That’s a Wrap: My (almost) Final Edits | CHALK the SUN

I just clicked Send. My final edit deadline is tomorrow. I made it. It's gone, for better or for worse. The Novel is gone. It is in the hands of an editing team who will clean up my commas and semi-colons and whip the manuscript into shape à la The Chicago Manual of Style. I can do no more.

The next time I see In Another Life, in a month or so, it will be in galley proof form. I'll be allowed to make only line edits or proofreading corrections. The story is what it will be today, tomorrow, and a year from now, on Publication Day.

I entered the editor-writer conversation and exchange process with a focused humbleness. Knowing I had so much to learn about this part of the publishing journey, I expected the story to be challenged and questioned, coaxed and tamed. What I didn't expect—not at this late stage—is that I would be my harshest critic. Even after the revisions were complete and the story set, each read-through brought more changes to language, tone, rhythm. It's not just that I felt the story and writing improve with each draft; I felt the writer and storyteller improve.

And so I think about a year from now, how it will feel to release this novel when I will no longer be the same writer. I'm certainly not the same writer who began In Another Life on a July day in 2012.

A sense of writer's remorse sits heavy on my soul. I should have read it through one more time. There will be something, I know, something critical I have missed—just as there has been on each pass—a better way to construct a phrase, a scene, a novel.

But I have to let that go, don't I? This is part of the process—accepting that what's published today might not be what you would write tomorrow. In Another Life is my apprenticeship and my act of faith. It taught me many things about the writing process, lessons I hope never to relearn: don't write without some sort of a plan; don't write more than a handful of scenes out of sequence; don't share your work too early; don't listen to that inner critic telling you to hang it up and go home.

Do listen to the voice that says, Keep Writing. The story will sort itself out in time.

And now a year looms. A year to worry that no one will ever read the thing. A year to worry that they will. A year to plan blog tours and blurbs and fret about that damn launch party.

A year to revise the second novel and pray that it sells, and to finish the third. The fourth is already wrapping tiny, thin tendrils of idea around my brain . . .

Speaking of marketing and promotion, here's my new website: Julie Christine Johnson Don't judge. I created the site just yesterday. Not much there, I know. It'll get fleshed it out in time, probably go through a template change or three. But for now, I've snagged my domain name and a fresh, clean canvas to paint.

You guys. I wrote a novel. It's going to be published. That's just silly.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
― Dorothy Parker

 Deception Pass,   Whidbey Island © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Deception Pass,  Whidbey Island © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I signed up for guitar lessons. To learn my way around an acoustic was something I'd wanted for pretty much my whole life. I showed up to class every Monday evening and dutifully practiced every day. I loved it. I was awful, I knew it, and I didn't care. The day I was able to strum Cat Stevens' Wild World without hesitating over chord changes was one of the most gleeful of my life.  

But I quit those lessons after a couple months. The instructor. I think I was causing him actual physical pain. I was the only true beginner in a beginner's class and everyone just blew right past me. So I shrugged, set the guitar aside, and decided that one day, I'd find someone who was interested in teaching someone like me—earnest, with short, stubby fingers.

 

Late February, the Seattle-based alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger printed a piece by author Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One, and the internet blew up, at least those bits writers pay attention to. Several brilliantly-worded rebuttals have been penned in the intervening days, and I'll include links to a few of those at the end.

 

I could rant about Mr. Boudinot's silly conjectures on the nature of talent, or the age one must begin writing in order to achieve "success", or his revolting remark,"Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more." (Yes. Yes, he did). Yet what upsets me most is the attitude of entitlement and exclusivity that pervades this piece, that the act of writing belongs only to the most gifted and Mr. Boudinot should not have had his time wasted by the hapless.

 

Mr. Boudinot does make some salient, if not terribly original, points: Writers must write a lot (and not make excuses why they cannot); they must read a lot; they must work very, very hard, and expect obscurity; they must write authentic prose; and the publishing industry is really different than it was several years ago. Boom. Now you know.

 

I trust most MFA faculty do what they should: instruct and guide, rather than smirk at and bemoan the talentless or anoint the rare "Real Deals", as Mr. Boudinot refers to the handful of MFA students he taught over the years whose prose he could celebrate, rather than merely stomach. The profession of creative writing instruction is better for seeing the backside of Mr. Boudinot.

