Writing It In, Writing It Out

It’s been quiet on the blog for a couple days. I’m thick into revisions now, and it’s a whole other place to be. A place not conducive to writing something new, like a blog entry. My brain is in critical mode, cutting, pasting, and rewriting mode, and it has no time for the passion and excitement of creating something fresh. Maybe that’s why there’s so little information from authors and others about the process of revision, how to do it–because when you’re in it, it’s hard to write about. And when you’re done, maybe you’re just glad to be done. There is this, though, and it’s pretty good:

The best bit starts at 5:15 to about 6:20.

It’s funny to me how people who are accomplished in something tend to think that whatever method they use is THE way to do it. Even though a hundred other accomplished people do it differently. There’s a lot of “This is how you must” and “You really have to” in that clip, but whatever. I don’t do it the way those authors do, except that I do cut quite a lot on the first rewrite. Here’s what I’ve done so  far:

  • I dove right into revisions within hours of finishing the final scene of the first draft. No setting it aside for me. I get the point of setting it aside, and I also don’t think it’s necessary for everyone right away. I will probably get some distance from it after the first set of rewrites, or when I send it out for beta, but for now I’m making progress and it’s working, so I’m going with it.
  • I revised five chapters in quick succession, within a few days.
  • I handed them to my sons and my husband to read.
  • They loved them. Carey compared the chapters favorably to several published authors and said “It’s riveting” and “I want more.”
  • Encouraged, I plowed forward on a couple more chapters and handed them off.
  • Carey said, “Hm.” I said, “What.” He said, “Not AS good.” I said, “Crap.”
  • We spent three hours talking through what was wrong and why, and what it needs. I love my husband. We figured out that the main problem is that I didn’t have any idea what one of the main characters was even doing in the book, why she was even there. She was just a place holder with a cardboard personality. Amazing that Carey could already see that, from that one chapter, when I didn’t even realize it. Hm.
  • I spent two days figuring out where the major plot points are, and what that character is doing, who she is and why she belongs in the story (I seriously considered cutting her out, or subsuming her under another character, but in the end she earned her way back in). Fleshed out another supporting but important character.
  • Began a re-write of the chapter that was most “hm”-worthy. Didn’t get far, but at least I know where it’s going.
And that’s where I am now.

It’s not exactly fun. There’s no growing word count. No “Look how much progress I made” chart. No: Look, I wrote 1200 words today go me! Also, I totally don’t identify with Sinead Moriarty. She talks as though her revision process involves a series of minor tweaks and occasionally she has to rewrite something. There is nothing minor, nor tweakish, about my revision process.

You must begin in confidence and revise in persistence.

(I don’t remember where I read that, sorry–ping me if you know the citation.) Today I only wrote 300 words. Yesterday, none at all, unless you count penciled notes on plot points. And I’ve deleted more than I’ve put in. My draft is shrinking.

I have created copious amounts of supporting materials, however. There’s now a pencil-written outline, with a list of scenes. A “character sheet” (HP, Constitution, armor class, etc.–no, not really) for each of four characters (more are coming). And a separate pull-out document containing the first part of a re-write on that really sucky scene.

I guess that’s why Carlo Gebler’s comments on Hemingway, in that clip above, hit me today. It’s comforting to think the reader will just know. 

Are you in revisions on anything right now? How do you approach it? Any words of wisdom to help me through?

Writing Off Coffee.

In the thick of it. The story is coming thick and fast or not at all, and either way it is consuming. And then there’s work. So. Instead of a proper post, here is a list of cool links and videos worth watching:

You can never go wrong with Anne Lamott. Here she talks about being the peoples’s author. She’s not sure it’s true, but it seems that way to me. Head over to her FB page if you’re not already following her, and tell her she’s *your* author. You know, if she is.

And then there’s this from Lev Grossman. How he got published. It’s inspiring and depressing and inspiring. Gotta love Lev.


And this from Neil Gaiman. Looks like maybe I will start going to conventions soon. Maybe the Wild Goose Festival, and meet Glennon Melton.


And finally, here’s Farnam Street Blog on why everything I’m doing in my novel is important to my business. Whew.


Headed to a client meeting… and then to a coffee shop to write in my novel. Because I can write that darn coffee off as a business expense, by gum.

Art by SuperLadySarah. Check her out by clicking on the art.

How Harper Lee Ruined My Life and Other Stories We Tell Ourselves

I don’t usually play favorites (being a person of wide and varied tastes and rather little patience for picking and choosing one over another). But when I do, I pick To Kill a Mockingbird. Sorry, All-The-Rest-Of-The-Books-In-The-World.

