Friday, April 24, 2015

I am so proud of my protagonist!


I’m revising. It is messy. If you’re a regular old reader who simply enjoys books, and really cares not one whit how they get made, then avert your eyes. You are about to enter the sausage-making factory and NO ONE wants to see that!

Still here, eh? Okay, here’s where I’m at. First draft of novel finished and shown to a writer-friend and an editor-friend, neither of whom are stingy with advice. The verdict? It’s good. The challenge? Can I make it fantastic? Can I tie up every plot point, every action, so that all my themes are swimming in the same direction, ending all together in some crystal-clear pool of insight into the human condition? (Is this asking too much?) Oh heck, why not try?

This is what my revision process looks like. Every writer has her own process. All writers I know just love to hear about each other’s processes, as though there might be something we can adopt that will be the key to making all future book writing much easier. (Also, we’re always looking for a way to procrastinate by reading each other’s blogs.)

What you see here is my printed manuscript, divided into various chunks, plus a whole bunch of notes (down the center of the table) listing “Challenges” and “Possible Solutions.” To arrive at those pages, I first considered everything my readers shared with me, and then spent a couple weeks freewriting dozens of pages as I worked through the issues they presented. Then, I had to decide what is going to make this book “better” and not just “different.” That work became the Challenge/Solution pages.

What I’m doing now is going page by page to mark-up, with post-it notes, where I’m going to change a scene, insert a new scene or take one out. I love the tactile nature of this process, being able to see things, touch them, move them around. It feels much more like “revision” to me than simply moving the cursor around on my computer screen.

At this point, I’m thinking about the book constantly, figuring out those last troublesome scenes so that they can really have the most resonance for my reader, figuring out, honestly, how has my character changed through the course of this book? (A character has got to change, or she just isn’t that interesting.) How is the ending (which I love, and my readers love), completely supported by everything that came before it? It’s tricky, but so rewarding when you get it right.

And today, *trumpet salute* I felt like I got it right. All these pieces have clicked into place, and I really saw, not just imagined in a vague way, but SAW on paper how my protagonist, Violet, had come through some really traumatic events, gotten through a lot of messy parts of her life, and how she made a conscious choice to keep moving, to live, even though that meant keeping some of those broken pieces inside of her, because they would never completely disappear.

Dear Reader, I cried. I sobbed like a child here at the dining room table. I was so proud of her. And yes, that is really the thought I had, that I still have. I’m proud of her. That is when you know your character is more than words on a page, that your book will resonate with others. That is the moment when the bunny wriggles his hind legs and realizes they aren’t made out of sawdust.

I so look forward to sharing this book with you all someday.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

This side table DIY is the perfect price...free!

I do love a pretty transformation that costs none of the dollars (unless you count my labor, and as a DIY-er, creative writer, parent and general layabout, no one’s really paying much for that). Even better than the cost, this was an easy project, too.

Of course you know that the first step in an inexpensive DIY is finding the furniture. Browsing Goodwill and garage sales can net you some fine, solid-boned pieces just waiting for a little love and tenderness. I am also not above pulling things out of the trash, as I’ve mentioned in previous DIY posts.

This gem was rescued from my parents’ basement during a visit to their home on Dead End Rd. It was the end of the line for this little beauty. A plant stand in its former life, it was dirty and scuffed. The metal container (that held the plants) was discolored and scratched.  But look at the lines! Oh, for a dollar for every time I’ve said this. I also loved that it had a bottom shelf (more places to stack books!). The faux bamboo on the corner posts gave it a bit of an Asian flair. I knew this piece could play a leading role in my bedroom renovation.

And it has! The paint (Aztec Gold by Valspar) was free, courtesy of two magazine inserts for free sample pots from Lowes. I lightly sanded the piece first, then primed it, then added two coats of paint. This was a bit tricky, only because of all the curves. You really have to keep an eye out for drips (a good rule of thumb for life, in general).

