Thank you, Marilynne Robinson

Last weekend I spent time with my nephew who is also a writer. We talked books and the writing process. We also talked a bunch about Marilynne Robinson, and the next morning I woke with her on my mind. I grabbed my notebook from 2003 when I spent three weeks in Iowa City absorbing her genius, and reread the notes I took.

Today, one of MR’s fourteen-year-old pearls of wisdom helped me out:

You should be every character’s advocate. You are God to that character. Typically, in one way or another, people are trying to make the best case for themselves. People are whole creatures. Villains have history behind them.

Aunt Isabel is no longer a one-note character. Marilynne Robinson for the assist!

Feeling a bit like this

I’m writing the final scenes of my middle-grade novel.
I know where the story goes and how it ends.
However, that doesn’t make the process  any less exhausting.

I’ve got lots of characters coming together,
and they’re all toting individual motivations and plot lines.
Choreographing these scenes feels a bit like juggling chainsaws and kittens.

The good news is that it’s only a first draft.
I need to remember that these scenes do not need to be perfect.

Poking and prying with a purpose

The synopsis for my work-in-progress includes a plot point in which my protagonist has an accident that results in medical costs her family can’t afford. When I wrote it, I didn’t think much beyond that general idea. For the last couple days, I’ve been working on those scenes. And it’s slow-going. Why?

BECAUSE I’VE FALLEN DOWN A RABBIT HOLE.

How are federal poverty levels determined?
How much Medicaid coverage is available if the state declined federal funding?
What are hospital costs vs urgent care costs?
What happens if you miss an insurance payment?

It’s interesting (and infuriating) to do this kind of research in the shadow of the Repugnicans’ efforts to deny health care to millions of people for the sole purpose of giving the obscenely rich more tax breaks. If I’m not careful, my story could easily turn into a one-issue manifesto. (Universal health care, yo!)

I’m trying to keep this quote from Zora Neale Hurston in mind:

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

I’m down this rabbit hole to better serve my plot and story.

Word spew

Some writing days are excruciating. The worst are those when I don’t get any words down, and instead spend my time catastrophizing and twirling in my head. The next worse are those days that feel like a death march through neck-deep glue, in which every word has to be dragged kicking and screaming to the page.

Today was the latter. I achieved my word count, and now possess a messy mass of sentences which have the potential to be revised into something less vomitous.

Yay, me.

So, a funny thing happened

I’m in the process of drafting a middle-grade novel, a story I started six years ago and then set aside after writing 50 pages. Those pages burst out of me with voice and vitality, from who knows where, and while it’s great fun to be reunited with those characters, my process for writing the brand new pages is very different. This time around, I’m using a synopsis as my guide.

I’ve never written a synopsis before completing a first draft. Ever.

Last spring, when I’d let my agent know about the project, she asked if I had a synopsis to send along with the newly revised 50 pages. Um, no. However, I decided to give the loathed document a whirl, with the caveat that I wouldn’t shoot for any specific length, rather, I’d include EVERYTHING. A week later, I sent her the pages plus a 10-page synopsis. And today, I did the unimaginable: I thanked her for suggesting a synopsis. I told her that it was helping me keep on track, which was, in turn, helping me keep writing.

Which is why I decided to devote today’s blog post to my newfound appreciation for knowing-what-in-the-hell-comes-next. So, I pulled THE ELEVENTH DRAFT: CRAFT AND THE WRITING LIFE FROM THE IOWA WRITERS’ WORKSHOP off the shelf in hopes of finding a passage to reinforce my synopsis love.

And wouldn’t you know, what resonated the most was an excerpt from Fred G. Leebron, a workshop student who arrived in Iowa with absolute faith in Freytag’s Triangle.

Except, the part of his essay “Not Knowing” that spoke to me was this:
One night in Iowa City, I sat and listened to our instructor recount his day of writing, how he followed a character down to the basement, where he heard a strange rustling, and the character turned and drew out his gun and shot in the dumbwaiter a rat. “And,” the instructor grinned, “I didn’t even know it was there.”

And I thought, “So you don’t have to know.”

Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!

I admit to feeling momentary panic about that blasted 10-page synopsis. But then I calmed the f*^% down. Just because I’ve charted a path for the story I’m writing does not in any way mean that I am beholden to that chart. It’s a general guide, nothing more. If a rat or gun or dumbwaiter shows up in the story, I’ll allow them time to lobby for their inclusion. I won’t automatically toss out anything that shows up to the party.