In the year 2000, a Charlotte bookstore down the street from where we were living displayed a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird priced at $160. I went back to the store three or four times and stared at that volume, in its glass case by the check-out counter. At that time, it was a choice between groceries for a month and that book. Alas, I chose food. I think that you will agree, my priorities were very, very wrong. Eating is highly overrated.

But this isn’t a blog about reading. It’s about writing. Which is why I’m going to talk about how Harper Lee’s personal story ruined twenty years of my life as a writer.

You see, Lee wrote a few things before To Kill a Mockingbird, and a few things after, but never anything of its size nor significance. Why? Because who has time? But in 1956, she received a gift from her agent. It was an envelope containing an entire year’s salary and a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.

For years I have wondered whether, if someone gave me a year’s salary, I could write something like that. Surely, with a whole year to dedicate to it, I could finish a novel, something marketable. Maybe the next great piece of American fiction, sure, why not? But seeing as how the Year’s-Salary-Fairy seems to have neglected my house as of late, I am stuck writing little things–magazine articles and blog entries and so on–in between making money and tending children and trying to keep groceries in the house. Groceries have so often gotten between me and what I really want in life.

So anyway, THAT was the story I told myself to explain why I have never written anything great, anything truly noteworthy. Poor, poor me. And THAT is how I whittled away my twenties, my thirties, without ever writing even one significant, sustained work of fiction or nonfiction. Because nobody ever gave me a year off from work.

I’ll be turning 40 in October and I FINALLY figured out, despite Lee’s misleading and thoroughly discouraging life story, that my full time job and kids are not what has been holding me back. It’s been me all along. Well, me and Harper Lee, of course.

Did you know that if you wake up an hour early every single morning and dedicate that hour to writing, that you will end up writing for 7 full hours per week? Yes, that’s right, I did math. Don’t stop me now, I’m on a roll.

Seven hours per week comes out to 364 hours in a year.

If you ask the experts on Google and Yahoo! answers, you find out that it takes anywhere from 80-250 hours to write the first draft of a novel. Numbers confuse me, but I’m pretty sure even 250 is smaller than 364.

So it turns out I didn’t need the Year’s-Salary-Fairy after all. I may not be writing a masterpiece, but I’m writing, and that’s enough. I’m approximately 60 hours into my novel, and about 2/3 of the way through the plot at 75,000 words.

(Not that I’d turn the fairy away if she showed up. In case you’re reading this, Fairy. I love you. Do you like cookies?)

Just for fun, check this synopsis & analysis of my favorite book. As a rather thoroughly rule-abiding English major, I can’t strictly approve anything that has the flavor of Cliff Notes. This has nothing the flavor of Cliff Notes.

“Only a jive-ass fool would bother capping a mockingbird, because all them bitches do is just drop next level beats for your enjoyment. So all my girl Harper trying to say is that rattin on Boo Radley wouldn’t do no good. It’ll only rid the hood of one more true blue playa.”

Maybe I won’t sue Lee after all. Because, obviously, capping that mockingbird would … you know. Not be cool. Aww yea foo.

P.S. What stories have you told yourself to keep from pursuing your dreams? When did you realize you didn’t have to listen to those stories any more? Tell me in the comments!

Writing the Ocean

I finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel last night, in my second sitting with it. It was that kind of book, right from the start. Grabbed me, pulled me in, wrung me out, and didn’t let me go until it was done with me. I fell asleep afterward, my head filled with rags and worms and an endless tugging ocean.

He wrote it for his wife, and it feels like he wrote it for writers, for all of us, and with so much love.

I want to write like that, of course. I woke up this morning and wrote another 1300 words in my novel and they were nothing like that.

I read today that the Ocean’s signing tour is Gaiman’s last.

I am unspeakably sad about it. Right now, with the Ocean still flowing through me its current tugging longing to dissolve me… I’m ready to drop everything and head to California, just so I can meet him before he turns recluse. Alas, odds are that I never will have that honor. I’ll have to settle for video:

It’s good video. Good advice. Go do things. Read a lot. Lose your heart. Write. Write. Write.

“All writers have this vague hope that the elves will come in the night and finish things for you… They never do… You put one word after another like putting bricks in the wall…” or drops in an ocean…



In Praise of Idleness

Here are some things I don’t do when I write: I don’t lie down (because it makes my tummy feel funny). I don’t go to dirty hotels (because that’s gross). I don’t fondle myself (because…just because).

However, some famous creatives rely on exactly these things to get their muses singing. The most interesting thing to me about the list of “Daily Routines of Famous Creatives” (from Farnam Street Blog, in a review of Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals), is the lack of any central theme, any unifying idea around what it takes to get the creative juices flowing. Apparently, it takes all kinds.

