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.

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.

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?