative (so I could write inside the caves), and superimposing my outstanding penmanship and meticulous map-making skills over the print-out. Behold:

Be impressed. Be very impressed.

P.S. I also wrote about a thousand words, which equates in this case to one more-or-less complete scene. It is not the scene I expected to write today. It arose organically from the the situation in which I left two main characters at last writing, and was not consciously influenced by my hand-wringing post of yesterday. Are you ready for this? It’s a scene in which… a major female character meets another major female character and has a conversation. In two different languages. About something other than boys. Bechdel Test, eat it.

Failing the Test

This one passes.

Have you heard of the Bechdel test in fiction? Basically, if two named female characters in a work of  fiction have a meaningful conversation with each other about something OTHER than a man or men, then it passes. Try it on a few of your favorites. I was surprised how few of mine pass. Try it the other way around, and you’ll see that nearly every work ever has men talking to men about something other than women.

I feel angry about this. What is wrong with our society, that our fiction shows such a strong bias in this way? I feel angry with the authors too. I adore the Hunger Games but guess what? Fails the Bechdel. I mean, you could argue that Prim and Katniss qualify it, but it’s rather thin. They love each other, but they don’t seem to actually TALK to each other much. Harry Potter… doesn’t really qualify either. I mean, Harry and Ron and Hermione talk to each other on screen (by which I mean, on the page) all the time. Ginny and Hermione and Mrs. Weasley, presumably, have conversations… but not with each other, not on screen. Lord of the Rings? Nope. Star Wars? Uh-uh.

Shouldn’t our young peoples’s literature reflect a more balanced view of humanity, of what it is to be female? Don’t we owe this to our young women?

So anyway. Here I am plugging away in my own novel. I hit the 57,398 word mark today. Big milestone, right? I mean, you don’t hit 57,398 words every day. The first Harry Potter book had only 76,944 words, so I’m like, 74.59710958% of the way there. I’m cheerfully counting words (not that I’m obsessive about it or anything), and patting myself on the back for a well-planned plot that proceeds beautifully scene to scene…

…until it hits me that my novel DOES NOT pass the Bechdel test.

Geez.

So, what is it do you think? I just don’t know. Is it a sign that I am not a “liberated” woman? That I harbor some resentment toward my fellow women that makes me not want to talk to them, or have my characters talk to each other? Furthermore, as I noticed yesterday, my female characters all seem to defer to their male counterparts. What the heck?

I gave this a great deal of thought over the course of yesterday, turning it over and over in my mind. Does it make my novel weaker, or is it a natural part of what it is? If I work to change it, to grow stronger female characters, to make them talk to each other, will that stilt my novel, ruin its integrity?

I really don’t have answers to this. I started to write a scene introducing a new companion to one of my main characters, a named sister, so they could walk through the woods together, having lovely non-man-centered conversations, but that did NOT turn out well. For one thing, their very first conversation was about the brothers they’re trying to find. Right. It wasn’t about a BOY, exactly (I mean, it was, but not in THAT way), but it was still about a BOY(s). More importantly, it’s stilted. There is just no particular reason why this new character needs to play any kind of central role in the story.

Is it a problem that I’m even thinking this way? Should I be focused instead on just letting the story come out the way IT wants to come out and stop worrying about my own inner journey and what it says about me that I can’t seem to get it to pass the Bechdel test?

So then I asked myself whether the story passes the reverse Bechdel test, and the answer to that is “no, not really.” There are some boy and boy conversations, but they’re minor and not among major characters. So maybe it’s just that I don’t like same-gender conversations.

Or maybe it’s just that this particular story is not about boys talking to boys and girls talking to girls. It’s just about what it is, it’s just the story. And so far, the boys haven’t been talking to each other, and the girls haven’t been talking to each other.

And, it turns out, further on, that is going to happen. Some of these groups are going to meet up, and there are going to be main character girls and main character boys all in the same room.

And some of the girls are going to find their voices and their power, and take the lead. They will come into their own.

And so. Two things:

1. Maybe I can just let the story be what it is and stop meddling, and that will probably be best for all.

2. And maybe at the end, THEN I can analyze what exactly happened there.

And one more thing:

3. And maybe all those stories that fail to pass the Bechdel test, or that show female characters in second-fiddle roles, maybe they’re not trying to show how things SHOULD be, but how they ARE. Maybe it’s pointless to feel so angry at the authors, and instead we can work on changing our society?

Yeah. I think that’s it. Also, it’s clear to me that we females, we have to work pretty hard to have our voices heard. Even when we’re fictional characters.

Best Writing Advice Ever. From Anne Rice.

I like a good vampire story as much as the next girl, though I’m not really into the sparkly kind. To each her own, though, you know? Still, Anne Rice was never one of my favorite authors until a friend shared this video with me. Now I’m slightly in love with her. Here’s what I like about Anne Rice, and I think it’s an important lesson: She never let what other people think of her genre trip her up. Also, this video contains quite easily the best and most helpful writing advice I have ever, ever heard. Except the bit from Anne Lamott about my excuses being BS. Except for that. And maybe the advice in Bird by Bird. But other than those. The best. Watch.