The metal insert, which formally held plants, I simply flipped upside down, so it would transform the piece into a table. I hit it with a coat of the silver spray paint I always keep in my holster in case a piece needs a little bling. This silver has a nice matte finish, plus it’s hidden partially behind the latticework so it’s not too overpowering.

I love this spot of color against the robin’s egg blue walls of my new room. The fun chair was a steal from Big Lots. I’d always wanted a reading nook in my bedroom. This area is small, but quite comfortable. A place to lean back, a place to put up your feet, a place to set your cup of tea. Every bedroom needs a spot like this.
 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Falling in Love, Again, With Your Book


So, you may have read in a previous post that I finished a first draft of a novel. After I typed THE END, I had a glass of wine and then I shoved the book into the proverbial drawer, meaning I closed my computer file and pinky-swore, with myself, not to open it for 2-4 weeks.

That time range is entirely arbitrary. I wanted enough time so that I stopped thinking about it every day. I waited four weeks. I could have waited six months and really seen it with fresh eyes, but I am antsy and was very curious to see if what I’d been working on for that last nine months or so could actually be called a book.

A note on my process: Whenever I sat down to write, completed outline in hand, I would only re-read the chapter I was currently working on to get myself into the world of the book. I did not start from the beginning. This means that there are parts of the book I hadn’t seen for nearly nine months.

Me editing my book after drinking a grande mocha with extra whip.
Another process note: I write entirely on my computer, save for the occasional note jotted on a napkin or restaurant receipt. The first time I printed the book was when I finished the book.

I can tell you, it’s quite a wonderful thing to actually hold the printed book in my hands. At close to 250 pages, it’s got heft, baby. It’s as though the book suddenly became real.
 
Because I hadn’t read the early parts in so long, there were moments when I truly was re-discovering it. And re-discoveries can be fun. At times, it's like finding a $10 bill in a jeans pocket. It’s the unexpected metaphor that totally works. It's the theme you’ve managed to weave through that long middle part of the book that connects all the dots.

Sometimes, though, you can re-discover rocks and gum and dead bugs, in your kids’ jeans pockets, or your husband’s. This happened with my book, too, and it happened pretty quickly into the re-reading process. Sticky parts that I left alone to deal with in revision, now had to be dealt with.

My initial plan was to read the book the entire way through, as a regular old reader, with no red pen. How long would you guess that lasted? One chapter, folks. I just couldn't resist the urge. So, I got the pen and settled in for several days of writing in the margins. Soon, I took my marked-up copy back to my computer and made all the changes.

Now, I’ve handed the book off to an editor friend, and I am waiting. The waiting is agonizing. The crazy hope that she’ll say, "Wow, this is a first draft? I can’t believe it! It’s so amazing!" is there in the back of my head, but I know that won’t happen. It doesn’t happen, with anyone. So, I’m waiting to get the damage report, to find out if she thinks I need a tire rotation or an entirely new engine.

I’ll still have a lot of work to do, regardless, but I’m looking forward to it. I really like editing, always have. And the fact is, you can’t edit the book without writing the book! I’ll let you know more once I get the detailed list of repairs.

Friday, January 30, 2015

My Book, My Baby


I’ve often heard writers refer to their books as their babies. I used to think that was just a wee bit precious, until I had a couple babies…and wrote a couple books.


I wrote “Happy, Indiana” in just over 9 months (Coincidence??? Uh, yeah, actually) but I planned the book, reading background materials and meticulously outlining it, for a year prior. This is how I approach most things in life--researching, studying, thinking, and I do the same with parenting--a stack of books by the bedside before we even conceived. It’s the anxious child in me still wanting to be prepared for any eventuality.

Note to self: I am not, nor will I ever be, prepared for any eventuality, in publishing or parenting.

Nevertheless, here’s some of what I’ve learned:

Writing a Book* is an incredibly emotional process, leaving you physically wrung-out on many days but utterly buoyant on others.