And when that panic and angst over being too structured returns, (because I know for a fact those emotions will return), I’m gonna come back to this right here. After all, I set out to write one kind of post, and quite happily ended up with another.

Steve Holt!

I spent the day reading and critiquing a writing friend’s middle-grade manuscript, and just hit SEND.

There’s only one man on the planet who truly understands how pumped I am right now, and that man be Steve Holt!

 

Sidetracked by aquatic mannequins

I’m drafting a new scene for my middle-grade novel, a scene that takes place on a lake. There’s a raft and it’s a hot summer day, and the protagonist is learning how to do a back flip off the diving board. Anyway, I wanted to document where I’m at with this book and so went to Pixabay in search of a lake-raft-swimmer image to use.

I found this:

The photo has absolutely no connection to my scene (okay, this lake is comprised of water, as is the lake in my book), but upon discovering this image, I quit my search. I mean, this piece of photographic genius deserves its own documentation.

There’s so much weird going on here. You could focus on the fact that these women are playing cards / gambling in swim caps and goggles or that the mannequins are wearing robotic assassin expressions, but all I can think about is how it’d feel to stand in lake muck while slimy lily pad stems wrap around my legs.

Eww.

So. Many. Words.

Only 26 letters in the alphabet, yet so many words to choose from as I write this book. I’m not talking “damp” vs “moist.” ** I’m talking about the pressure of potentially stringing together words that inadvertently take my novel in a whole new direction. Words wield so much power.

But words are also a writer’s playground, and it can be very cool to play with them. Sometimes, though, writing a first draft reminds me what it was like to get off one of these old merry-go-rounds.

I’d be disoriented and slightly fearful about what I was about to crash into. I’m having that same feeling today.

** (Sorry, moist-haters, couldn’t resist)

No blood on the tracks

Over the past two days, I’ve felt stalled and demoralized about the middle-grade novel I’m writing. When I woke this morning, I was determined to face the pages and write myself out of that morale-sucking place. No matter what it took.

Well, I’m pleased to say that (1) there was no bloodshed involved in the writing of those pages and that (2), I’ve officially regained my momentum and am back on track.

However, I can’t be complacent about my efforts. Tomorrow I must plant my butt in the chair and face the pages again. And so on, day after day, until this draft is finished.

Even if you’re on the right track,
you’ll get run over if you just sit there.
~ Will Rogers

Flexing my literary muscle

Whenever I write a novel,
I have a strong sense that I am doing something I was unable to do before.
With each new work, I move up a step and discover something new inside me.

~ Haruki Murakami

Image from pexels.com

Sunday Confessional: I spent almost the entire weekend inside

It was a gorgeous weekend here, but I mostly only saw it through the window. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I accomplished what I hoped to do which was finish writing a synopsis for my new middle-grade book (that I haven’t completely written yet) and rework the first six chapters according to that synopsis.

I just hit SEND on those materials and feel pretty damned good.

Pexels.com

Cue the sparklers!

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Today I embraced my inner squirrel

I’m working on a synopsis for my work-in-progress and, as anyone who has ever written one can attest, it’s not a pretty process. This time around I’m writing a synopsis before writing the novel which means I’m not locked into anything.

NOT LOCKED INTO ANYTHING = EVERYTHING IS A POSSIBILITY

Or another way to describe it: SQUIRREL BRAIN FREE-FOR-ALL

My ADD tendencies are having a blast-y as I try to reconcile my rough outline with all the brand new shiny ideas firing in my brain.

ZIP ZAP ZOOP.

However, I did make progress today. And when I’d had enough of ye olde synopsis, I put Emma on her leash and we went for a run on the trails.

Nothing clears the squirrel from one’s brain like a run over uneven terrain.

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A feeling of buoyancy and clarity

For me, when I ‘discover’ a story,
there is a feeling of buoyancy and clarity,
perhaps similar to early morning out on a prairie highway,
when darkness lifts and reveals
the outline of farmhouses and copses of trees in the distance.
~  David Bergen

Image from Pexels.com

 

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SQUIRREL!

Actually, unlike Dug the Dog from the movie UP, I maintained my focus today. I woke this morning with a game plan for working on opening pages of a new middle-grade, and I kept to that schedule. I made good progress and am feeling (slightly) less nervous about sending those pages (plus more) to my critique group on Monday.

I declare today a WIN for this writer.

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Slowly, slowly and bit by bit

I’m working on my new-old middle-grade project, one I partially drafted and then set aside for six years. It’s been a slow process as I reenter this manuscript, but not painfully so. It’s more of a satisfying slowness as I put down words that, at times, feel very close to being just right.

Image from pexels.com

Who knows? Those words may end up being absolutely wrong.

But right now it doesn’t matter. Right now I’m allowing myself to enjoy the slow, deliberate movement of this particular story’s metamorphosis.

That right there is progress.

 

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The eyes have had it

After a revision-filled day, I’m pleased with my progress. In fact, if I pushed on for just one more hour, I’d probably make it to The End. But my eyes are screaming for a break and, since my peepers work very, very hard for me every single day, I owe them a respite.

file4831302548667

This lemur’s calling it a day.

 

 

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Can I get an amen?

I’ve made huge progress on my middle-grade revisions, and am ahead of schedule. Woot! My plan was to have the revision finished before leaving to visit my mother at the end of the month and, because I’ve kept to my pages-per-day commitment, I will succeed. And that feels very good.

However, I can’t help thinking about how much revision has gone into this particular project. Oy. It’s been a long, long haul.

crumpled-papers

But a wise children’s writer with WAY more experience than me once said:

Revision is the heart of writing.
Every page I do is done over seven or eight times.

~  Patricia Reilly Giff

It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

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All does not suck

The bad news?
I’m suddenly feeling a bit rundown
and kinda puny
which is triggering pissed-off thoughts
such as
ARE YOU FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME?
AUTUMN IS JUST BARELY, OFFICIALLY HERE
AND I’M ALREADY GETTING SICK?!

Sick person

The good news?
I’ve hit my page goal every day this week, including today,
which means that despite
the fact that humanity is failing on a global level,
(a hugely depressing truth that’s undoubtedly contributing to my
run-down
worn-out
had-enough-already
puny feelings),
all does not suck.

happy-stick-girl

My plan of action?
Take it easy and repeat my new mantra:

ALL DOES NOT SUCK
ALL DOES NOT SUCK
ALL DOES NOT SUCK

 

 

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Most tired when I don’t

I’ve been having a really hard time with my middle-grade this past week or so. I didn’t meet my revision goal for the week and was struggling with how to move forward. I was feeling burned out and not-so-enthusiastic about my writing endeavors. Any of them.

It was like an ongoing game of tug-of-war in my head. Back and forth swung my thoughts, emotions, and physical responses. Quit or not quit? Some or all? Finish this or start that? Fiction or nonficiton?

Image from Morguefile.

Image from Morguefile.

But as I did my cool-down walk this morning after a trail run, I realized that not making progress on the revision of my middle grade was part of why I feel burned out. It’s exhausting to be in forever-limbo with a project.

I wanted to quit because I felt shitty but I can’t quit because that will make me feel even shittier. In other words, writing can most certainly tire me out, BUT not writing may ultimately be even more draining.

Memo to self: sometimes I’m most tired when I don’t.

(Despite my wonderful little epihany, I am REALLY looking forward to finishing the damned book.)

 

 

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Procrastination: Exhibit A

I’m “supposed” to be working on my middle-grade revisions, but am having a hard time getting motivated. As in, I haven’t touched it at all today. Instead, I took some photos of visitors to the new feeder location and realized it’ll be a whole new learning experience due to the lighting differences. The feeder used to be sheltered by the branches and leaves of the maple tree. Now the feeder is exposed on a slope where the afternoon light hits it hard.

My feathered friends’ photos ended up washed out, and I just spent a while playing with contrast, white balance, etc. settings.

finch-retooled

All that time playing with settings, you’d think I’d have something more impressive to show for it. Guess I need to get on those revisions so I actually accomplish something today.

 

 

 

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Pinky Whitehead for the win

I loved HARRIET THE SPY from the very first time I read it, which was approximately one thousand years ago. Harriet inspired me to carry around a notebook so I could jot down whatever thoughts came to mind. (I remember that my furtive watching and scribbling creeped out one of my good friends, probably because I hadn’t fully absorbed the importance of how Harriet’s friends were hurt and angry after getting hold of her notebook and reading about themselves.)

I know I’m not unique; plenty of writers were inspired by Harriet. But to this day, HARRIET THE SPY resonates with me. I love filling notebooks. I love watching people and making up scenarios for what I observe. And I love my cat who conjures up one of the all-time best character names:

marcel-as-pinky-whiteheadPinky Whitehead!

My cat’s name is Marcel, but those pink ears and nose always transport me back to HARRIET THE SPY. Maybe someday I’ll know a cat that brings to mind Ole Golly . . .

 

 

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