Sunday Confessional: can’t keep my eyes open

Just returned home from lunch and a visit with my mother-in-law who had a birthday yesterday. I sat down at my computer to pick up where I’d left off on my revisions and was hit with a wave of sleepy.

It’s raining outside my window and I’m opting for a nap.

Quiet, please.

Holding to the vision

As I continue to work on the YA-manuscript-with-many-warts, I take solace in this bit of wisdom:

Every great work,
every big accomplishment,
has been brought into manifestation through holding to the vision,
and often just before the big achievement,
comes apparent failure and discouragement.

~Florence Scovel Shinn

The way I see it, I’m currently smack-dab in the middle of an enormous puddle of failure and discouragement which means Big Achievement could very well be nigh.

*scans horizon before getting back to revisions*

Burning down the house

I’ve gone back to a project I haven’t looked at in 18 months, a project that hasn’t been shopped at all so should still have a brand-new shiny feel. Instead, this project that’s given me fits over the years continues to make me nervous. I think the nerves are a result of the MANY hours I’ve put into this book without an end in sight. I read it through in one sitting yesterday and while I admired much about the manuscript, I’m still not confident the story structure is correct.

You know what that means . . .

Thankful Thursday: The I-finally-freakin’-did-it edition

If you happen upon this, writer-friend Linda Salzman, you might be happy to know that yesterday I finally, finally wrote the final scenes of the YA I’ve been wrestling with since the beginning of time. Are they perfectly written scenes? Hells no. Are they fleshed-out scenes? Absolutely not. Are they even close to being what they’d need to be in a final draft? HAHAHAHAHA.

In which Linda is the pug offering encouragement to the tortoise-slow Tracy.

In which Linda is the pug offering encouragement (“Do it!”) to the tortoise-slow Tracy.

The scenes I wrote yesterday are, at this point, a collection of placeholder words. A roadmap for the next draft (should I ever have the inclination to wade into the manuscript that right now feels like a horrible, torturous place to spend time). I learned about the value of using placeholder words from writer-friend Laurie Schneider, and I must say it’s one of the most liberating tools in my writing kit. The pressure is off when I’m creating placeholder words; all that’s required of me is to literally hold the place in the manuscript with clues for my authorial intent. The details come later.

So after writing those scenes, I printed out a hard copy and wrote out a few notes for myself before packing everything away in an accordion file. At the soonest, I’ll read that manuscript again in a month. But I have a feeling it’ll take longer than that for me to muster enthusiasm. After finishing, I’d gone back to read the opening chapter, thinking it would fire me up by reminding me the rest of the book is stronger than the ending. *insert hysterical laughter* Turns out, I’d arrived at the THIS BOOK SUCKS MORE THAN A HOOVER stage, and it’s gonna take some time for those feelings to fade.

The good news? I’m already reacquainting myself with another project. This one has huge potential and fills me with excitement. So take that, nasty voice! (Also, I was very grateful for the distraction of this “new” project when I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Debbie Reynolds dying the day after losing her beloved daughter.)

There are sad and horrible things happening all over the planet, but I’m grateful for the fictional worlds I create in my mind. Sometimes the pretend is the only thing keeping me from being crushed by the real.

 

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Kidder and Fitzgerald for the assist

I just read GOOD PROSE: THE ART OF NONFICTION by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. As the cover says, it is “Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing.” I highly recommend this wise and funny book.

goodprose-coverThere are many gems scattered throughout (and not just for nonfiction writers, but anyone who loves playing with words), and one has been in the front of my brain since reading it:

I remember in college reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon and studying a note that he left in the manuscript: “Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting. Don’t look — rewrite from mood.” I reread those lines so often, trying to understand them, that they stuck in my memory. Fitzgerald knew that there are at least two kinds of rewriting. The first is trying to fix what you’ve already written, but doing this can keep you from facing up to the second kind, from figuring out the essential thing you’re trying to do and looking for better ways to tell your story. If Fitzgerald had been advising a young writer and not himself, he might have said, “Rewrite from principle,” or “Don’t just push the same old stuff around. Throw it away and start over.”

I’m getting close to The End (of this draft) of my YA project, and very much appreciate Mr. Kidder sharing Mr. Fitzgerald’s wisdom with me. Maybe it will reach someone else who needs it now.

 

 

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Thumb’s out

I’m ready to skip town.
Still not finished with this draft of the YA-from-hell.
Intended to finish by November 30 in my version of NaNo, but life intervened in a couple big ways and derailed those efforts.