 

A few days after the Boudinot Debacle, another discussion unrolled in an online group of writers, this time about an interview with literary agent Chris Pariss-Lamb, The Art of Agenting, and his comment:

 

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? ...  I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

 

Okay. Here's the thing. I agree 100 percent with this statement. Except when I don't. I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—the November event that encourages people to pen 50,000 words of a rough draft from November 1-30—and can't see that I ever will. But does that mean I find it insulting (assuming of course that I'm a "real writer")? Does that mean I have the right to pass judgment on how others find and express their writing voice? Was Jimmy Page pissed off that I was butchering Peter, Paul and Mary because my feeble attempts belittled his years of practice? Did I actually think what I was doing was easy, just because I had a guitar? Seriously?

 

NaNoWriMo might have as much to do with writing a novel as the Runner's World Run-a-Mile-a-Day-for-30-Days challenge has to do with training for a marathon, but that's not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is to commit to the act of writing, perhaps giving a story a chance to take purchase in one's otherwise-distracted mind and busy life. It is a celebration of effort, a jubilation of creation.

 

Critics contend NaNoWriMo gives the impression that writing a novel is easy, if you can just crank out 1,667 words a day. Of course, no one understands what it takes to write a novel if they haven't put in the years of writing and revising and collecting rejections (the latter being an integral part of the writing process), and if the amazing happens—the book deal—all the work of revising and promotion that follow. But the Special Snowflake approach to writing—that no one really understands how hard it is unless they are the Real Deal or a Real Writer—oh, get over yourself.

 

Someone commented that we don't want/need more people writing novels. Fie on that. We want more people writing, painting, plucking out terrible renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a guitar. We want more people thinking creatively, telling stories, dreaming. It's the rare few who take it all the way past dream and hobby to send their work into the world, fewer still who find their way past the gatekeepers and into the realms of a profession. The "Real Deals" are those who show up to the page, day in and day out, despite lousy teachers and naysayers, despite the competition. The "Real Deals" make room at the table for all. Even those lumbering in with guitar cases in hand.  

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” ― Ken Kesey

A Word of Resolution for 2015

“For last year's words belong to last year's language And next year's words await another voice.” ― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

I admire the notion of wiping the slate clean for the year to come, particularly at a time when the cold, dark hours are just beginning their slow creep toward the light. But it doesn't really work that way, does it? Chances are, regardless of our resolve, we will wake on February 1 still in these same bodies in need of more exercise and less sugar; in these brains in need of more fresh thought and less group-think; in these hearts in need of more gratitude and less comparison.

 

I'm not immune to the My Year in Review tradition, but I find as I age that it's less harrowing to keep rolling through the process of life, rather than marking an end to another year. I already have my birthday to thank for that time of mourning. Serendipitously, my birthday comes at the beginning of autumn, which is a far more natural time for me to renew and reflect, to make resolutions (intentions toward permanent change) or establish goals (markers toward a specific achievement).

 

Yet on January 1, 2015, I came upon this essay by Molly Fisk Pick a Word for the Year. Being a logophile, the idea of selecting a word to guide me through the year, instead of making a resolution, made me clap my hands in delight. Yes! This is a ritual I can embrace!

 

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This is my word. Isn't it beautiful? Greek. It's a whisper that tickles the ear, a cirrus cloud that skims across a blue sky: Sɑːr-moʊ-'lɪ-pi.

 

From the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I found this description most meaningful: ‘Charmolypi evokes a metaphysical reflection, expressed through the language of the body’ (Dziennik Teatralny). Loosely translated, charmolypi means ‘joyful sorrow’.'

 

Charmolypi belongs to a tiny family of words I adore, including Hiraeth, Saudade, Sehnsucht and Natsukashii, that contains sentiments of bittersweet longing, a yin-yang of joy and sorrow. It is a feeling that comes only when we allow ourselves to feel deeply, profoundly, painfully, wholly. The yearning is not for a specific place, person, or thing—it is the unnameable ache when you hear a particular piece of music, when the light slants a certain way, when a scent or taste catches you unawares and sends you reeling back into memory.

 

What Charmolypi signifies to me, why I've chosen it as the word to guide me this year, is the acceptance of sorrow as it mingles with joy. I have come to accept the inevitability of depression and anxiety in my life and rather than fight against that tide, I am learning to swim with it, to recognize the beauty that comes with the still, dark moments. These are the time when I listen most deeply, not only to myself, but to the world around me; when I touch the most compassionate parts of my soul and emerge with a stronger, bigger heart.

