Monday, May 25, 2015

When a Writer's Not Writing

When writers talk about the act of writing, they tend to speak metaphorically.

Writing a book is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.-- E.L. Doctorow

To write, you sit down at a typewriter and bleed. --Ernest Hemingway

Stephen King talks about diving into a dark pool or digging up fossils.

Maybe we speak metaphorically about writing because the literal description is so boring. Basically, writing a book involves parking your ass down and picking up a pen or typing on a keyboard until you finish writing it. Sometimes this take months.

Sometimes it takes years.

You are alone. Or you are surrounded by people in a coffee shop, but after awhile you forget those people. You type the letters right the hell off your keyboard.

(Goodbye A, S, and E) (the N and L are gone too)
Some days you forget to wash your hair or change your clothes. Your fingers get cramped. Your back aches. Your eyes burn. You drink a lot of cold coffee. You babble like an idiot to your family about plot holes and snippets of dialogue. 

Or you grunt at them. 

I'm kinda manic when I shut down for the day. I walk out of my office in a daze as if I have been holed up in a cave. There I go speaking metaphorically. 

It does feel like emerging from a cave when you finish writing a book. 

I stumble out into the sunlight, blinking my eyes. Huh. It's spring. Who knew? 

I don't know what to do with myself. 

Cleaning is usually number one on the agenda. When you spend nine or ten months writing a book, you tend to let household chores go. Now it's time to sweep up the dust tumbleweeds in the living room and tackle the science experiments brewing in the bathrooms. 

Do the laundry 

Plant seeds

I always think I should celebrate. Throw a party. Or at the very least, flop out in the hammock and read a book. Instead, I assign myself projects like Paint the Office or Create a Rock Garden. 

I'm not sure exactly why I do this. 

Yesterday I sat in my garden all day pulling up weeds and scattering mulch. There was something very zen-like about it. 

I was not thinking about the book I had just finished, the book that had pretty much consumed me for months. I wasn't thinking about how this possible mess of a Thing is now in the hands of my trusted first readers, how what they say about this Thing will determine how I spend the next few months. I wasn't thinking about publication or the fact that the last book I finished is still bouncing around with editors or more likely, sitting in editorial inboxes, untouched and unread. I wasn't thinking about why I Do This when there is no guarantee that anything I write will show up on a library or bookstore shelf ever again. I wasn't think about next books or speaking engagements or book signings or book festivals or teaching writing workshops. 

Instead I was squatting in dirt chasing the shade around my garden. I had mud under my fingernails and bugs crawling in my hair. 

My mind was blissfully empty and I didn't even realize what I'd accomplished until I stood up and stumbled out of the garden and looked. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The End (ish)

I wrote a ton of stories when I was growing up.

Age 8, 9, 10-- nearly all of my stories were about broken people. Literally broken. With broken limbs or incurable diseases. The typical story-line: a crippled child saves a friend by miraculously recovering the ability to walk. Those were the happy ending stories.

In the ones with the sad endings, the kid dies while saving the friend.

I guess it goes without saying that I was a weird kid.

The book I have been writing and rewriting over and over again for the past thirteen years was "finished" multiple times. There are various permutations of the end but none of them ever felt quite right. It bugged the hell out of me and I couldn't figure out what to do.

When I go on school visits or talk on author panels, the question inevitably comes up: Where do you get your ideas?

I usually answer by talking about the Two Sticks Theory. I think Sid Fleischman said this: It takes two sticks to build a fire and two ideas to make a story--two seemingly unrelated ideas come together and spark the book.

My multiply-written book, regardless of all of the variations and permutations it's had, has always begun with the same two sticks.

Stick one:

A Greek myth about a man who decides to chop down a massive beautiful oak tree even though a dryad resides in it. [Side note: Dryads are nature spirits connected to trees. The belief is that if you destroy a tree that has a dryad attached to it, you kill the dryad too.] The man ignores the screams and the pleas of the dryad and chops down the tree.