Writing a book is risky. There’s no guaranteed pay-off. You can’t do it because you want to be rich or famous, neither or which is very likely to happen. You can only do it, ultimately, because you love the process. But here’s the thing…how do you know you love the process of writing a novel until you write the novel?

Writing a book is different every day; every chapter, every scene, every page requires something new from me.

Writing a book gets easier…sort of. “Happy, Indiana” is actually my second novel. The first, “Come As You Are,” still awaits a home, and its near misses with publishers is the reason I’ve considered changing my middle name to “Runner-up.” I learned A LOT writing that book. There are mistakes I made writing it that I definitely did not make with the second book. (And yes, I’m now looking at my daughter, eldest child, poor thing…). But I made mistakes with “Happy, Indiana,” too, (and with my second child), entirely new mistakes, because, guess what, it’s an entirely different book!

No matter how long you spend outlining a book, the actual writing of it might take you in a completely different direction. This can be scary. It can also turn out wonderfully.

There are moments when I’ve loved this book so ferociously that I wanted to humble-brag it from the mountaintops of social media, and other times when I’ve said, fuck it, and left my laptop open and in dangerous proximity to a full glass of wine.

I can try and protect my book from the outside world, from comments (from agents, publishers, maybe someday reviewers, readers) that wound my tender sensibilities. I can do all the right things, but sometimes my book is going to be disparaged. And I have to know when to ignore, and when to notice the kernel of truth in that disparagement.

Writing a book is never “finished.” Even when you put down the red pen and say it’s finished, even if you manage to sell it and give readings to standing room-only crowds, you’ll still see things you wish you’d done differently.

*Replace Writing a Book with Being a Parent and see how that works. Non-parents, replace it with Baking a Perfect SoufflĂ© or Learning to Play the Ukulele. Whatever form of creativity you indulge in is bound to be messy.  Learning to embrace that messiness is what makes the process more enjoyable and the completion of it, even though it's never really finished, more satisfying.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Write More, Write Better: The Writing Resolution to End All Writing Resolutions!

My birthday is on New Year’s Eve, and oh boy, there’s a lot of pressure there, double the pressure I might say, to examine a whole year’s worth of accomplishments and shortcomings and look onward with either the rosy glasses of optimism or the very, very dark glasses of pessimism, depending on how many champagne toasts have been had.

Seriously, it’s the worst day ever for a birthday, but this post isn’t about my recently turning a year older, but about growing wiser, at least when it comes to writing resolutions.

I used to resolve to publish things in the coming year: a book, a higher number of short stories than I published the previous year, an essay in The Times (okay, I’ve never actually said that one, out loud).

I published in some nifty journals and magazines in 2014, and also came this close to getting my first novel published. I have considered changing my middle name to “Runner-up.” But I can’t control my competition, and there are a lot of talented writers out there, my friends! Plus, publishing decisions are based on many others things besides the quality of the work. Fun Fact: I once sat in on a judges’ panel (to hear how they determined which applications should receive grants) where a judge exclaimed, “I just really liked this writer's short story because I thought the talking bear was funny!”

I think it’s time to say, finally, in 2015, that I will leave publishing out of my resolutions. I can only resolve to do what is in my control, and that is, very simply, to write more, and write better. The more I write, the better I get. The better I get, the more the publications tend to happen.

All in all, 2014 was a good year. Seven pieces published (three stories, two essays and a humor piece) and a new novel finished! I have ambitious writing goals for 2015 as well, though sadly, they don’t include a talking bear.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Selfie Finishing a Novel


Why don’t more writers take selfies? Ah, because this is what we look like. You’ll only see writer-selfies at awards ceremonies. If I set my computer to take automatic pictures of me while I’m working, you would see a whole bunch of photos of me frowning at the screen. Sometimes, my brow might have a bit more furrow to it, but otherwise, identical pictures.

However, because of all those hours of frowning, I’m going to finish my novel…SOON! I figure I'm down to less than 50 pages. I’ve got an outline, so I know what’s coming, and I’m zeroing in on that ending like Santa on the last brick of peanut brittle at the last house in the world.