 

In harmony with 'the language of the body,' Charmolypi is embracing this body as it ages, learning to treat its limitations with respect while still pushing it to greater heights. I've been craving the power and playfulness that seem to fall by the wayside as the years pass. I've kept up a yoga self-practice for years, but since returning to formal classes a few weeks ago, I am again witnessing the transformation of my body and mind. It is with Charmolypi that I turn away from training for a marathon, which is only a date on the calendar, a short-lived event, but represents the pounding stress of increased mileage and intensity that this body doesn't need. Instead, I turn toward a practice that builds up what aging naturally whittles away: strength and flexibility and balance. I embrace the grace that comes with intention and breath.

 

Charmolypi is the bittersweet process of letting go. It is my determination not to expend emotional energy on those who cannot respond in kind; of finding that sometimes-wobbly balance between compassion and patience and the sweet relief of release; of accepting that forgiveness does not mean I need open the door to unhealthy people.

 

It is the understanding and acceptance that as I walk on the path to publication, my time and my words will not always belong to me, that as much as I am lifted up by the support of others, there is also a surrender. I am acutely aware of this now, in the thick of the editing process, when I see my vision, my story, reflected in others' eyes. I prepare myself for the day when it is released and belongs to anyone who reads it. There is Charmolypi—joy mixed with regret mixed with hope mixed with resolve.

 

'Last year's words belong to last year's language,' T.S. Eliot reminds us. Which words await your voice in 2015?

Charmolypi: the play of light + shadow

True Story

The moment when a stranger says your characters' names, her voice laced with affection and intensity and familiarity, the moment when you realize this thing you have created is on the verge of leaving the small nest of your imagination and taking flight into the world. That moment. That exhilarating, terrifying moment is the stuff of writers' dreams.  

A year ago, I turned to my husband and said, "I will finish writing this novel because finishing is the right thing to do. I will finish it because I need to know I can. Once it is finished, it will go the way of most first novels: buried at the bottom of a drawer, remembered with a chuckle of affection. It will be a learning experience. But it will never see the light of day."

 

I did indeed finish what I'd started, but I fudged a bit on the bottom-of-the-drawer part. I couldn't extinguish the light on a story that had brought me so much joy and hair-yanking aggravation. I asked others to give me honest feedback on its potential and through their critique, I found the courage to rewrite. Through the months of revision, the same spirit which compelled me to finish the novel pushed me to the next steps: to see if I could find someone who believed in it enough to champion its publication.

 

Early in the summer, I spent a few agonizing weeks assembling a spreadsheet of literary agents to query once I'd finalized the edits. Narrowing a thousand possibilities to a list of 250 or so, and from that to a first-tier group of 105 was, frankly, awful.

 

But I knew the true awfulness awaited: the trickling out of my query letter, the trickling in of rejections. Wondering each time, is the really worth it? Everyone says first novels are learning curves, experiments, but really, they're crap. Was I setting myself up for certain heartbreak, when I should just let it go and move on?

 

Whatever the answer to that question might be, I wrote in my day planner on the fourth Monday of October, Send first 5 query letters. As if I would forget. Really, I just wanted the satisfaction of effacing the command with a black Sharpie.

 

Late October, I set sail for the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. The week preceding the conference had been . . . challenging. Within a twenty-four hour period my husband's job was upended*, my hard-drive curled up in a corner to die, and a bout with the flu had me wanting to do the same.

 

As I sat on the ferry that chugged from home to Whidbey Island, I thought, "Only car trouble is left." The ferry docked, I turned on the ignition, and—I kid you not—a fire-engine red service indicator illuminated.

 

Just get me to the conference. Please. On the car seat beside me was paper proof I'd reserved a pitch spot with an agent months ago. Because of crispy fried hard drive, I had only a copy of my query letter. My memory of my two-minute pitch was as scrambled as those circuits on my laptop.

 

I arrived at the conference, but the agent I was scheduled to meet did not. There went that plan. I crashed the pitch sessions anyway, determined to tell someone my story.

 

Six pitches. Six manuscript requests. Come Monday morning—that fourth Monday of October—I sent out six copies of my novel. And then I drew a thick black line through that to-do item in my calendar. My lovely spreadsheet, over which I'd so labored, would just have to wait.

 

People.

 

I did it. I did this thing. My story seduced not just an agent, but a publisher. In one fell swoop, between breakfast and lunch two weeks to the day I pitched my heart, two voices on the telephone said, "We love your story. Let us share it with the world."

 

My novel is now in the hands of those who believe in its potential. And perhaps by the end of 2015, it will be in your hands, too.

 

True Story.

 

*happy ending there, too. My sweet guy received a promotion.

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Taking the Long View

Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.  ~ Stephen DeStaebler

 

A mighty struggle these past weeks to settle down and write. Late October arrives and I haven't written anything new since July. Oh, I've been busy: one novel completed and in others' capable hands; another novel revised and ready for critique; two short stories sent out into the world, in search of acceptance and homes.

