In Case You Need to Know

Proof positive. Found this while cleaning out our flooded basement: A letter to my grandparents, circa 1984ish, from when I was 10-11-12ish.

CAM00816

Transcription:

Dear grandma and grandpa Wardlow,

I enjoyed that card and read that letter.

I had a slumber party and couldn’t get to sleep for all the noise, and in the morning I couldn’t get awake for all the quiet. ha! ha!

at horse back riding I was one allowed to take the horses out to the field with Tina, (the stable girl) it was dark and, I took out my favourite horse, rustler, who is very comfortable bareback.

NOW, for the BIG part of the letter, story time!

Jill chapter one

“Jill, Jill,” whispered a soft voice, from outside, it was just her brother!

Ever since Jill had moved into the haunted house as it was said to be, she had been scared by Tim lots, of course he didn’t do it on purpose, but he still did it.

Jills brother came quietly through the door, and shut it behind him, “I heard something” he whispered “listen” “its probably just the wind” Jill said out loud.

“Sh!” he whispered loudly “I can hear it again” Jill listened carefully “its a thumping” she said, sitting bolt upright.

Suddenly the room was filled with sounds laughs, crys, screams, whispers, and once in a while the word H E L P!…….

until next letter,

goodbye

with much love,

Heather

P.S. XOXOXO

and an extra kiss for luck!

(more about Jill next letter)

Now you know. Writer for life.

I have also always colored inside the lines. It's just that nowadays I redefine where the lines are.

I have also always colored inside the lines. It’s just that nowadays I redefine where the lines are.

It’s About the Trance

The setting: Okefenokee Swamp, January, 1994. The occasion: Mid-term trip with the head of the biology department (Dr. McGinty), an English professor (Dr. Anderson), and an assemblage of hard-core biology students who tolerated my misfit presence among them. The protags: Alligators, pitcher plants, and the blessed heater in the bathroom, where I dragged my bedding one night because somehow my parents thought an egg crate cushion would be enough to keep the mid-winter chill from creeping out of the earth and into my sleeping bag with me.

Chickadees and raccoons put in an appearance that week too. But that day it was just me and the tree.

We had canoed here to Billy’s Island. Deeper in, there are burial mounds even older than the 600-year-old tree under which I sat, cozied up between two giant roots, my back against the trunk, gazing into the ponderous branches above, completely unconscious of the cramps that had been my excuse for stopping here. The others had hiked in toward the burial grounds. Dead people held no glamour for me that day. I wanted to talk to the live oak.

It told me things, too, things that ultimately earned me an “A” grade for the class even though I was late that first morning by almost an hour. Everyone had been gathered in the just-before-dawn gloom, hugging pillows in the glow of the streetlamp, when I arrived, groggy and unbrushed. Once we were rolling down the road at last, a girl leaned over to me in the van and said, “I’m glad I’m not you. Dr. McGinty hates when people are late.”

Maybe that’s why he was fine with leaving me there under that tree alone. I don’t think so, though. I think he understood what I’m just beginning to understand myself. It’s the trance, you see.

Fast forward 19 years. I’m walking the dog down by the brown lake. There’s a light drizzle and you can hear the raindrops plinking on the surface of the water. See them, too, a thousand tiny pinpricks rippling outward. I stop and look, remembering as I usually do now, how much I love the rain. And then there it is: My mind turns. I wonder what it would be like to be under the surface of the water, looking up.

I imagine skimming just under the surface, my face turned up, effortlessly floating, watching the pricks of rain hit the upper limit of my world. The water is dark and the bottom of the lake is mud. There are large things in there. Giant snapping turtles as big around as a kid’s wading pool, grass carp so massive and scaly they look like prehistoric reptiles when they half-beach themselves down by the dam. I imagine skimming through that murky underworld, that dangerous muddy place, and it’s not a fairy tale. It’s a horror story, in fact, but it feels good. Really good.

Back at the house, I rush past Carey to my computer, and I write this in a feverish flurry:

The Summer I Met Mercy

Nobody knew where she came from. I didn’t know where she came from. She was just there one day, down by the community lake, picking at the mud between her toes. Why she would do that when she was covered in mud from head to foot is anybody’s guess, and I didn’t ask. Just stood there gawking at her. Her hair was so caked it looked like it was made of mud, just long gobby strands of filth tangled with pond algae, and her arms were too long, her fingers too long, but the most notable thing about her was that she was naked.