Photo by Atlas Green

This young hitchhiker could have walked out of the pages of my manuscript. (Photo by Atlas Green)

I have written several drafts of this book, but never the final scenes. While I’ve mapped out those scenes, they’ve never been fully realized. I’m starting to wonder if it’s a case of “talking myself out of a book;” in other words, precisely because I have visualized and plotted out those scenes, I’ve lost all interest in writing them. Maybe they already feel done? Maybe I’ve lost faith in my abilities and so want to give up? Maybe I feel my efforts would be better spent on a more high concept story?

I can’t help thinking that my uncharacteristic antipathy toward this project somehow holds the key to my stuckness. I also can’t help thinking that if I just wrote the effing scenes, I’d escape these circles of hell.

 

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Like having a dream

For me, writing a novel is like having a dream.
Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake.
I can continue yesterday’s dream today,
something you can’t normally do in everyday life.

~  Haruki Murakami

dream-landscape

Writing a novel is a pretty cool gig, all right. Except for when the process turns nightmarish. Other than that, though, it’s a dream. Really.

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Forgive me, Sherlock

I’ve just started working again on a YA project that’s gone through many on-again-off-again phases. The reasons for that aren’t important (mostly because I’m not entirely sure why this project has been the biggest-mule-of-a-novel-ever.) What does matter is that I’m reminded (again) how difficult it is to bounce back from an off-again period when working on a project that is kinda, sorta a mystery. Mysteries require a precise sprinkling of clues and epiphanies, and that sprinkling would be hard enough to pull off if I’d written this book in a timely and consistent manner. As in, a day-after-day writing schedule that helped me keep ALL the details straight until this draft was finished, rather than periods of intense work followed by months of neglect.

So much unnecessary confusion.
Oy.

sherlock

Sherlock’s disdain burns in my soul . . .

 

 

 

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Weebles wobble

If you presume to love something,
you must love the process of it much more than you love the finished product.
 ~  John Irving

Right now I’m not entirely sure I love the fiction-writing process. As I revise this young adult novel, I’m starting to question whether I have any business trying to get published. I received some feedback on another manuscript that has me questioning my talent, and today I’m more wobbly than I’ve been in some time.

So. The bad news is I’m scared and exhausted and wishing someone could cut out this obsessive writer part of me so I’d never have to feel this way again.

The good news? My experience tells me that this ugly fog will eventually lift and then fade to a very faint memory. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I might not always love the process, but I trust it.

a copy

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Tenacious R Us

I’m a perennial gardener which means that the flowers I’ve planted are supposed to come back every year. Some, like the coreopsis that once bloomed long and bright throughout my beds, suddenly stopped blooming. All of them, at the same time, disappeared from my garden. The same thing happened with the exuberant clumps of blanket flower that used to bloom next to my driveway and were the the envy of my neighborhood. Here today, gone tomorrow.

But those are exceptions. The vast majority of my flowers come back each year which is great because I’m lazy. And cheap. I don’t like having to plant year after year and I don’t want to pay a bunch of money for flowers that will only be around a few months.

For a number of years I did plant annuals in clay pots and place them around my patio and down the steps. It was a lot of work and cost a bunch of money, and I had to remember to water them all the time because it gets extremely hot out there in the late afternoon. So I just kinda allowed that aspect of my gardening to fade away and left the empty clay pots stacked in my basement.

However, one huge pot remains outside year-round.
_MG_0202 Petunias

This is a photo from yesterday and the petunias blooming there are the result of the last planting which was 2-3 years ago. Those petunias haven’t gotten the memo that they’re annuals. They keep coming back. They refuse to give up.

They’re tenacious,
they prevail,
and I feel an undeniable kinship with them.

 

 

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Note to self

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.

~  Joseph Chilton Pearce

scream-cartoon-painting

Anyway, “wrong” is a subjective term except for when I’m doing math.
Which I most definitely am not.
So it’s all good.
(Okay, not “all” good. But mostly!)

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Fight or flight at the library

I’m at the library again, doing my best impression of The Little Engine that Could. My study carrel is in the quiet section that is liberally decorated with these signs:
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About an hour ago, a man had a conversation on his phone within spitting distance of one of those signs. Several people glanced around as if to say, “What the hell?” but no one did anything. Including me. I figured we all deserve one free pass and that was his. Well, the dude started up another phone conversation. So I channeled my inner Pete Seeger who once said, “If there’s something wrong, speak up!” (and yes, I do realize that Pete was talking bigger issues than cell phone etiquette.)