Stick number two:

When I was eleven years old I went to camp for a week and when I got home I found that the tree in my backyard, the one I loved to climb, had been cut down. My mother didn't like the tree because the roots were messing up the yard so she had my stepfather take care of it.

When you write a book, you don't always know what you are writing. Sure, you might have your two sticks, your outline. A plan. But stories have a funny way of morphing into something else as you write them. They veer into places you didn't intend to go, places you may not want to go. Ever.

People talk about the difficulty of writing, and what they usually mean is the time spent. Hours of working on your computer, banging out draft after draft. Self-discipline. That part is all true.  But that is not what makes writing difficult. At least for me.

Last January I went to visit my critique partner at Hamline University. Hamline offers an MFA in Children's Literature and my friend is finishing up her coursework there. I went to hear her present her critical thesis, but I also sat in on a few lectures.

The one that pretty much slayed me was given by Jane Resh Thomas. Jane is a writer and teacher. She's the mentor of people like Kate DiCamillo and Gary Schmidt and she is one of the most amazing speakers I have ever had the privilege to hear.

When I sat in on Jane's lecture, I was in the midst of struggling with my revision. There I was AGAIN reworking this story, which for whatever reason I could not let go of and could not get right. And there was Jane, speaking in this booming voice:




When you write a story, Jane said, you are not the same person you were when you come to the end of it.

All of us who write for children have a locked trunk in our attics, a box where we hide all of the secrets from our childhood, the things that hurt us, the things that were too difficult to handle when we were children... BUT WE ARE NO LONGER CHILDREN. 

It's time to go up into your attic and unlock the trunk. 

The heart of your story is like a hot stove. We don't want to touch it, but to do the story justice, we must. 

We have to sit on the hot stove and cook. 

I came home from Minnesota and started the book again. I wrote every day for seven days a week. Every day I climbed up into the attic. Every day I parked myself on the hot stove.

In the midst of all of that, I purged my house. I literally cleaned out every closet and drawer. The Goodwill guy threatened not to take another carload of my stuff.

There was a certain point--maybe back in March?-- when I realized that I didn't care about publication anymore or even if another person ever read this damn book. The only goal was to come out on the other side of it without suffering from third degree burns.

I finished a couple of days ago.

I am happy to report that I don't have permanent skin damage. But I am sorta wandering around my purged house like a stranger. Apparently, I have different furniture. New pictures on the walls. New drapery.

Jane Resh Thomas was right.

I am not the same person I was when I started this book. I'm not exactly sure who I am. The story, it turns out, is about broken people who have to figure out how to save themselves-- or die trying.

Who knew?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Never Begin a Novel with Weather -- Guest Post by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski (THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME Blog Tour and Giveaway)

I am so excited to be a stop on Jennifer Salvato Doktorski's Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest novel THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME. This is a great read. Beachy romance--with a twist: the action take place at the Jersey shore the summer after Hurricane Sandy upended the lives of the main characters, a girl who is a permanent resident of the area and a boy who visits only during the summer.

I loved the romance, of course, but was curious about the hurricane aspect. The storm and the devastation almost feel like a third character in the book, so when Jen asked me what I'd like her to blog about, I said, how about the weather?

Here's Jen:

Never begin a novel with weather. It’s one of those generally accepted taboos that most writers come across at some point or another. I’m not sure if Elmore Leonard was the first to say it, but it is number one on his ten rules for writing fiction. Irrespective of its origins, the point is “It was a dark and stormy night” = bad story opener.

But that doesn’t mean weather can’t provide you with the spark or impetus to write a story or novel, or serve as the perfect backdrop. That was the case with my latest YA novel THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME, which debuts today. The story take place the summer after Superstorm Sandy unleashed her wrath on the Jersey shore. It was the largest and most destructive Atlantic hurricane in history, affecting several countries and 24 states with New Jersey and New York being among the hardest hit.