Also from Anne Rice:

Writers have to have faith in their own voice, and their own way of doing things. Originality is the gem that every writer possesses. Originality also brings on the most merciless attacks. The world resents originality in the beginning writer, and then rewards it abundantly once that writer has been successfully published. Cherish your own voice. Don’t try to sound like anybody else. Sound like yourself and take the slings and arrows and keep going.

And:

On the subject of writing block, of course chocolate helps! Chocolate helps everything. Truly you have to brainstorm to go through writer’s block. Watch a film that excites your imagination tremendously. Pick up a book with delectable prose that just trips along. Do whatever makes you want to sit down and pound away on the keys. And try again and again to write right through that block. Just write until the juices start. Don’t put up with Writer’s block. With me, movies are very powerful. Highly plotted, visually beautiful films help. Amadeus helps. Immortal Beloved helps. Gladiator helps. But eventually you have to just write, and write and write.

Jaimie, I thought you’d like that last one, because the whole “just write” advice doesn’t work for you, and this sounds a lot more like what you do. Also, you’re the one who first shared this clip with me, a long time ago. Credit where credit is due.

Coming Out

I did not want to write this morning. Did not. Want. To write. I was so sick of my story. So sick of my characters. So sick of the plot that just never seems to untangle and move forward. The last couple days have been booooring.

I wanted to spend my hour reading advice from novelists, see if someone could tell me how to fix it. I wanted someone else to tell me how to move forward. It’s so frustrating how lonely this journey is, how much of it you have to do YOURSELF. Ha. Wouldn’t it be nice if the stories would just freakin write themselves?

To break through this barrier, I considered going back and starting my edits, even though the draft is not done. I seriously considered it, even though lots of authors say not to edit till you’re done writing, and I’m not convinced it would have been a bad choice. Perhaps it would have been useful, and might have propelled me forward again.

Still, I’m glad I did what I did, which was to keep plugging along. Decided to go ahead and write a specific scene, one where a pair of my main characters is traveling through woods with another group of characters they’ve just met. I wanted to hurry ahead to the plot again, get my characters busy doing something that  will move things toward their inevitable conclusion, but I had too many questions before I could do that right. So I wrote this “boring” scene.

I think I was somewhat inspired by reading several “boring” chapters of Harry Potter to the kids last night. We’re on (rendition #2) of The Goblet of Fire (having already read the entire series to them once before, and to myself several times). This is my least favorite of the stories, so much exposition at the  beginning, so much scene-building, so little action, so. much. Quidditch. Yech. But the kids like it, so I kept plowing through. (“How come you don’t read very much to us each night any more, Mommy?” said Eli. “Because it’s boring!”) And last night I began to see that it’s okay to exposition some. The kids love it, even if I don’t. And so I gave myself permission today to write some “boring” bits. I can always take them out later.

And it turned out to be pretty okay, actually.

It answered a lot of questions for me about the characters’s motivation, and helped forge an alliance between two characters who have been butting heads through the whole thing but who, I’ve known from the start, will eventually be partners if not something slightly more.

And, it was actually pretty interesting to write and I think it will be interesting to read. It’s a scene I’m rather proud of, in fact. Yay.

At the same time, there is something niggling at me. I kept getting distracted by this thought, and then putting it away for later cogitation. My niggling is this: All of my female characters seem to play second fiddle to a male character. This was NOT intentional. It certainly does NOT reflect how I think life SHOULD be or even what I think is “natural” for people. It does, however, reflect my upbringing and my own personal insecurities about leadership.

Now to cogitate on how to address this. If the female/male inequity were central to or important to my story, I would leave it in. I don’t need to make a political statement. But it’s not. I believe it’s a weakness in myself, and therefore a weakness in the story, to leave it like that. I’ll be thinking on it…

Rough Day Today

Wow. Some days you think you just are not going to make it. It feels like every word of my designated hour was bad this morning. And only 900 words, too. Not sure how to get through this patch to the next bit. You know, where I start writing scenes I actually like again.

Monty, age 12, came in while I was writing. He likes to look over my shoulder and read. Usually he gets so interested he wants to ask questions, and begs to read more. Today he turned over and went back to sleep.

Faith. Gotta have faith faith faith.

It will get better, right?

The Blog Comment/Facebook Post that Started it All

I posted the text below to my Facebook feed today, along with a link to the Anne Rice advice mentioned (which I’ll post here later). It kinda explains how/why/when/what the impetus was for becoming a novelist/admitting to my inner novelist. And then I got to thinking and decided that to celebrate my new status as an emergent-novelist-who-has-written-50,000-words-in-her-first novel, the logical thing to do is to start a new blog. Or, rather, revive an old one but completely revamp it. For writers. I explain more of what this is about on the about page. Just. Here’s the post:

I’m about to tell you my Thing, because Glennon asked about it on her blog today and I realized I’m ready to share my Thing publicly. Here’s my Thing.

My Thing is writing novels. I’ve had novels living inside me begging to come out all my life, but I kept thinking they were short stories, mostly because I’m impatient, and then I would get frustrated because they would take so darn long to come out, and so I tried to make them be tidy little short stories, and I don’t even like short stories, really. And so I didn’t like them and kept doing other things instead.