Here’s what I do:

I set the alarm on my phone for 5:30am, or two hours earlier than I otherwise would have in order to get to work on time. When it goes off, I dim the screen so it doesn’t burn my eyes, and I check my email. I play a phone game until my brain is working. Bathroom, then head to the home office to write.

I stretch a little if I remember to, because it’s supposed to be good for your circulation and your brain. But who can remember details like that when there’s writing to be done? Mostly I just check my blogs and my social networks, and head straight into my story for an hour. Sometimes I spend the whole time tapping away at the keys, and sometimes I spend half of it with my head on the desk or staring out the window as I try to untangle the next scene. I track my time and my word count in an Excel spreadsheet. It’s gratifying to watch those numbers rise.

After I write, I walk the dog. A nice brisk walk, around the lake three or four times, and I think about my characters, and the next scene, and how the plot is doing (sometimes it’s better than others). Then I come back and write in this blog, and then it’s time to dress for work. I’m pretty productive: I hit 70,000 words today, not quite two months in to the work. I think this story will top out around 120k before revisions.

But would I be even more productive with a new routine? Maybe I’ll try Rene Descartes’:

“Idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.”

Sounds nice. “Honey, I have to work tonight, so I won’t be able to cook dinner or clean the kitchen. Wouldn’t want to overexert myself. I have essential walks to take and friends to meet. See you later.”

What’s your daily routine? How do you make time for your creative pursuits, and what are the essential things you must do to get your creative juices flowing?

Find the right routine, and you could be this happy too

Merely Super Talented

It started with the usual nightly request: Will you read to us? But then it got ugly. I asked them whether they wanted me to continue reading Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire… or treat them to an excerpt from a new section of my WIP! (WIP means work-in-progress and refers to the novel I’m in the middle of writing. Using the acronym helps me feel like an insider to the world of novelists.)

Those ungrateful little brats chose Harry Potter.

Because apparently, J.K. Rowling’s record-breaking bestseller is more fun to listen to than the first draft of the first novel I’ve ever written.

Obviously, my novel sucks.

Luckily, it doesn’t matter. Watch this. It’s worth it AND it’s funny. And he’s wearing the most awesome indoor sunglasses and mustache ever, which goes to show that if you are funny and smart (and perseverant, apparently), it really doesn’t matter what you wear. Whew.

“Lots of people want to do it. The odds are against you. But luckily, very few of them are sane. Then there’s a subset who are medium to low talented… but perseverant (even WordPress doesn’t think that’s a real word but it doesn’t matter because we all know what he means)… and they are much more likely to be successful than those who are merely super talented.”

Oh, thank God.

That Magic Moment When You Say, “Well, This Sucks”

I had it all figured out yesterday. I was just going to follow them around with a pen, right? Oh. My gosh. No. Worst writing session ever.

I kept jumping from one person’s head to another, listening to them think and talk, then adding a character back in that  I had taken out, and then taking her out again, and ending up with a jumbled mess of 610 paltry words that don’t even make sense. And all through it, trying desperately not to be maudlin. Maudlin!

Cut that scene. Here’s a video of Stephen King talking to writers.

Highlight: “There’s a magic moment, where you put down some book and you say, this really sucks. I can do better than this.” That book, the one that sucks? Will probably be mine.

Pain and Passion and Blocking

Pain. Passion. Blocking.

I’ve written lots of pain and passion into this little story of mine. But this morning I didn’t really want to write. The characters are moving inexorably toward the climax, but I still don’t see a clear path there, and there is so much exposition necessary. We have recently moved into a new environment, a cave city, which requires describing, and the characters must learn about it before they can do anything in it. And I have to learn about it, too, before I can tell what they do in it. One of the characters elsewhere has entered a long, lonely phase of inventing something. How do you write interestingly about inventing something? I don’t know. It’s not really my job to know that, is it? I mean, maybe it is, but maybe it’s just my job to know when something isn’t interesting and take that part out and skip ahead to the good bits. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Still have to write something, though. So this morning, thinking these thoughts, I dutifully arose and headed to the computer. Ignored the distractions of a thousand blinking notifications. Recorded my time and word count (62,743, 6:30 am), opened my Word document, stared at my screen. The usual.

Remember how I said I ignored the notifications? I didn’t actually ignore them. I read them all first, because, well, that’s why I have to get up at 5am in order to get an hour’s worth of writing in before my first appointment at 9 (that, and this blog). Anyway. One of the things in my notifications was this:

Nabokov on Inspiration

Read it and come back. It’s worth it. I’ll wait.

Okay, so I read that, and I thought, “Gee-eez. No pressure or anything.” It’s so much clearer when it’s just “sit down and write at the same time every day, butt to chair, butt to chair.” THAT I can do, you know, it’s not easy but you just do it.