When the mega-sized storm made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, it was the second time in two years that we here in the Garden State had been done wrong by a freak storm on that exact date. The year before, on Oct. 29, 2011, a nor’easter hit the East Coast covering everything, including the trees still heavy with fall foliage, with a thick snow and icy mix. The result was downed power lines and trees everywhere. Schools, businesses, and roads were closed. Nearly 1 million people were without power in New Jersey, and Halloween got cancelled—boo—and the nickname Snowtober was born.

Our property dodged any major damage, but a large branch from one of our giant oak trees fell onto our neighbors’ property, nicking their gutter and pulling down some cables. I took it as a warning sign and had the tree taken down. And a good thing too, because it wouldn’t have survived the 65 mph sustained winds that barreled through here the following year on that same date when Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012. Halloween was cancelled, again, but that was the least of anyone’s worries. The New York Stock Exchange also closed for a record two days, but again, small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

One of the scariest parts about Superstorm Sandy, was that it lived up to the hype. That hype began on October 22 as meteorologists watched as it developed in the Caribbean and crept along the Eastern
seaboard like a slow-moving monster. By Saturday, Oct. 27th, our governor had already ordered a mandatory evacuation of all coastal regions.

We have a place at the shore and were there that day to participate in the annual scarecrow building contest (it seems silly now that I think about it) and to batten down whatever hatches needed battening. It was eerily quiet. We saw some people filling sandbags and some fisherman on the beach, but it seemed like everyone should have been doing more.

The next day, back at our full-time home, which is further north and inland, people were running from store to store, picking the shelves clean of camping lanterns, flashlights, D batteries, phone charges, candles, water, bread and milk. I bought lots of lunchmeat and packed our coolers with ice because our stove is electric and Snowtober made me realize we are fully dependent on electricity to cook. This was Sunday, Oct. 28th, and already schools had been closed for the next day.

And so we awoke on the morning of Oct. 29th, turned on the TV and began flipping channels, from CNN to The Weather Channel to our local news networks. All of them were showing the same Doppler image of a behemoth storm with its red, angry eye and a massive green swirl that looked like a dragon wings and a tail. Outside the wind was picking up; becoming stronger by the hour.

I can’t remember when it started raining but the rain seemed secondary to the wind. I brought our garbage cans into the garage and watched our remaining oak trees swaying back and forth. We used our landline to make calls and kept our cell phones charged. Shortly after 5 p.m., the lights flickered once, the TV made a zapping sound, and then the electricity went out.

“This is it,” someone said. It was either me or my husband, I can’t remember which. What I do remember is the wind. Wind that sounded like a low flying jet or a high-speed freight train. It rattled the windows and bellowed all night long. When it got dark, we turned on the Coleman lantern, ate sandwiches, played board games, read books, and listened to AM radio on the only device in our entire house that go reception—and old, battery-powered walkie talkie with an AM signal that my husband has had since he was five.

We were up most of the night, listening to the soothing voices of the deejays, watching the sky light up a purplish color each time a transformer blew, and waiting for the deafening wind to abate. We grabbed pillows and blankets and stayed together in the living room. In retrospect, we should have holed up in the basement, but somehow I think my husband and I felt better watching those giant oaks sway all night long; willing them to stay up with our eyes. Somehow they did. But all around us, others weren’t so lucky.

The next morning, we stepped outside to find trees and branches down everywhere. A giant oak blocked our road, another lay on top of the neighbors’ minivan. We used our cell phones to call friends and loved ones to make sure everyone was okay. But the power was still out, and would remain out for days, so we had no idea what the rest of the state and New York looked like, or whether our condo at the beach had survived the storm.

The days that followed were surreal. Driving conditions were horrendous without traffic lights, schools in our town remained closed for nearly two weeks, we ran out of hot water, and sleeping without heat in the unseasonably cold weather was tough. I couldn’t make coffee, or any hot food or beverages for days, and we all grew tired of sandwiches (I haven’t eaten bologna since). But these were all minor inconveniences after this major storm.