 

But I'm restless and panicky, wondering how much conditioning I've lost in the months since I last faced down a blank page.

 

Starting a new novel is an emotional gambit: vulnerability—certain; risk of failure—absolute; excitement—total. First come the heady days of pouring ink onto the page: the spark of an idea that transforms into character sketches, themes, research notes and eventually, the plot outlines that precede the first lines of typed prose.

 

The first day of writing. The second day of writing. The first week. Frustration borne of restlessness, feeling words spilling over the dam, but having my fingers in too many holes to catch them all. Attention span shifting this way and that and days of grinding out words I can barely hear through the chatter in my head.

 

A perfectly good excuse. I have one. I want to tell you. I'm bursting to tell you. A day when the course of my life shifts, perhaps just a bit, perhaps seismically, like a train shunted onto a new track at the last moment to a destination yet unknown—not the next station in the next small town, surely, but maybe the one after that or maybe a long grinding roll onto the big city. I'll tell you as soon as I can. It's the blog post I've been dreaming of writing.

 

But no matter what happens next, I must be present in the now. I must do my job. I must write.

 

A sucker for the carrot of simple goals, I pop open the Project Targets box in Scrivener and reset my daily word count. I sense this story will not come as easily as The Crows of Beara—10,000 words a week netted me a 105,000 word novel in ten weeks. For all that is happening external to this novel, for all that is happening inside the story, I need to give myself room to breathe. I set my session goal for 1,500 words, with an eye toward a completed first draft by March. A winter of writing in cafés and in the library's bright and warm Reading Room.

 

A few days of hitting my target, even though it takes hours. Upon hours. I force myself to stay in the hardback chair at the library, draining the laptop battery, stomach groaning in hunger, eyes dry and throbbing. Nothing is coming easily. I reread, move scenes around. It's there. There story is there. Too much brain dump exposition and back story—I know that, but I'll find a way to fit it in later or get rid of it. I remind myself: stop editing, stop worrying whether what you've got works, keep writing until you get to what does.

 

And then yesterday. Doing what I knew I had to. Shifting my protagonist's POV from first person to third. There is much about this story (entitled Tui (tōō-ē), a native bird of New Zealand and in my novel, the name of a child in need of wings to fly away) that is so personal to my life—not the events or the plot—but the emotions, the longings, the hurts. Yet, by keeping the protagonist's voice in first person, I struggle to separate her "I" from my eye, her "me" from my own mind. So, Holly Dawes, welcome to the world. I'll step back now and let you go your own way.

 

Today. Two hours, two thousand words. Time enough left over to run seven miles. To wash the car. To write a book review. To write this blog post. To get some perspective. To take the long view.

 

Taking the long view / Dordogne Valley / © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

A Break in the Clouds

I travelled to France last month with a story in my heart. It's a story I've carried around for years—one I chronicled here: The Prisoner's Hands—and I spent time gathering details of place and researching the region's history during WWII. I thought, having seen through the writing of two novels, I was ready to undertake something nearly bigger than me. This story reaches far beyond the realm of alternative history I created in Refuge of Doves. There, my goal was to invoke a sense of place and time, but not to mire the narrative in medieval depths or lose a sense of playful speculation.  

But I'm wasn't looking to retouch history here. Not with this story.

 

A book reviewer commented recently that the WWII literary idiom has been done ad nauseam. In the words of Love and Rockets, It's all the same thing; No new tale to tell. The world doesn't need any more stories from WWII.

 

As a reader fascinated by literature and research emanating from and inspired by WWI through the end of the Second World War, I couldn't disagree more. There will always be room and readers for stories from these eras, as long as the stories are well told.

 

In the past week I've read two extraordinary novels that take place during WWII: Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany; and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, set in southeast Asia and Australia. Doerr's novel was just nominated for the National Book Award; Flanagan's won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both are beloved by professional critics and every day readers like myself. So yes, there is room for more WWII stories.

 

But one night, deep in jet lag insomnia, as I read All The Light We Cannot See, I realized I had to set aside my story. I came to accept that I am not yet the writer I need to be to tell a story deeply layered with sociopolitical nuance. Nor am I yet the researcher who could create the authenticity readers would rightly expect. 

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Tony Doerr spent ten years researching, crafting, and writing All The Light We Cannot See. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel steeped in so much historical detail and personal history (his father survived the Burma Death Railway—the subject of The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I can only guess he spent years carefully choosing each detail.