I stood quietly by the man’s carrel as he continued to talk. And the longer he talked and refused to acknowledge me standing there, the more uncomfortable I felt. But I stayed put and when he hung up, I held out the sign and politely said something like, “I wanted to remind you about this.” He finally looked at me and his faux surprise at seeing the sign was laughable, but he did say, “Oh, okay.”

And that was it.

I’m taking the time to blog about this because I couldn’t believe how much adrenaline was pumping through my system after that interaction. I felt physically ill because of one polite conversation regarding cell phone usage, and I’d like to figure out why.

At this point, the only thing I know for sure is this:

Pete Seeger quotation

 

 

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Sometimes revision looks like this

Vinca plus

As I posted yesterday, I’m focusing on getting through this draft of my revisions and am trying hard not to get bogged down in potential issues. I want to trust that I can fix anything in need of fixing next time around. Right now the priority is maintaining forward momentum. The problem with pushing hard rather than employing my usual tweak-and-polish-rinse-repeat approach is that I can still see those potential issues and I start to doubt.

For instance in the above photo, I see all sorts of stuff:

vinca leaves
vinca blossoms
holly leaves
holly berries
pine needles
maple leaf
landscape timber

In this photo, it’s not clear where the eye should go. The focus isn’t great and there’s all sorts of stuff going on. And that’s a bit how it feels with the draft I’m revising. What potential issues deserve my full attention right now and what’s okay to let go? Where should I zoom in and where can I pan the camera? Inquiring voices (in my head) want to know.

I’m not in any kind of panic about this. I’ve made solid progress today and still believe (24 whole hours later!) that I’m taking the best approach to this draft. It is, however, interesting to note that the voices insert themselves into my writing process regardless of what that process might be.

 

 

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Sometimes I gotta play rough

While reading Gary Paulsen’s LIAR, LIAR and companion novel FLAT BROKE this morning, I found myself thinking an all-too-familiar thought: “I want to try writing something like this.” (In this case I was referring to short novels, about 20k words, with the same characters, setting, and timeline.)

And then I remembered, as I always do when I have one of those creative-brain-all-over-the-place thoughts, that I’m in the middle of revising a YA novel that has been in and out of my life for years. I remembered that I really, really want and need to finish this novel. The want and need are wrapped up in the fact that I care about telling this story, but the want and need are also aligned with the instinct that’s telling me if I don’t finish the manuscript this go around, there will be serious repercussions in my writing life. It feels a bit do or die. Not as in THIS IS THE BOOK THAT’S GONNA GET ME MY BREAK, but as in this is the book that’s testing my mettle. I gotta prevail on this one. It feels as if I don’t finish the book, I will have given in to a schoolyard bully and might never venture back out on the playground.

So I put down the Paulsen books and decided that what I needed to do was quit pussyfooting around on my revisions. I needed to let go of the idea that I had to revise-revise-revise as I went along so that every single possible plot line and every single bit of characterization was exactly as it should be in final form. I decided that what I needed to do was revise in a more rough format SO THAT I ACTUALLY COMPLETE THIS DRAFT and then iron out minor issues and pretty up the language.

If I don’t take this approach, I fear this manuscript ain’t gonna happen which means an ugly domino effect.

So I fled the house (where I write every day) in search of mixing it up somewhere new. I landed at the library.

Working at library

Here I am. Revising in a rough and tumble manner, and making progress.

 

 

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Wrote some blues

Woke up this morning feeling low,
nothing specific driving my blues.
More like a muffled blanket of sad
wrapped around me.

I forced myself out of bed for:
stretching
yoga
hooping.

Slightly better
but still wanted
to crawl back under the covers.

Grabbed some coffee and breakfast
along with my YA project notebook and pages.
Got to work.

Slightly better
but still blue around the edges.
Trying to use it to my advantage.

Grape hyacinth

I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.
~   Duke Ellington

A Running Start

One of my favorite writing strategies is to take a running start at a manuscript, a technique that works for me both in the drafting and revising stages.

How do I define a running start?

A running start is sometimes merely rereading the work from the previous day in order to find my rhythm so that I can continue in that flow. Most days that’s all I need in order to keep going.

Other days, however, the nasty voices whisper so loudly in my head I worry that writing in that mindset will result in me inflicting big-time damage on my manuscript. I’m talking crash-and-burn, holy-hell-how did-we-end-up-on-this-tangent kinda damage OR, worse-case scenario, convincing myself that the only logical response to the crap I’ve put down on paper is to give up on the project, my writing, and all dreams. Forever

Those are the days in which my running start requires that I go back to page one and read everything I’ve written/revised thus far.