But now I have to do that AND get inspired, have aura-things happen to me, and be ready to grab them at the exact moment they occur. How, exactly, am I supposed to do that? What if the inspiration comes–as it often does–when I’m in the middle of a deadline at work? Or in a meeting? Or in the car? Then it is lost forever. Like I need one more thing to worry about.

Poor, poor Samuel. How I ache for him, in losing the rest of Kubla Khan. Just a knock at the door and POOF.

(Note to Carey: Please don’t even kiss me goodbye in the middle of my flow/inspiration, please, and don’t leave without kissing me either. You just have to know when I’m in flow and when I’m not, and kiss me when I’m not, okay? Is that so much to ask?)

Not that I would necessarily know anything about inspiration, because according to Nabokov, I’ve never actually been inspired. Ever. I have never in my life felt this “aura-thingy,” which apparently all true writers learn to distinguish as children. I’m almost 40. So. You know. Maybe I shouldn’t bother?

So I’m sitting in front of my screen, resisting the temptation to spend the entire hour re-reading my whole story so far (could it even all be read in an hour at this point?), to decide if it’s worth continuing, and convincing myself that it’s not, because one of my characters is recognizably similar to a famous character from a famous novel (my KIDS pointed this out to me). I am obviously a shitty writer and should really just stop before wasting any more time.

But I remember Anne’s advice, and I say, “Okay. What do I have to do to make this story interesting to ME?” And it doesn’t take long for me to know what has to happen. And then I get excited. And then I get frustrated. Because, you know, now I have to figure out where they each are when this thing happens, how it happens. I have to STAGE it, like a director arranging actors on the stage, I have to know which direction they’re each facing when it happens, how they’re standing in relation to one another so it all comes out looking natural while still showing you what you want to see. In theater, they call it blocking.

And I have to decide whose point of view it will be told in this time. It’s such a critical scene, and I really MUST get it right. Will it be from her point of view, watching from the sidelines? His, from the center of the action? The other hers, seeing everything anew at once, the sights and emotions jumbled and overwhelming?

And how desperately I want someone to tell me. And why shouldn’t they? There are hours of video, thousands of pages, millions of words, of writers giving advice to writers. How to start, how to overcome writer’s block, how to get published, how to write dialog, how to use the active voice, how to do everything under the sun and not one of those pieces of advice tells me which character should tell this part of the story. Seriously, authors. Get it together.

So I just had to go it alone. And it turned out, I never even wrote the scene I wanted so desperately to write. I spent my entire hour setting it up, placing the characters just so (oh, I know, I should say, “waiting until my characters reached the scene,” or “watching my characters move toward this climax,” because we all know the characters have lives of their own and we writers are not really puppet masters so much as bystanders with a pen, but the truth is, sometimes the characters tell you WHAT will happen, but then leave you to figure out exactly HOW it will happen, and then you have to tell them where to be and when, so they can do the things they know they must do).

And so I trudged. I didn’t quite get to that scene of my pain and passion. Just the set-up. I know where they’re each standing when it happens, and how they got there, what direction each is looking. Each of them has told their own little snippet of the set-up scene, each one ending with a cliff-hanger: “Then something extraordinary happened that drove all those thoughts out of her head…”

And, having brought all three to this point and set them up around the stage, the moment itself, of course, will be his. Because he is the one who will be most caught off-guard, most astonished, most set off balance by it. He also has the best view of the action. Blocking.

And tomorrow, I will write that scene. I can hardly wait. The anticipation is delicious. Tomorrow, the characters will do what they will do, and all I have to do is write it down: Bystander with a pen.

And isn’t this moment, this precise moment, exactly parallel to our own lives as writers? We bring our characters to the right place at the right time, and then let them do what they will do, and, eventually, after many tears and tearings of hair, it happens. Likewise, we bring ourselves to the right place, this chair, this keyboard, at the right time (for me it’s at least an hour before the kids arise), and do what we must do… we set the stage, as many times as we must, through as many tears and tearings of hair as necessary, and then: It happens.

And how I want to share IT with you! I want to tell you their names, their precious, beautiful names. The names I repeat to myself throughout the day, saying each one over again, rolling them around inside my head, smiling because I love them so. much. But I can’t, not yet. It’s a rule. They’re mine right now, and I will gift them to you when they are ready for you. We’re still getting the blocking right.

P.S. Listen to J.K. Rowling talk about staging McGonagall–and about writing a scene wrong the first time (really, watch it, please, it’s less than two minutes. I’m sorry you have to click through, darn WordPress for not displaying embed code properly, for websites insisting on exclusive content–haven’t they heard intellectual property is dead in the age of the Internet?–Anyway, you won’t be sorry, it’s beautiful).

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.


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.