People had died, property had been damaged, and homes had been destroyed; swept away by ocean and bay waters along with cars, boats, swing sets and whatever else was in Sandy’s path. The hardest hit areas looked like they’d been ravaged by war not a storm.

Suffice it to say, experiencing Superstorm Sandy changed me. It reinforced what I already knew—life is delicate and precious and nothing should ever be taken for granted—and made me appreciate just how good people could be to one another when faced with the aftermath of a tragedy.

Somewhere around our third night with no electricity, I even began to understand why people in the old days went to bed so early and woke up with the sun. There’s only so much you can do in the cold and dark! I also realized how ill-prepared I was for a hurricane of that magnitude or any other natural disaster. That Christmas, I gave everyone in my family emergency kits complete with crank radios and flashlights (I’m too much fun, I know!)

The following summer, I began writing THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME. I didn’t open with the weather, but I wrote this book because of it.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Summer After You and Me
Jennifer Salvato Doktorski
Sourcebooks Fire
May 2015 ● ISBN: 9781492619031
Trade paper/$9.99 ● Ages 14+

Will it be a summer of fresh starts or second chances?

For Lucy, the Jersey Shore isn’t just the perfect summer escape, it’s home. As a local girl, she knows not to get attached to the tourists. They breeze in during Memorial Day weekend, crowding her costal town and stealing moonlit kisses, only to pack up their beach umbrellas and empty promises on Labor Day. Still, she can’t help but crush on charming Connor Malloy. His family spends every summer next door, and she longs for their friendship to turn into something deeper.

Then Superstorm Sandy sweeps up the coast, bringing Lucy and Connor together for a few intense hours. Except nothing is the same in the wake of the storm, and Lucy is left to pick up the pieces of her broken heart and her broken home. Time may heal all wounds, but with Memorial Day approaching and Connor returning, Lucy’s summer is sure to be filled with fireworks.

Jennifer Salvato Doktorski is the author of two YA  novels and is a freelance nonfiction writer. Her first paid writing gig was at The North Jersey Herald & News, where she wrote obituaries and began her lifelong love of news and coffee. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

An Excerpt

Connor opened the gorgeous double doors, each with half-moon stained-glass windows on the top, and motioned me inside. “After you.”
The house had that distinct yet hard-to-describe smell of a beach home that had been closed up for a while. I walked to the center of the high-ceilinged foyer and immediately pic­tured pine garland and twinkling white lights wrapped around the sweeping banister.
“Wow. I’d love to spend Christmas here,” I said and immedi­ately regretted being so sappy.
Connor smiled. “You could fit a twelve-foot tree in this hallway.”
I admit, over the years I’ve had my share of Connor-centric fantasies. However the image of him watching his children pad down the stairs on Christmas morning had never been one of them…until that very second. I liked thinking about Connor that way.
“Come on. You’ve got to see the master bedroom.”
The wholesome image of a Malloy family Christmas van­ished. Aha, I thought. That was the Connor I knew.
“Uh-uh,” I said. “The widow’s walk. I want to go there first.”
“Race you,” he said and took off running.
He beat me up the two flights and was waiting for me in the third-floor hallway toward the back of the house. Off the hallway was an art studio, with a drafting table and a bookcase. There was also a telescope standing near the window.
“Follow me.” He crossed the studio and unlocked the dead­bolt to the narrow door leading outside.
“You’ve already been up there?”
“First thing I did when I got here,” Connor said.
“Not the master bedroom?”
“Nah, that’s the first thing I wanted to do when you got here.”
I thought it was just more flirty banter, but Connor’s flushed cheeks looked as warm as my body felt. He stared at me for a beat too long and my throat constricted. I was suddenly aware that I’d left the house with slept-on hair and no mascara. The look on Connor’s face told me he hadn’t noticed. His eyes never left mine.
Finally he said, “Come on, Luce. I’ll follow you.” The space was tight when I passed in front of him, and the closeness of his body gave me the shivers. I opened the door and stepped outside onto a small patio. I walked toward the wrought-iron spiral staircase that lead to the widow’s walk on the roof and placed my hand on the railing. My knees felt shaky as I began the climb, but I never looked back.

Buy Links:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Musings on a First Criticism

I received my first negative review of something I'd written when I was in tenth grade.

Up to that point, I'd gotten lots of lovely gushy praise. It helped that I wrote mostly for myself and rarely showed my pieces to anyone else. Teachers, when I was growing up, did not assign creative writing in class. Anything I wrote for them was extra credit. They didn't mark up those papers. They'd scrawl the word Nice across the top. Or, Good. 

So, I had many years to feel positive thoughts about my writing and that encouraged me to keep doing it.

That is, until 10th grade. My English teacher that year was a nun who was big time into grammar. We learned the hell out of the parts of speech. Lots of underlining of the subject once and the predicate twice.

I was the only kid in the class who enjoyed that. Sister taught us how to diagram sentences, and I was awesome. She would throw the most complicated sentence at me and I could break that sucker down.

My love for Sister wavered when she introduced prepositions. It was her belief that prepositions could not be taught. The only proper way to learn them was to memorize all of them in alphabetical order. She pointed out the list in the grammar book and told us that our assignment was to memorize the list. In a week, she'd have us recite it in front of the class. If we made one mistake, we would get a zero.

I raised my hand and explained that I understood what prepositions were and I felt that I could identify them without going through this memorization exercise.

Sister smiled and told me I was wrong.

When class was over, I went to the guidance office and asked to be taken out of the class. The guidance counselor was sympathetic. She putzed around in a file cabinet (no computers then) and informed me that I'd been mistakenly placed in a lower tracked English class. I should've been in honors. Unfortunately, there wasn't much that could be done to change the schedule.

Luckily, Sister taught both English classes. The solution was that I would keep going to my class, but meet with Sister once a week to do the honors level work. Weirdly, I was okay with that. Sister gave me a list of novels to read and a packet of work, and I kept diagramming sentences and underlining predicates. I also failed the preposition quiz. Proudly.

One of the assignments for the honors class was to write a story. I had never written a story for school before, but I was excited about it. By tenth grade I called myself a writer. I had been keeping a journal for years. I had written two full-length novels and a stack of shorter things, some finished, some not.

I wrote a story that I was sure would wow Sister. It was literary and complicated, heart-wrenching, with allegorical overtones.

The story was called "I Am the Lamb" and it was about a girl who grew up on a remote farm in Iowa (I laugh at this now because I had never been to Iowa and knew absolutely nothing about farms, but whatever.) The girl had a hideous birthmark on her face, a birthmark so gruesome that her parents kept her isolated on the Iowa farm. They said it was because she was special, but the girl suspected that the parents might be ashamed of her hideousness. One day a white sheep on the farm gave birth to a litter? group of baby sheep (I wasn't sure on the lingo) and one of the lambs was black and the mother refused to nurse the lamb because it was different. The girl was given the task of killing it.

In case you don't see the parallel, I helpfully pointed it out at the end of the story when the girl makes a moving speech to her parents about how SHE IS THE LAMB.

The day I met with Sister to discuss my story, I was eager to hear her thoughts. We met in a small office with no windows. I sat down and Sister stood, and I waited for her to gush about my brilliance and creativity.

Instead, she yelled at me.

My story, she said, was wrong. No parents would ever treat a child the way the parents in my story did.

I walked out of the room, embarrassed and ashamed.

The rest of the year was full-blown crappy. I kept reading books on the honors list, but my heart wasn't in it. Diagramming sentences had lost their luster. The kids in the grammar class asked for my homework and fought to sit next to me on test days so they could copy my answers. I let them.

I didn't write a story for a teacher again until college. I never looked at the Lamb story until a few weeks ago when I unearthed it during a recent purging of my house. I was almost afraid to read it. I felt sick just looking at the title. I assumed it was a terrible story.

I read it the way I might read any student's work. The Iowa farm. The horrible birthmark. The story itself, surprisingly, wasn't as terrible as I remembered. Nice set up and character development. Dialogue. Description. Very few grammatical or punctuation errors.  If the writer was my student, I might praise all of that. Maybe ask a few questions. Like, why'd you write about farms and lambs when they're, uh, not something you know that much about?

I can't imagine mentioning the over-the-top symbolism and drama. Fifteen-year-olds sometimes write stuff like that.

It's interesting how the voice of your first critic worms around the voice in your own head, twists and winds, until the voice becomes one voice, and that voice whispers in the back of your mind: You can't write about this. 

This is wrong. 

The book I am writing now is full of things that would make Sister cringe. It's dark and edgy and weird. Fantasy bleeding into reality and the other way around. Characters doing cruddy things to each other. Parents hurting their children.

I've been writing the book on and off for 13 years. For a variety of reasons, I could never get it "right." Some days I work on a passage and I hear what I'd always thought was my editor voice, whispering: No. This is wrong. You can't write this. 

Lately, I've been shaking my head, telling the voice to shut up. Guess what, Sister, This is my story and it's not wrong. 

Watch me. I'm writing it. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Throw Your Clay with Great Force and Don't Wait 20+ Years to Follow a Childhood Dream...

A couple of weeks ago my good friend and fellow YA author Natalie D. Richards invited me to come along with her to a ceramics studio.

Nat's latest work in progress features a character who makes pottery or maybe he welds stuff (she's not quite sure yet) but she heard about this place where you could play around with a pottery wheel, and she thought that since she'd never thrown clay before, it might be a good idea for her to check it out--for research purposes. (We're doing a welding class next week.)

Anyway, I was game for it. I'd never thrown clay either. "It's supposed to be kind of difficult," Nat told me on the way there. And I could imagine that would be true. All visual arts seem difficult to me. 

Painting. Sculpture. Photography. Any kind of craft. Whatever. I'm fascinated by artists and visual arts but if there is a gene for that kind of thing, I don't have it. 

I am trying to stop saying that about myself. 

Over the past few months I went through the Artist's Way course again (see here for a fun intro) and it's been a major help in getting me through a difficult revision. It's also turned my life and house pretty much upside down. I had been sharing some of my breakthroughs and epiphanies with Nat, and I guess I got her intrigued enough that now she is going through the course and having her own fun breakthroughs. 

One of the things you do when you are going through the AW, is list things -- things you want, old dreams and new dreams, stuff you always wanted to try but maybe were afraid to. The author of the AW, Julia Cameron, is big time into artsy craftsy things. Doesn't matter if you can hardly draw a stick figure, she will have you painting and decorating and making totems and God jars. Weird as it all seemed to me at times, I just kept going through all of the tasks and exercises, because as JC likes to say, your child artist needs to play. 

The ceramics studio is called Clay Space and the artists running the class couldn't be more cool about beginners trying things out. Each student gets her own wheel and five big bagel sized hunks of clay (but we could have more if we messed stuff up, which, they assured us, we would.) I was the doofus asking five million questions, and the instructor Todd answered every damn one of them. Plus some questions I didn't ask. 

For example, did you know that "throwing" clay comes from the German, which means turning? Yeah. Me neither.   

(Nat is not Patrick Swayze or Whoopi Goldberg)

Todd sat at one of the wheels and showed us step by step how to throw the clay. You do it with great force. And there's important information about how to center it. And lots of instructions about how to place your hands and anchor your elbows and have bad posture, and what to do with your thumbs, and I can't speak for anyone else in the class, but all of those instructions flipped right out of my head. 

Art, when it comes down to it, is not something you can take notes on. You have to do it. 

When it was time to do it, I had no idea what to do. I couldn't remember one damn thing about throwing or centering or where to put my thumbs. But I was channeling Julia Cameron and playing. Also, I was drinking wine. I forgot to mention, you can bring a bottle of wine with you to Clay Space.

Nat was sitting next to me at her wheel and I was getting a kick out of the whole thing, making jokes about Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, and watching my clay collapse, or one time, fly the hell right off the wheel. 