I’ve written hundreds of thousands, probably millions, maybe even hundreds of millions (really, I don’t have any actual idea how many) of words on nearly every topic imaginable. Chickens. Debt. Landscape management. Limousine business. Data storage. Marketing Strategy. Gardening. God. Life. Ducks. I’ve been published innumerable times in local and national print, as well as in blogs, brochures, press releases, and websites where there is no byline because I’ve been paid to tell someone else’s story in their voice.

And somehow in all that writing, up until about six months ago, it never seemed like a novel was important enough to bother with. Novels are… entertainment. They don’t make real differences in the world, right? Maybe a handy how-to would be just the thing, or a collection of inspirational essays.

But the stories just kept coming to me and I FINALLY listened to what I’ve heard and known for a long time, that if you are called to do something then that something is what you are called to do… and if you are called to do it, then it IS important.

So about six weeks ago, I decided to let one of the stories that came to me BE the novel that it wanted to be, and to take its sweet time, even though that time turns out to be a lot (A LOT) of mornings. Why:

It was a mix of Anne Lamott, a friend, and wild precious posts from favorite bloggers. Mostly Annie, though. Telling me (and her 100k+ FB followers) that my excuses were bullshit (sorry, but it just wouldn’t be Annie without the swearing).

Also mostly my friend giving us a big precious gift that said I BELIEVE IN YOU (in my head it said that. In everyone else’s reality it said something else–a lot of something elses. It’s a long story, and one I’m not ready to tell yet. But I will. I will when I’m ready).

And also Glennon and her story of getting up every morning to write because it was better than going to Africa.

Oh, and Anne Rice, who said something I will never forget about writing into your pain and writing into your passion. Which is kind of the same thing as saying it’s about pain and love, which is what I do every morning for an hour now, writing into my pain and my love.

So. Anyway. I’m 50,000+ words in. 50. Thousand. Words. That’s enough to be taken seriously, right? I mean, I haven’t just STARTED a novel, I’ve actually written over a third of it. Maybe close to two thirds.

I haven’t shared all this publicly because I’ve been afraid I’ll jinx it. But then I remembered it’s not magic, so it can’t be jinxed. It’s hard work and it’s getting up every morning and doing it again for that one precious hour, every single morning, no matter what. It’s letting my love and my pain be the first thing I do every morning. Love and pain and hard work.

That’s all it is, and you can’t jinx that.

So. Fifty thousand words, and a decision to get up tomorrow morning and write the next scene, the next thousand words. That’s my Thing. What’s your Thing?

Writing a Novel is Intimidating

I have hesitated to post about my experiences because, after all, I am 39 and only for the first time in my life finally actually working on a novel in any sort of disciplined way and so, although I have been writing professionally in a business context for more than 12 years, I am not truly an “author” in the way that a Lev Grossman or a Shaindel Beers or a Sarah Pinneo or an Anne Lamott is an author. Plus, I’ve been afraid I would jinx it by publicly sharing. But today I think I will, and maybe others can share my journey.

I’ve been getting up an hour early to write every morning for just over a month (thank you Abby England, your gift started this, you know). I now have 48k+ words in my first novel.

It feels nice to watch it grow like that. It’s gratifying to read pieces of it to my kids and hear how excited they get about my characters, and receive their (quite useful, really) feedback, and listen to them ask for more, more, more.

But I think the coolest thing about it is watching my own process and seeing that I really can do something this big. Writing a novel is intimidating. An average client long-copy deliverable (i.e., case studies, white papers, etc.–versus website headlines, ad copy, etc.) runs between 1,200 and 2,500 words. A first novel starts at around 60,000 and runs up to 150,000 (War and Peace and the last Harry Potter book well exceed this number, of course). The sheer complexity of plot is overwhelming even in a short novel.

But I’m doing it. I really am.

Writing and Trust

I think writing is largely about trust. You have to trust that things will unfold okay.

At around 35k words on the novel I’m working with (my first), I hit a block. I  suddenly became aware that I am not, in any way, at all, cut out for the long form of a novel. My plot had become ridiculously complex and although I knew where the climax would go when I got there, I had no way to get to it. My writing became rambly and general and booo-oooring. I was bored to tears myself, so I can only imagine how a reader would feel.

Fortunately, an old professor of mine who is connected with me on Facebook (Chella Courington), posted this from Richard Bausch at about the same time:

Most of the trouble you have with writing anything is temporary–if you can manage to think only in terms of this one day’s work, while holding back anything other than the determination to stay there the appointed amount of time and struggle with it. As I’ve said many times, most everything ever written was written a little at a time, over time, in a lot of confusion and doubt. It’s the territory. Quite normal and all good. If you’re spending the time, confused or no, happy or no, it is all going very well indeed, even when it feels like failure. 

So the next morning, I got up again and wrestled for an hour. And guess what? The story started to make sense again, the path cleared before me like a fog lifting. Only a little, mind you. I can’t see to the end of the path yet. Just enough, and just enough is enough. Scene by scene, bird by bird. Keep wrestling, and trust. Trust that it will unfold.