She looked up at me and smiled, an ordinary, girl-next-door smile, and she was quite pretty, for a stringy 14-year-old, even if her teeth were rather large and white and pointy. Even if she was quite, quite naked. Not that I could see anything, not with her bent over her legs like that.

We became good friends, Mercy and I, that summer that my parents were separating, that my world was crumbling.

More than friends, actually. She was the first girl I ever kissed. She was clean the day I kissed her, and clothed. I never did see her naked again, in fact, not that day and not any day after. But I did kiss her. My first kiss.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. Weirder. Much weirder. She drew the tip of my tongue into her mouth with a sucking sensation, and then bit it, sucking continuously, her teeth scraping along every inch as my tongue went deeper. It hurt but not enough to make me want to stop. Not even as much as the throbbing in my groin hurt at that moment, and I didn’t want that to stop either.

**

I decide it’s the start of my next novel, maybe, when this one is done. The main character ends up under the water, skimming along like I imagined myself doing, looking up at the rain falling onto the surface above. But I had to figure out how to get the character there, and this is the start of that.

Or maybe the scene will join the moldering ranks of opening-paragraphs-for-books-I’ll-never-finish in a folder in Dropbox.

It doesn’t matter really. It does but it doesn’t. Because I realized for the first time today that it’s really about the trance. It’s this thing that happens, this altered state of consciousness that I always, as far back as I can remember, slip into so easily I never realized that it was special. I seek it, hungrily. It feels good. It’s why I crave un-interrupted swaths of alone time, because I cannot sink into a deep trance when besieged by the emotions of others.

I told Carey about this, and he said he thinks everyone craves a trance-like state. Which makes sense. It’s why we do drugs, isn’t it? Meditation, running, extreme experiences, and sex are all pathways to the sublime as well. Maybe some people get there easier one way or another–maybe that’s why some people run the AC 100 and some people write novels.

Maybe it’s why some people sink into addiction and never come back. Maybe it’s why some people come back scrabbling, hanging onto art, spewing out songs or poems or paintings as if their life depends upon it which, in fact, it does.

Books are my drug of choice. Neatly packaged, easy-to-swallow nuggets of pure meditative trance. But they’re not the only way I get there.

The tree and I spoke for hours. I felt the peat-filtered moisture coursing up through its roots, a constant, never-ending flow like the pulse of blood through my veins but steadier. The sunlight on leaves, warm energy generated in those green powerhouses spreading through an endless network of vessels, fueling root growth and slow slow slow branching.

The tree was breathing, respirating carbon dioxide and returning it as oxygen, when the Timucua Indians sought refuge here in 1750. Already hundreds of years old, it watched impassively as the Timucua were followed by Spanish missionaries in fretful urgency to bring Truth to the wild. The tree watched for a hundred years as slaves and Seminoles and refugees of all descriptions passed into the swampy refuge from the violence unfolding outside its borders.

The tree was there when giant dredging machines began building a canal to drain the swamp and divest it of its lumber, and there when the canal project succumbed to the wild. There when Charles Hebard laid a railroad track 35 miles directly to the island, and built a church, a movie theater, and a school for the children of the workers who were stripping the swamp. And there when the village faded into a ghost town.

I didn’t know all of that then, and the tree didn’t tell me in so many words. But I felt it, felt the history, the ancient knowingness of that old being. The trunk felt warm against my back, though the air was chill. I never knew before that day that trees generate heat. Most people will tell you that they don’t, in fact. Heck, maybe even the scientists who study trees will tell you that they don’t. Maybe they don’t. But that tree did, that day.

When the humans returned, flushed with triumph–they had stumbled upon a cemetery and the ghost of an old town–I returned also, reluctantly, from my trance. We paddled back to camp, I rowing in front, Dr. Anderson steering in rear, the others paddling their own vessels in pairs. It was the boys’s turn to cook that night, so I pulled out my journal and wrote about my tree, and I’m pretty sure that’s why I earned an A, and why Dr. McGinty started smiling at me, even though I had been late.

Maybe. Doesn’t matter. Regardless, that trance, or rather my ability to sink into it so easily, is why I’m a writer. And that matters.