 

The understanding came laden with sadness and relief and not a small measure of anxiety for this writer. Setting aside a story I'd been thinking about for so long, that I spent time in France researching, meant I'd opened a yawning chasm of "Now what do I do?" My post-holiday plan, when I knew I would need to work on something new as I began the agent query process for Refuge of Doves and sought beta readers for Crows of Beara, had been to dive straight into a new novel.

 

Suddenly, I was without a story. I had no plan.

 

But if I've learned anything along this writer's journey, it's to trust that the next story is always there, shimmering at the edges of my peripheral vision, just within earshot. If I let go of trying to capture it and wait quietly, it will settle on my shoulder like a rare and fragile butterfly, or beam out like a piercing ray of sun from a rent in a storm cloud.

 

And come it did, during the middle of a writing workshop the week after our return. The story idea isn't new—in fact, its themes and some its characters have appeared in at least one of my short stories—but the Eureka moment came only after I'd let go of the search. Suddenly, quite suddenly, at 2:45 on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, I had my premise, my protagonist, and the quivering butterfly of a plot.

 

Let the writing begin.

 

 

 

 

Trying to Fly: Giving Up What Weighs Me Down

Pain woke me in the middle of the night. It flattened me to the mattress. I lay still, certain that if I moved, my head would not move with me. It would simply snap from my neck, a lead weight of agony too heavy for my body to support. I'm not given to migraines, but this headache, so intense the nausea began in my toes and roiled through my limbs, was something organic, alive, beyond the reach of medication or meditation. I barely slept, and at four a.m. I gave myself up to the inevitable.

   As soon as I opened the front door to unhitch a hanging plant whirling in the sudden wind, I knew. Overnight, the gray silk of Autumn had slipped in, running cool fingers through Summer's sun-bleached hair before gently pushing her away. Now Autumn sat heavy, pregnant with rain, aching to release the new season from her throbbing uterus. In her angst to be next, to be now, this Bitch of Barometric Pressure had a white-knuckle grip around my brain.

 

I knew from whence this pain emanated. A change of weather so fast, the shift of seasons so acute, my body clenched and strained. But as I moved gingerly, trying to avoid a further disturbance of my universe, I felt another weight bearing down, more insidious, but no less frantic. The pressure in my head was emblematic of the pressure in my soul, and as the season shifted, as a summer of dreams gave way to an autumn of industry, I knew the only way to relieve the burden was to make a decision.

 

I'm not a ditherer by nature. I tend to make decisions quickly and be done with them. That doesn't mean I won't carry my doubts around, worrying over them like a stray thread that won't break off, but in the moment I just do the thing and move on.

 

A few weeks before, an essay dropped into my life—from where, I no longer remember—and forced me to face a doubt I'd been ignoring, a dissonance I'd plugged my ears against, not wanting to admit that I'd made an error of judgment. Here it is: Are You Empowered By Being Here? Rather new age-y, but I'm a bit new age-y myself, all give things up to the universe and listen to the voice inside. You know that about me.

 

The author, Jamie Khoo, posits that by determining where you stand on the following two points, "... you’ll know exactly whether you’re being empowered or dis-empowered where you are; and whether you should stay or leave."

Are you: Becoming More or Less of You

Do you: Realize Who Owns You

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I knew the answer to the essential question—Are You Empowered By Being Here?—was 'No.' I had allowed myself to diminish, I had allowed a situation to own my time, energy, space, and thoughts. After coming to such a tremendous epiphany in February while reading Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, I had placed myself in something that simply wasn't me. That contradicted everything that makes me function in peace and productivity. How embarrassing.

 

Yet, I had set aside my doubts and talked myself out of action, certain my anxiety was misplaced because I wanted so badly to believe I could make it work.

 

Until the morning I awoke wanting to sever my head from my body to end the vice-grip on my skull.

 

I went for a swim, easing into the tepid water, allowing it to take my weight. In the hour that I moved back and forth, crawling and stroking, I practiced my exit. I willed myself not to excuse or explain, as is my custom, but to release myself with grace. And then I returned home and did the thing that needed to be done.

 

As I sat trembling, waiting for the hammer of doom, I heard the sound of water rushing at my windows, smelled the petrichor as the earth broke its summer fever and sweated in relief. The first rain in weeks, the first downpour in months, the pregnant sky birthing the equinox.

 

The morning after I closed that door, the strangest little thing happened. A friend of a friend from another life contacted me and said, please come and let me teach you. I have seen what you can do and I want you to do more. Let me teach you.

 

 

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” ― