Despite the fact that I chose FLEXIBILITY as this year’s guide word, I’m feeling seriously inflexible right now. In the past month, I haven’t been consistent with my routines and have been sitting way too much, for way too long.
This is my reminder to move, stretch, and experience life outside my writing space.
One of the best things about being a writer is that we can always learn and become better storytellers. Today, I happened upon two insights regarding character motivation (wants vs needs, and choices) that were worded in such a way that I immediately spotted what was wrong with my work-in-progress. What I read wasn’t new to me, but information doesn’t always sink in the first (or second or fifth) time I come across it. Today, things clicked. And that makes this writer very, very happy.
Art can’t be taught;
passion can’t be taught;
discipline can’t be taught;
but craft can be taught.
And writing is both an art and a craft.
~ Elizabeth George
Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.
~ Pablo Picasso
I guess that’s basically what I strive for with my fiction: to write lies in such a way the reader realizes some truths.
I loathe liars, but this kind of lying is a pretty good gig.
I’m not sure what put the light in this rabbit’s eye*, but I know where mine came from: today’s writing session was great fun. Even though I’m writing a first draft and, therefore, not overly hung up on language, I put down some good stuff. And that makes me very happy. Even after reading the following:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
~ Anton Chekhov
Much of what I wrote today is more tell than show, but I still had a damned good time.
*okay, it was probably the sun
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.
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.
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.
Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.
~ Khalil Gibran
Yesterday I moved my writing desk from the living room into my weight room / standing desk room / ginormous whiteboard room. The animals are all a bit confused by the change, and are taking turns hanging out with me. Zoey and Emma were just underneath the desk where Zoey quivered in fright because of thunder while Emma slept on my feet.
This is Marcel from earlier in the day. Right after this photo was taken, he noticed his tail and started chasing it. Confession: I have yet to look away from a cat chasing his tail. I’m dialed into those feline hijinks for the duration, and will watch as long as the cat continues to act the fool.
The change in venue feels good for my writerly brain and psyche, but so far, the animal distractions are more than I bargained for.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I grabbed my copy of WRITERS DREAMING from the shelf and opened it in hopes of finding something interesting/insightful to share here today. I wasn’t searching for anything in particular and within a couple minutes, I happened upon these two excerpts:
I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t take notes.
I tell myself, trust the unconscious.
If something is important enough in my unconscious life I will remember.
It will come to me when I need it.
So I don’t keep a notebook of good lines, good thoughts or dreams.
~ Bharati Mukherjee in WRITERS DREAMING
Usually I don’t take notes
even when I have an idea for a story until I actually sit down to do it.
Because I always have felt that I have so many ideas that the ones that are important to me, that really are good, will stay.
And the other stuff will fade.
That’s kind of a filing system.
If it was not that interesting, or not that good an idea, if it had a germ of something good in it, that part will come back.
It’ll be in there somewhere.
~ John Sayles in WRITERS DREAMING
What the hell? No notes? Because the unconscious? And because bad will fade away and good will make itself known?
Who are these writers with their functioning memories and bizarre confidence in their abilities?!
I can’t imagine life without notebooks.
I have a variety of notebooks in a drawer, waiting for me to pull them out to write down all sorts of things inside. The good, bad, and everything in between. It’s how I sort out what’s what and who’s who in my stories. Notebooks help me navigate the oftentimes confusing dance of ideas going on in my head.
I take notes because I’m that kind of writer.
I’ve written lots of stuff over the years and have quite a few thumb drives.
Going back to locate an old project used to be a pain in the ass. Well, not anymore! I FINALLY took the time to index my various drives and to move files around so that none of those projects are on multiple drives. (In case you’re judging me, I challenge anyone to work on a project off-and-on over the years and still maintain a pristine filing system. And yes, I do know about the cloud. Much of this stuff’s out there, too, but that’s a task for another day.)
Right now I’m very satisfied with my little box of thumb drives and index. Never underestimate the power of organizational wizardry. The world feels very bleak right now, and little victories such as this can stop me from running into traffic.
I don’t think the goal is, ‘How big a star did you ever become?’
I think the goal is, ‘Were you able to express yourself?’
And if you’re able to say yes, in any field, you’ve won.
If you paint, write, do mosaics, knit –
if it’s solving that part of your brain saying,
‘I need to do this,’ you’ve won.
~ Albert Brooks
Guess what? Today was a win!
To be clear: I didn’t get an Emmy. I just like the look.
A few minutes ago I searched for something on my desk. I found what I wanted.
However, I also discovered a whole stack of stapled-together drafts of various scenes from two different projects plus a pile of chronologically-organized query versions for one of those projects. Clearly, I have a paper problem.
But even more distressing than the avalanche of paper that has become my life is the realization that all those pieces of paper had one thing in common: handwritten revisions.
What am I thinking? That the literary world will need those important documents for the museum created in my memory after I die?! That someday someone will publish a study of one of my books à la E.B. White and THE ANNOTATED CHARLOTTE’S WEB?!
I tossed all of them in the recycle bin.
Note: This woman has a distinct advantage in that she will, without a doubt, know when she’s finished her project. When it comes to revision, I don’t always know when enough is enough.
Last night I found out I wasn’t selected as a Pitch Wars mentee and I admit to feeling down. I went to bed thinking I was a loserhead. Then I woke up this morning and reread feedback I’d received from one mentoring team last night, and the wheels began turning. When another mentor sent feedback, one of her comments dovetailing nicely with a bit from the earlier critique, the wheels in my head started cranking in earnest.
Did I agree with everything written? Nope.
Did I have AHA moments as I read their comments? Yep.
Can I quit this manuscript when it’s within my power to strengthen it? Nope.
So does this mean I’m embarking on yet another round of revisions? Yep.
I exchanged emails with a writer friend about all this and he was a bit horrified that I’m revisiting this manuscript for the umpteenth time. His exact words: I think you’re the type of person who puts a band-aid on just to rip it off!
But that’s the writing life: patches of blue poking through the clouds, an occasional burst of sunshine, and a steady stream of self-inflicted pain.
So it goes.
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:
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.