Something strange: Nat kept making these bowl shaped things and I kept making longer vase shaped things. When I tried to make a bowl, it turned into a vase, and when she tried to make a vase, it turned into a bowl. I have no idea what that means about our respective personalities. 

(Bowls, by Nat)
(Vases, by Jody--with LOTS of help from Todd)

This all seemed to go on forever, and I hate to say I kind of got bored with it, but I guess I kind of got bored with it, so I took a lot of pictures with my phone and followed Todd around and probably bugged the hell out of him with questions. 

(a garden of broken pottery pieces)
Later, Nat and I sat at a table and she painted her bowls and I painted my vases. We walked outside and I went nuts over a garden of broken pottery pieces. Somehow I had not seen it walking in. I was all silly from wine and playing with muddy clay and I didn't notice at first that Nat was misty-eyed. 

"I loved that," she said. 

"I loved that too," I said. 

"No," she said, "I really loved that."

She was crying a little and I felt like a ding dong for not realizing it sooner. "What?" I said. "What's going on?"

She smiled and said that when she was a kid one of her cousins had gotten a pottery wheel as a present and she'd always wanted to try it but she never did. And here it was 20 something years later and she'd put it on her Artist's Way list, and now she did it. 

"Huh," I said. "Why'd you wait so long?"  

"I don't know," she said.  


Tune in soon for Part Two: Jody and Nat Weld Things 

Happy Nat is Happy 



Thursday, April 16, 2015

Everything but the Kitchen Sink-- Also known as Trying Every Trick in the Book... To Write a Book

It's weird to write a book.

I've done it more than ten times, and I still think it's weird. I know how it works, how to do it.

[NEWS FLASH: you sit on your butt and you pick up your writing implement of choice, and you write until the book is finished.]

I can give you all kinds of pointers about how to start, where to find ideas/use ideas/develop ideas, how to plug along through a first draft, (and a 2nd draft and a 10th draft), how to outline or not outline, how to reread what you have and reorganize it and revise it, how to plot and develop characters, how amp up conflict, how to edit and polish and blah bi di blah blah.

I can also give you strategies for working through Writer's Block.

[NEWS FLASH: you sit on your butt and you pick up your writing implement of choice and you write--even though you hate what you're writing and hate writing and probably hate yourself. Do that for 20, 30, maybe 56 days, and I promise, you'll break through Writer's Block.]

Yeah. So I KNOW ALL THAT. And yet, apparently, I must bow down humbly before the Muse and admit that I KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING when it comes to writing a book, specifically, the book I am writing now, which is technically a revision, my fifth or sixth complete time through it.

It's a strange complicated dark expansive personal story that seems to get bigger and more complicated every time I pick my way through it.

I heard the brilliant writer and teacher Jane Resh Thomas speak at Hamline University when I visited the MFAC program in January and she said that when you write a book, you are not the same person you were when you started it. You're exploring parts of yourself--some parts, that maybe you would rather not explore. Because I have basically been writing this story for more that 12 years, let's just say that I am doing a lot of exploring of the dark and dusty recesses of myself.

And here's one thing I figured out:

All of my old strategies for writing a book-- the word counts and the daily goals and the typing on my lap top and the index cards-- none of that seems to be working with this one. So I decided-- what the hey?-- why not try something new?

Forget the damn laptop. I've been writing by hand. With a pencil. I'm filling up composition notebooks, something I haven't done since I was twelve.
(two of many notebooks. Plus a to-do list
with the first item:

I hand write in the mornings and type and revise in the afternoon. I take a lot of breaks. When I'm stuck, I clean something in my house or throw something out or clean something and then throw it out.

This book takes place partly in a forest and every time I get to a place where I have no idea what the characters are doing or thinking, I start describing trees. I have hundreds of pictures stored on my computer. Types of trees and leaves and fruit and bark. I have pieces of bark on my desk.

(there are satyrs in my book too. Satyrs are from Greek
mythology and they have tails and they
like to chase nymphs. Look at the one I painted
with watercolors. Note: the privates are modestly
covered by leaves) 
I'm doing yoga again. (wearing yoga pants has inspired me.) I'm gathering stones and creating altars and burning candles and staying off social media and walking the dog multiple times and binge watching Supernatural and painting with water colors.

I'm terrible with water colors and I don't care. I also don't care about publication anymore. Or sales numbers or sequels or self promotion or marketing. I do some of those things, sure, but this book comes first. It may never be read by anyone except for a few close friends. And get this: I don't care. 

In the mornings I change out of my pajamas and into my yoga pants and I park my butt on the bed in my office/guest room where I've been working, and I pick up my pencil and write.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

In Which I Take a Much Needed Vacation and Remember I have a Tattoo

Last week I took a vacation with my family. We drove sixteen hours in one day to get to Port Charlotte, Florida, where my aunt lives in a lovely condo.

I guess I should mention that I have a hard time taking breaks, especially when I am in the middle of a writing project. The story I am writing now is intense and dark and sad and jabbing me in places I don't want to go, but recently I had reached some kind of understanding of It and myself, and I was sort of afraid to be away from it for a week. Through much floundering and angsting and cleaning out closets (both literally and metaphorically) I had stumbled onto a routine that seemed to be working.

Every morning I'd get up, change into my work uniform, suck down the first of many cups of coffee, settle in at my work place, and push my way into my dark story world. If I didn't have the dog freaking out about the secretly psychotic serial killer mailman every day, I might never come out of that world.

[*My work uniform used to be a bathrobe over pajamas, but during the course of writing this book, I have discovered this new kind of pajamas called Yoga Pants. Yoga Pants are awesome because while they are as comfortable as pajamas, they are more socially acceptable -- so when you open the door at 5pm for the UPS guy, with your dog jumping around you having a mini heart attack, you don't feel like a total pajama-wearing sloth.]

It's possible that I am a workaholic.

The schedule for writing this book-- as I have been writing it since the middle of January -- has been: Write all day, with a few brief breaks to eat, walk the dog, pick up my daughter from school, wolf down dinner (that my husband has been graciously preparing), and then go back In until like 9:00 or 9:30 until my brain is fried and my eyes are burning.

I do this on weekends too.

But I decided I might need to take a break. If only to prove to myself and my long-suffering family that I could

1. not write for a week
2. wear something besides yoga pants

Okay. I cheated a little, writing in the mornings while everyone was sleeping, but otherwise, I am happy to say that I enjoyed the vacation.

I've been finishing up The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. One of the hardest exercises for me is what the author calls Artist Dates. What you're supposed to do is take an hour or two each week, just for yourself, to pamper your inner child artist. This sounds ridiculous and new age-y to me even as I write it. It's the one task that I am most eager to skip each week and it is the one thing that I probably need most of all.

It's hard to write a book--at least my crazy way of doing it. At the end of the day I am wrung out. Depleted. Empty.

I have to fill myself back up occasionally. With a trip to a museum. Or a movie. With a walk around the block. Or a walk on the beach.

One day last week I was kicked out in my beach chair, digging my toes in the sand and I was looking at the tattoo of a foot on my foot. I'd sort of forgotten that it was there. It's been covered up all winter under my socks and my yoga pants.

It made me smile to see it.

Getting a tattoo is one of the crazier things I've done in my life. Crazy because it was so unexpected and not like me. And yet I did it, and now I have this symbol of spontaneity and fun and weirdness tattooed on my ankle. Forever.
Huh. Turns out I still have a tattoo.

It makes me want to do other unexpected fun things.

Paint my toenails orange because orange is a color I would never paint my toenails.

Dig a hole in the sand even though I am old and don't have a little kid parked next to me.

A beach hole. 

Eat food without gulping it.

Have conversations without my mind drifting over character arcs.

Sit at a pool and flip through a magazine.

Spend an entire afternoon sipping pina coladas with my husband.

Take a break once in a while and remember that I am a person.