I’ve hit that point where everything looks very bad for the protagonist, many things have been tossed at her, and it seems as though there’s no way out. I’m writing the fallout from all those crises and heading toward that sweet denouement.

And this is what it looks like to be completely absorbed at the end of a major writing project. Footie pajamas in the middle of the day, unwashed hair, coffee gone cold, writing in a closet. To me, this is an Inspirational Selfie. I’m giddy at finishing a draft of a novel that was just an idea a little over a year ago. Heck, I’m giddy that I get to wear this to work! Perhaps to you, however, this selfie belongs in the Treasury of Cautionary Tales for Children. (Hey kids, don’t be writers, get your MBA instead, and you’ll always have clean hair and real clothes.)

But whatever you think of this photo, I wish you the most comfortable finish to your own projects.
Footie pajamas rule!
 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Surviving the Holidays Through Writing

It’s not that I dread the holidays, not completely. I’m fresh off a weekend of merry-making with the hubs and progeny. Cutting down ye olde tree, decorating while Brenda Lee rocks out in the background, baking gingerbread, for Cripes’ sake! Clearly, I am not a person who poo-poos Christmas.

The part of the holidays that make me breathe into a paper bag is the part where I get thrown into a roomful of people so different from me in so many ways that I may as well be speaking Urdu. My family. And I’m not adopted. I once thought, maybe, but we look so darn much alike.

Today, I’m sharing ways to survive these family get-togethers without large quantities of your mom’s secret stash of amaretto. All those angry feelings bubbling up at the dinner table? Those might go into a journal, if you keep that type of thing. I’m not so much a diary-writer anymore, but I am an idea-gatherer. I’m a fan of the freewrite. I do this on my computer (because my handwriting is atrocious, and I sometimes can’t read it). If something happens to me that I can connect to something else, bigger than me, I might have an essay on my hands. And so I write those thoughts down.

The notes might be raw and hurtful and contain multiple expletives. Now, we don’t show these notes to anyone, right my dearies? No, we do not. That would be the equivalent of drunk dialing, and it is bad. We simply sit on the notes until the moment passes, days or weeks, or a decade, later, then we take a look and see if there’s anything worth writing about more formally. If not, there’s a little thing called the “Delete” key.

But, there’s something even better to do with difficult people. Make them into fictional characters. Just be sure they are different enough that no one will recognize them. If you’re writing about a man, take a tip from Anne Lamott in her fabulous book, “Bird by Bird,” and give him a “teenie little penis” so he won’t ever sue you.

I digress. The point I really want to make is that it’s incredibly hard to see things from another person’s point-of-view. For me, this becomes especially obvious this time of year. It’s something I struggle with on a daily basis, as a person. But as a person who is also a writer, I’m not half bad at it, and getting better. The first novel I wrote is about a woman who, when I started the project, seemed to have very little in common with me, but, through the years of crafting her story, I can tell you I understand her. I love her even, though she and I don’t agree on many things.

I’ve lived in her skin. I have found more similarities between us than differences. I have to. For a character to be successful (and not just the stage-hogging protagonists, but every minor character as well), she or he must be well-rounded. That’s a big old writing workshop term, but it’s true. No cardboard characters, please. They must be complicated. My character changes her mind about certain things that she never thought she’d change her mind about. She refuses to budge on others. She is…human.


And in creating her, I’ve found myself opening my mind to opinions like hers. I don’t need to adopt those opinions, but I recognize that characters, as well as flesh-and-blood people, arrive at their personal beliefs through such very twisted paths.

What a gift, writing. Though it hasn’t brought me fame or fortune, what a gift to sit down and create a world and populate it, to live as another person for a portion of the day. Real people will always be harder to understand, but writers are lucky because when things get to be too much to bear at the big family get-together, we can always retreat to the guest room and dive into another universe. The trick is, to not remain a hermit (I know, this from someone who writes in a closet…) but to exit that room more open to understanding the real people around you.