Image from morguefile.com

Image from morguefile.com

Today was a nasty voices day. So I read the 50+ pages of revised manuscript and, as predicted, my literary goblin’s voice faded away. I liked what I read. I was proud of what I’d written and felt a renewed enthusiasm for the project. I made progress on the revision.

It’s important to note that there are multiple decisions required of this strategy. I have to ask myself two questions:
1) Is this a regular running start kinda day or a Page One running start day?
If I immediately know the answer, it’s all good. If not, I ask myself the following:
2) Are the nasty voices so relentless they will dominate no matter what I try?
If the answer is Yes, it’s best to not even fight back. No running start, no writing, no thinking about the project.

There’s always another day and another perspective.

Starting Over, One Word At a Time

I’m revising the YA I’ve been working on off-and-on for years. There are a whole bunch of reasons for the delays and procrastination but the main takeaway is that because of the down-time, I was intimidated about jumping back into it. Then I read about one writer’s approach to getting back into a story: she retypes the entire manuscript.

I decided to give it a try.
_DSC4819

I’m taking it chapter by chapter, retyping from the last hard copy I printed out. So far, I agree with the writer who suggested it that retyping helps me revise on a deeper level than if I were only working with what was already there. In other words, my revisions would be more superficial if I was working with a hard copy and pen. Retyping seems to highlight issues such as where the text bogs down and any character inconsistencies. Most importantly, something about putting those words down, again, is helping reconnect me to the story. And in the process, it’s helping shine a light on what needs to change.

Every book I’ve written has taken a different path. There are days when I’m not sure whether that’s a blessing or a curse. This method, at least, is allowing me to move ahead.

Bartleby, the Scrivener

I’m using Scrivener for the YA I’m revising and even with all its bells and whistles, sometimes I feel a bit like Bartleby. Obviously, that’s a stretch since that poor dude had to laboriously hand copy legal documents while I’m using writing software and a printer. Still, it feels like forever that I’ve been hunched over this novel, painstakingly revising each chapter.

The good news: I’m (mostly) enjoying the process and have not yet proclaimed “I would prefer not to.” Also? I haven’t alienated everyone around me and am not sleeping in a doorway.

Around these parts, we call that a WIN.
DSCN7051

Revision = To See Again

John Irving wrote in the opening to Trying to Save Piggy Sneed,
“Half my life is an act of revision.”

Ain’t that the truth.

I share Mr. Irving’s love of revision. I enjoy blue ink on paper, deleting the fat and plumping up the skinny parts. I love drilling down to find the essence of what I want to convey.

Right now I’m revising the first several chapters of my YA. Again. I recently received stellar editorial input on my opening pages that has allowed a minor miracle: I am reading the pages with new eyes. I’ve already worked and worked and worked some more on those chapters, yet this editor’s input changed my perception of what was there on the page. It’s as if her reaction to what she read is forcing me to “defend” each and every word, every motivation. I’m no longer reading the pages with the mindset of someone who knows the entire story and all the backstory, but as a brand new reader! I didn’t think it was possible to read stuff I’d already read gazillions of times with fresh eyes, but it is. It really is.

Wow. Amazing stuff. Yet I’m alternating between thinking, “This is so cool that I have this new heightened awareness!” and “What is wrong with me that it’s taken so long to achieve this awareness that any writer worth her laser printer should already have?!”

So, in an effort to be kinder to myself, I’m focusing on this quote from Ernest Hemingway:
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

Take that, nasty voice! I will prevail.
Prevail bracelet 010

Seeing Things and Doing Things

Saw this beauty sunning itself on deck rail and captured with telephoto lens:
Doves + Maple leaves + Christmas cactus 002

The maple leaves are turning and I leaned over deck rail for a close-up look:
Doves + Maple leaves + Christmas cactus 009

The Christmas cactus sits next to the window so I zoomed in on its delicate beauty:
Doves + Maple leaves + Christmas cactus 015

Haven’t only been looking at lovely stuff, but am keeping my oath and making great progress on the final scenes of my YA. The End is in sight!

You Heard It Here First

I’ve been creeping toward The End on this YA project for FOREVER. (Okay, it obviously hasn’t been forever because that would indicate a major hiccup in the time-space continuum. Not to mention that “forever” would mean I’d have even more wrinkles than I already have.) So let’s just say it feels like a mighty long time I’ve been working on this book, yo.

One of the reasons I’ve been taking it slow is that I don’t like to write myself into a ditch. I’ve learned that if I allow the words to gush willy-effin’-nilly, I often live to regret that output because it can take an awful long time to get the literary wheels back on the road. However, it just occurred to me that because I am only scenes away from The End, that I can’t possibly do great damage. Even if I write myself in a wrong direction, it won’t be any big woop. I KNOW the big picture and I KNOW how this story ends and I KNOW what needs to be written. If something doesn’t feel right, I’ll delete. No big woop.