How do you reach sublimity? Does it make you who you are?

This is not my tree. I don't know where my photos are from this time. Photo courtesy "nonweasel" at DeviantArt: http://nonweasel.deviantart.com/art/Live-Oak-Wallpaper-601007

This is not my tree. It is a live oak, probably as old as the one I sat under. I don’t know where my photos are from this time. Photo courtesy “nonweasel” at DeviantArt: http://nonweasel.deviantart.com/art/Live-Oak-Wallpaper-601007

Like a Fighter

I totally ripped this photo off. Click to see original source.

This is me. But only metaphorically. I totally ripped it off. Click to see original source.

I feel like a fighter. Scratched and bloodied with a smashed-in nose and mangled fingers. This morning I got up not wanting to write. The thought that kept me going was this: Mornings when I don’t want to write usually end up being the most productive of all. This was not one of those mornings.

It was brutal.

I completely rewrote the last half of a chapter that I’m sure is worse now than before. Nothing happens, no change from start to finish. Well, there’s change, but it comes from outside instead of integrally from the events of the scene.

An entire hour of struggle, and I’m going to end up cutting the whole chapter, the work of several days.

But it’s not about the chapter. It’s about the whole book. My protag is boring. I love him, but he’s not interesting. He’s… lethargic. And slow. Not dumb, he just moves slow. And nothing interesting ever happens to him. Which makes no sense, because EVERYTHING happens to him, so why isn’t it interesting?

Is my book hopeless if the main character is boring even to me, his creator? If all I want to do is get through his chapters to the next, where there are vibrant characters and interesting things happening?

And is it actually boring? At one point, I cut a bunch of “boring” exposition from another chapter. Carey read the revised version and without ever having seen the removed portions, told me to put a bunch of stuff in the chapter that happened to match up with the stuff I had taken out.

Impossibly frustrating and lonely this writing thing.

Ugh.

Why is this so hard?

Just Write the Damned Book Already

Read that. There, above. Click through and come back. That was helpful, wasn’t it? Apparently, it’s hard for everyone. And the fact that I’m doing this comes with a reward: The right to be inwardly snide when someone says to me, “Oh, you’re writing a novel? I have a great idea for a book too.” Yeah, I’m sure you do, but I’m actually writing one.

Only, I will not be snide with you if you tell me you have a great idea for a book. No. I am not in the mood to be nice. I intend to leave you writhing on the ground in a bloody, bruised, shivering lump. So I’m going to tell you to write the book. And I’m going to mean it.

Go ahead. Try me.

(P.S. Don’t watch that video if you’re easily offended. Or ever offended. It’s pretty offensive. I put it there so you will be very clear just exactly how bad*ss I am. I will tell you to write that book.)

Writing Later

Still Life With Manuscript

Here’s roughly what one hour of revision looks like for me:

  • 20 minutes getting back up to speed on where I left off. Gathering the threads, reminding myself where I was and what I was planning, re-reading my notes.
  • 20 minutes staring into space and/or jotting more notes, rearranging the outline, filling in details on scene order, typing notes into character sheets.
  • 10 minutes rearranging things inside the main document.
  • 10 minutes cutting scenes and writing or rewriting others, and generally being productive.
  • Done. Time to close it down and move on with my day. I’ll have to start over again tomorrow.

This does not feel productive to me. It is too big to do this in only an hour a day. Too much ramp-up time for each session.

I told Carey this and he said why not consolidate, and write for more hours on fewer days. Maybe. How about just plain more hours?

Today I wrote for two. Perfect. Enough time to prep my brain, gather the threads, be productive for a long stretch, then plan tomorrow’s work, which will reduce tomorrow’s ramp-up time. Sadly, the day has not obliged me by adding an extra hour to my tally for other things I must do. How can I sustain this?

It’s weird how my perception of myself has shifted while writing this book. Revising is hard but there is this one thing I like: As I finish a round of revisions on each chapter, I print it out and add it to the growing manuscript beside my keyboard. It’s bound with a clip at the top, and several sheets of notes attached at the front. And it sits there all the time and this is the thing:

It feels like it’s my work.

That didn’t come out right. What am I trying to say? I once thought my children were my work. They are not. I love them, I have a role to play with them, but they are their own people, they don’t belong to me, they’re a very special play I am privileged to watch from the front row, and sometimes join in.

In a sense, my business is my work, it’s consuming and I love it, and I believe in it. Same with my blogs–not as consuming, but I do love them, believe in them.

But this, this is my Work. It is what I am here for. Not this book in particular, necessarily, but all the fiction I will write. The growing stack of paper, my manuscript, is simply the physical manifestation of my purpose in life. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realize this.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday. Those are days I can sleep later. Monday because Carey is home with the kids and he walks the dog and there’s no rush to get everyone ready for the day. Thursday because I’m home with the kids and, although I usually work, I don’t generally have client meetings. I sleep till 6 or 7 on those four days. A year ago I would have laughed at the notion that “6 or 7″ is “sleeping later.”

Ha. Sleep? Who needs it. Not me any more.

From now on, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday, are the days I get to write later.

Is This Normal?

I feel stagnant. This whole revision thing. Geez. Is it normal to feel like it’s not going anywhere? Like I’ve rewritten some parts so many times I don’t think I will ever ever finish?

What about the fear that the book is going to be twice as LONG when you’re done, even though you set out to cut copious quantities and make it SHORTER?

What about the fear that you will cut so much away you will have only a thin, anemic volume left at the end?

What about the fear that this will take ten years and maybe never ever be done?

Should I feel like I’m making progress? How do you measure progress during revisions anyway?

I can’t seem to find any good writing on this topic. Everything seems geared to the author who doesn’t know their book needs revising.

I know. Oh, I know. Believe me I KNOW. I can see that it needs revising.

What I don’t know is which bit to do next. Whether to plow forward and get deeper into the plot, or to go backward and rewrite earlier chapters so that the later chapters will make sense, or whether to go ahead and write the later chapters knowing that I will go back and change the earlier chapters later. When to go forward, when to step back. How to avoid getting so bogged down that the novel never gets done.

Whether to continue soliciting feedback from my family or to stop letting them read. This is a toughie. The feedback from Carey has undeniably made my early chapters much much tighter and better, and set them up for better flow later. The plot is better, the characters are better. But after every round of feedback, it’s hard to get started again. There is so much to do. Am I better off blarfing out a full set of revisions and then reincorporating feedback all at once later? Or incorporating it a section at a time, crafting it as I go?

Who knows. Nobody. This goes back to how lonely this whole writing this is. Nobody can tell me what to do next. I mean, guidelines, and rules of thumb, and basic principles, and all that. Yeah, I get that. But nobody can tell me: Work on this chapter now. Fix these problems next. Write that new scene right now.

K, novelist  friends. Is this normal? Or a sign that I may as well throw up my hands and quit. ;) (Just kidding. I’m not quitting. Not even if you say so.)

From Project Mayhem: Great little blog on writing middle grade fiction, check it out by clicking on the image.

Why Is It So Hard to Find Meaningful Work?*

Photo from The Smitten Image. Click to visit the author's page.

Still slogging through revisions. Completely rearranged the order of several events, requiring yet another rewrite of an early chapter, of which I completed about 1/3. Slogging.

I’m in meetings most of today, a privilege I am grateful for because it is part of the career I have built for myself. Most people aren’t so lucky.

Many writers, even the famous writers of yore, spend(t) most of their lives in jobs they don’t love. I’ve spent most of mine the same way. Humans seem to be almost unique in this habit of hating our work. No mockingbird ever sets an alarm clock and drags its lazy butt out of the nest for a day of foraging. A mockingbird wakes up and sings.

If you look deeper, though, it turns out we’re not entirely unique in this respect. In times past, a good draft horse would be harnessed to the plow at daybreak and work, mindlessly, without choice, at a boring job, until nightfall. He worked hard, but the job came with perks: Healthcare, room and board, an occasional Saturday dressed up and taken downtown.

The mockingbird, on the other hand, wakes up singing every morning and spends its day doing just exactly, exactly as it pleases. It’s totally free. And what it pleases to do is work: Find food. Defend its nest. Feed its young.

Because if it doesn’t do those things, somebody dies. And that, my friends, is the definition of meaningful work.

Sometimes, somebody dies anyway. Life is short in the wild. Very short. And so maybe the reason the mockingbird wakes up singing is because it knows it’s lucky at least this one more morning.

The draft horse, on the other hand, is never so close to death as the mockingbird. If he skips a day of work, the world goes on turning. If he skips a couple, he still gets his grain and a warm stall, even if he does miss out on the nightly rub-down.

And so sometimes maybe he turns his back and offers to kick because today, he just doesn’t feel like it. Go away. I’m going back to sleep.

And that’s we writers sometimes, too. Someday we will die, but not today, not even if we turn the alarm clock off and roll over and sleep through our designated writing hour. Not even if we are late to work. Not even if we call in sick. Not today, not because we missed work, anyway.

It is possible to live closer to that edge, though, and therein lies one possible gateway to meaningful work.

About three years ago, Carey’s and my personal financial situation caught up with the general economy, when Carey’s employer went out of business. We had some tough choices to make. He had been director of product at his former company, a job he loved. I had been a stay-at-home mom and part-time freelancer. But nobody was creating new products in the crapola economy, so those opportunities were few and far between, and I’d been focused on growing a toddler and hadn’t built my freelance network recently. He could get a job as a business analyst, which he would hate and would pay less but enough; or we could live a little closer to hunger, and a little closer to free.

We chose the latter. We have been self-employed ever since.

I am not always convinced it was a good choice. I will not lie to you, and I also will not tell you the whole truth. We Americans are way too uncomfortable talking about money for me to do that. Let me just say this: It got bad. Financially, I mean. Really bad.

We have periodically revisited the idea of one or the other of us taking a job. One with benefits. But with benefits come costs. And maybe living a little closer to the edge is worth it if you feel like singing when you wake up.

And that is the crux of it, really.

We always, in our fortunate, privileged society–at least we with the benefit of an education and training–have the option of a warm stable, hot grain, and a blanket at night if we choose it.

We also have the option of the storm-tossed limb.

The bird does not fear the branch breaking beneath her, for her trust is not in the branch but in her wings. -Author Unknown

That is my secret. It is not the only way.

Another way is to wrench meaning out of the cracks, the interstitial spaces between the things that must be done to earn our benefits. Write for an hour before everyone is up, or for two hours after everyone is in bed, or instead of our video games or television show. Steal the time back for the things that matter.

Even as much as I love my career, I still must steal these spaces for writing the things that matter to me alone, the things that nobody is paying me to write (yet–one can hope, it is good for one to always hope).

Anyway, maybe the reason it’s so hard to find meaningful work is that we forget that we even have that choice. That we make the choice every day when we decide between the stable and the limb, between the video game and thing that we are called to. And while we’re cozy and warm in the stable, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to have this choice for one more morning, and so we forget to sing.

*Apologies, and thanks, to Demian Farnworth for letting me completely rip off inspiring the title of this blog entry.

P.S. What do you think? Do you love your work? Why is it so hard to love our jobs? To find meaning in our lives? And, under it all, why do we even care?

Hemorrhaging

In 1999 I was a proofreader at one of the big five accounting firms (hello, Ernst & Young). It was a lowly job, but life among the big five in those days was pretty cushy. I had a desk in the creative services department, smack at the center of the city, with a tenth-floor picture-glass-window view of downtown, a computer and internet access, free rein in the supplies closet and no-questions-asked use of the copy and binding center. It was practically heaven for a young writer.

My office was on the tenth floor of the building in the foreground on the right.

Unfortunately, to pay my ticket into this heaven, I spent most of my time reading financial documents, checking the math and the grammar, and marking documents up as I went. It was dull work, but there was another perk that was worth it all: Budget for career and skills training. When I wanted to take a class or go to a conference, all I had to do was make a business case for how it was relevant to my role, and as long as the total cost was under my yearly allowance for development, I could go, all expenses paid.

So of course, when the company offered a business writing course at the NYC headquarters, I signed right up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was one of the best things I ever did for my career as a writer.

Somehow, in 12 years of public school, 4 years of private college, and 3 years of graduate school, and all the associated thousands of pages of required writing, nobody had ever taught me the simple and incredibly powerful principles I learned in that class–principles that apply as thoroughly to novel writing as they did to the business correspondence and deliverables we were practicing with at the time.

But wait, there’s more!

Sure, I’d had some good writing teachers. The one who encouraged me to keep working on that novel I started in 2nd year of middle school (sixth grade) in England, long after the rest of the class had finished that assignment and moved on to something else (Mrs. MacDougal. And YES she was just like McGonagall except half as tall and twice as strict).

That's me on the left. Just kidding. But I did wear a red sweater just like that, and I loved that school so very much.

The high school English teacher who taught me how to write in paragraphs (it’s true, I didn’t know what a paragraph was until that year–the glories of a nomad lifestyle–you miss some of the stuff everyone else takes for granted).

This was a terrible school even then, and the biggest regret of my childhood is that I had to graduate here, out of the three high schools I attended. There was that one good English teacher, though. Thanks, Mrs. Dodd.

The college professor who taught me how to think, really think and pull a hundred threads together to a tight and meaningful conclusion.

Top floor, third from the left, tiny little window poking out from rooftop: That was his office.

My mom (hi mom), who always believed in me and read everything I ever wrote (I don’t think she can keep up any more–sorry,mom). She still reads everything I ask her to read.

[No pics of mom on my computer at present. Hm. Where are they all?]

But somehow in all that, nor in 3 years of grad school at U of Iowa (to be fair, I studied classics there, you know, Greek and Latin, so maybe they weren’t all that concerned about my writing process) no one ever taught me a process for getting from idea to finished product. Every teacher I’d ever had taught me what to do, what the finished product should look like, but I had to figure out how to get it there myself.

It turns out I’m not alone in that. I’ve begun giving writing lessons to a young friend (in exchange for childcare: win-win), a high schooler who has had many writing teachers previously. After our first lesson, in which I showed him some of the secrets I learned from that business writing teacher (plus 12 years of self-study), and guided him through a practice session, he sat back with a look of relief and said, “This makes so much sense. I don’t feel so overwhelmed. Now when I sit down to write, I know what to do.”

And it’s clear to me from many, many conversations with adult writers that they feel the same way. Even those who are successful often can’t explain their process, because they’re winging it. Nobody ever taught them how to do it, they just figured out enough to work and they run with it. It’s pretty amazing, if you think about it–writers are brilliant folk. Still, wouldn’t it be nice to wing it just a little less?

So what is this amazing thing I learned, that frees young writers and old alike to really soar? What would you pay to know? Would you pay fifteen hundred dollars? What if I told you it was only $19.99 for three months?

Just kidding.

I’ll tell you.

It’s quite simple, actually. Well, okay, no it’s not. Because there are lots of pieces to it. But I will tell you the skeleton. And you’re going to roll your eyes because you’ve seen this skeleton before and you think it’s kind of trite. But I tell you, from the way they talk, very very few writers are actually working this system. And the thing about the system is, it works.

Here’s the system:

Step One: Prewrite. This includes activities such as outlining, sketching, mind mapping, brainstorming, and drinking yourself into a stupor in front of a computer to see what comes out of your fingertips. In the work with my young friend this week, we practiced brainstorming and then narrowing his ideas to three main points, with specific strategies for doing that. We did not practice with alcohol. Stop calling the police on me.

Step Two: Draft. This is the shitty first draft stage, to use Anne Lamott’s terminology, or SFD. Don’t think too hard. Just get it down. This is where my young student took each of the three main ideas and wrote them out into paragraph form with supporting ideas. For homework, he’s finishing those paragraphs and adding an intro and conclusion.

Stop the presses. You’ve never heard any of this before! It’s like a bold new horizon!

Right.

You’ve heard all of this before. Ad nauseam. And maybe–probably–you even do this pretty much ALL. THE. TIME. So shut up, Heather, and get on with it. Here’s the bit that most writers, as far as I can tell, are not doing. They’re not differentiating between the next two steps: Revising and editing in that order.

In our business class, there was a little chart with arrows pointing from one step to the next and these words: “The writing process is recursive: You can always go back, but never skip forward.”

And therein lies the crux. It’s easy to waste time worrying about grammar and style and minor inconsistencies, and miss the big picture. That’s what happens when you leap ahead to editing before you’re done revising.

What? Editing and revising? Isn’t that the same thing?

NO. Step 3: Revising. Step 4: Editing. Do not skip Step 3. Do not move on to Step 4 before Step 3 is done (or as done as you can get it).

Step back. I’m not going to tell anyone what they should do. If you’ve got a system that works for you ROCK ON and hit the fast-forward button. We’re almost done here. Maybe for other writers, stories leap fully-formed from their heads, like Athena, armed and ready to go, just maybe needing a little polish on the shield, a little edge on the sword. For these writers, revising is unnecessary and whether they use the word “revising” or “editing” to describe their post-first-draft-writing is completely irrelevant. It’s just tweaks, anyway.

But for me–and, I suspect, most writers–a first draft is an ugly, half-formed thing, closer to Hephaestus than Athena, and in desperate need of nurture before it is ready to face the world. And by “nurture” I mean, “ripping, tearing, and complete, painful re-organization.”

And that, my friends, is revision. It is not worrying over whether the tenses are correct or even whether the POV is accurate in every paragraph. When we skip ahead to editing (tenses, flow, POV concerns, sentence- and paragraph-level changes) before we’ve got the revisions done, we cheat ourselves of valuable time and energy, or worse–jeopardize the health of our creation, by becoming attached to words and phrases and paragraphs that maybe we don’t even need but how can we let them go once we’ve invested part of our soul in them?

Editing before revising is like trying desperately to save the damaged foot of a patient, working meticulously to reduce scarring and ensure optimal functioning once healing is complete, when the patient has just had her internal organs rearranged by gunfire and is busy hemorrhaging all over the operating table.

So, yeah. That’s one of my big secrets. And I didn’t even charge you for it. You’re welcome.

And, yeah. It’s heavy on my mind because guess what: My novel is hemorrhaging all over the floor and I’m worried about that right now, and not so much whether the grammar is right. Or whether individual chapters are perfectly polished gems. Or, really, anything except getting her guts patched up, rearranged, and functioning appropriately.

Where are you? Are you guilty of conflating editing and revising? What are your favorite tips on how to write? What helps you most in getting revisions done?

P.S. Proofreading is step 5. Last step. Last last last. Don’t you dare put that damn document on the lowly proofreader’s desk until you’ve done your revising and editing. She may be a future professional writer and novelist, but your name is on the by-line, so earn it, okay?

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?

A letter to the author who wrote that cringe-worthy thing I read

My first six chapters

Dear Author,

The first few days of revising my novel draft were deeply depressing. I was glad to read from Demian Farnworth that this is not uncommon. He compares revisions to shoveling snow in a snowstorm*:  No matter how much you shovel, you look behind you and everything you just did has to be done again. Add to that a crippling anxiety about how completely awful and probably unsalvageable the sidewalk under all that snow is, and you’ve got it.

It helped somewhat to print it out. There’s something deeply satisfying about words on paper. It’s more real that way. Sorry, Kindle, but a screen will never be the same.

Apparently none of this is true, but I intend to believe it anyway.

I’m talking to you about revisions, because yours really needs them, dear.

In an effort to cheer me up  when I was worried about my own draft, Carey found part of your draft online, and showed it to me. It is really pretty rough. I’m being kind. It is awful. He thought it would cheer me up to see that mine is at least better than yours. It didn’t. I felt so sorry for you. And then I thought, “That author has no idea just how bad it is. She thinks it’s great–it’s her baby. Would I know if mine were that bad? Probably not. Maybe it is.”

Still. I handed off the first five chapters of my partially revised book to Carey last night, still rough but readable at least. He said (drum roll please!): He likes it so far. He is, in fact, obligated to say that, of course. It’s part of the contract.

What he is *not* obligated to say is that he is being honest and he still really likes it. And he did and he does. He even laughed out loud at one point. He asked me for more.

It’s funny that what other people think matters so much, isn’t it? If I slave over a blog entry and turn out something that I think is really amazeballs but nobody reads or comments on it, I start to genuinely believe it was kind of crappy. It becomes one of my least favorites, unlikely to ever be resurrected again. But if I toss one off all in a hurry and run about my day and come back and there are five comments and 50 views and somebody shared it on Facebook, I’m like, “Wow, I’m amazing. This is the awesomest blog post EVA.”

So anyway. Carey has really great taste in books. The best. And he likes my book. Honestly. So obviously, my book is the awesomest book ever. Well, it’s good, anyway. He didn’t actually say it’s the awesomest book ever, so it’s really just that it’s the awesomest book I’ve ever written. Which is absolutely, swear to goodness, the truth.

But none of that matters, and I’m sorry for being kind of boasty in a letter about how much your draft sucks. The central point is, I did it. I wrote a draft. And even if it’s as awful as your first draft, it’s okay. Because you know what? I’m so proud of you. You did something most people never do. So what if your first draft sucked. Everyone’s does. Maybe you went on and fixed it already, anyway. Who knows, maybe in some form it’s a published novel somewhere now and you’re laughing at little newbie me worrying about whether my first draft is good. I believe in you. So I’m going to believe in me, too.

My book has a climax and a conclusion and lots of literarily mentionable things like foils and subplots and imaginative environments and stuff, and at least half of that I didn’t even put there. I mean, I wrote the words, but I didn’t mean to put in themes and motifs and fancy plot twists. They just magically appeared after the draft was done. Maybe those elves really do come in the night.

Anyway. Read Demian’s blog post. It’s by far the best thing about this letter. Scratch that. I will have confidence in my work. This is an AWESOME LETTER and you WERE RIGHT TO READ IT. Now go read Demian’s post too, because it’s ALSO awesome.

P.S. I know this is a really crappy letter to address to someone whose first novel draft sucks. Sorry about that. Except, it’s not really crappy, because it’s really a letter to me, for all those cringe-worthy things I’ve ever written. Which is a lot. And that’s cool. Dear me: Keep writing the cringe-worthy stuff, because without some of that, nobody would ever write the good stuff. And without the good stuff, this world would be a poor place indeed. Sincerely me.

My Novel Pitch and My Cat Has Polyps

About 80% of the way through my first draft, I had an opportunity to pitch my novel. It was great exercise, forced me to focus in on the essence of the story I was telling, and helped me bring it in to the conclusion. Here’s the pitch I wrote:

Jed, a boy outcast among his own, discovers he can talk to plants… and soon realizes his gift could end 2,000 years of human enslavement. Will he be the people’s savior, or will the ensuing war destroy everything worth saving?

So, anyway.

I finished the novel yesterday, the first draft. Headed straight into revisions.

Feels like there should be fanfare, and at the same time it feels like there shouldn’t. Had a little mini-party on Facebook yesterday, but mostly it feels unreal. And I don’t think it’s going to feel real until the draft is ready for beta readers.

Perhaps the issue here is that my cat has polyps in her ear. That is not a metaphor.

Maybe the real issue is that once I’ve accomplished something significant, I realize, well, if *I* did it, it must not be that big an achievement. Finishing the second draft of a novel, that would be a big accomplishment. Except, when the manuscript is finished I’ll probably feel the same way, except then I’ll think, if it gets published, THAT will be an accomplishment. And then only if I become famous. But only if I’m as famous as Rowling. And as enduring as Shakespeare. No, God. Being as important and well-known as GOD would be an accomplishment.

I suck.

Because guess what: I adopted an elderly stray cat several years ago, got her doctored up, fell absolutely madly in love with her, and then recently went over a year without updating her shots or medical care and now she has uncomfortable polyps in her ears and she’s probably going to die in pain because I’m a terrible, terrible cat parent. (Reality check: The jury is out on the painful death.)

This was supposed to be a celebratory post, but obviously I’ve got issues.

I took a break from this mess for a minute, planning to come back and probably delete it all and just leave the pitch at the top and nothing else, because really, this is supposed to be a celebration, Heather.

Then I went and read this. And decided that I’m probably not the only novelist ever who has struggled in this particular way, and that maybe there is value in sharing THIS part of the journey too. This messy, depressive, anxious, uncomfortable part. So here I am.

Also.

My cat chose me. This is literally true for me, not just in the way people say their children chose them, or God chose their children for them, or whatever. I mean that I walked up to a yard sale and my cat was there waiting for me, and she came over and said, “Please take me home. I have nowhere else to go, no one to turn to. And I even like your kids.” She said it in cat language, of course, that winding-through-your-legs-purring language cats speak in. And her fleas and her underweight body and her greasy hair and her ear mites also said, “Please, take her home.” (Actually, the ear mites and the fleas would probably rather I hadn’t, come to think of it).

I keep telling myself these stories to pull myself through. And I will pull through. I will learn to love my success. I will. And to forgive myself.

And also: I finished a draft of a novel. I did it.