So here’s my public announcement: I am going to finish those scenes this week!

I_Take_This_Oath_FilmPoster

 

 

Friday Five: The Next Chapter

(1) Zippy and Zebu were at the tail-ends of their colds when I got sick two days before we had to start our drive to Washington. Of course. We left on Thursday morning with a big box of ultra-soft tissue and the rental car trunk loaded with Zebu’s stuff. We’d chosen a chevy impala trunkChevy Impala for its impressive trunk capacity and ended up getting one equipped with satellite radio. We drove many of our 1600 miles laughing at comedy routines and only once did I fear for our safety when Lewis Black had Zebu and me (behind the wheel) in tears. I highly recommend comedy for road trips.

 

(2) Zippy and I are now officially empty nesters (if you discount the two dogs and two cats), and I’m handling the transition pretty well. We arrived back home late Sunday night and while I did wash my face and brush my teeth on Monday, I spent the day in my jammies on the couch, watching flawless movie stillmovies (Party Girl with Parker Posey and Flawless with Philip Seymour Hoffman, pictured here with Robert DeNiro), some television (The Mindy Project and Californication), and staring into space. I’ve since roused myself, put on real clothes, and rejoined society.

(3) Now that we have Zebu settled at college, I can no longer put off finishing my YA. I thought my slow progress was solely due to feelings of trepidation regarding what happens when a manuscript is polished Daggerand ready to go (something that feels like the equivalent of putting my heart on a platter so that others can stab it over and over again), but a couple days ago I had an epiphany about my slow progress. I haven’t just been procrastinating in an act of self-preservation, but have been writing slowly because I was headed in the wrong direction. I thought I knew the ending, but I did not. Rather, I knew the final scene but had a few key details wrong. I believe my middle-office mind knew that and was patiently waiting for me to wake up to the truth of the story.

(4) I applied to and was accepted into the Rutgers One-On-One Plus Conference held next month, which is another motivator for finishing my manuscript. Yikes.

(5)  I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but as a result of all the preparations and then the emotional aftermath of getting Zebu off to school, I’ve largely ignored the fear-mongering and bloodlust dominating the airwaves. May I just say, for the record, that I am so very tired of the U.S. government thinking it can end fundamentalist ideology by bombing it out of existence? It hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now. Also? Not only is it stupid, this latest bombing is illegal. But, hey, we’re Team USA! However, . . .

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Updates: Reading, Writing & Running

READING: After giving up on The Portrait of a Lady, I went back to my shelves and selected Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. I’m happy to report I read the entire novel and, when I was able to push aside my prejudice against authors who explain-explain-explain their characters’ emotional landscapes, found myself pulled into the story. Hooray!

However, I then started another book (this one published in 1998) and read 90 pages 2515913-lbefore I’d had enough. I absolutely loved this author’s debut novel, but now wonder if it was equally bad and that I didn’t realize it because I wasn’t reading as critically at that point in my writing life. The one I quit today is nearly 900 pages (!) and narrated by someone I find unlikable and whose dialogue is not-at-all believable. Reading it made me angry on several levels (for one, knowing many trees died for this New York Times bestselling book), and when I get angry at the writing, it’s time to look for another book.


WRITING:
I’m plugging away at my YA and have, at least momentarily, quit beating myself up for working at such a slow pace. SONY DSCI’m essentially now writing the first draft because these later scenes are all new to the story, but because I’m being thoughtful and deliberate in my writing I’m confident I’m not driving the story into the ditch (or cornfield).
Also? Thoughtful + deliberate = doesn’t read like a first draft.

 

RUNNING: Per my PT/rehab instructions, I’m easing back into my running. The rules are (1) that runs must always have at least one day in between and (2) I can add 5 minutes to the run after having at least two solidly good runs at the previous time length. “Good runs” translates to reasonable pain (that can be addressed via stretching, massage, rest) and feeling halfway decent energy-wise. For my last three runs, I ran for 35 minutes each time. This whole thing has been such an adjustment for me, not just physically but also psychologically. I’m learning to cut myself some slack, to celebrate the gains and to not beat myself up when I don’t perform as well as the previous run. The key word here is “learning.” This is all very much a work in progress. Zippy encouraged me to run a 5k with him this past weekend, but because I knew I wouldn’t run nearly as well as I had last year, I declined.

Running hard as I can, but not yet flying . . .

Running hard as I can, but not yet flying . . .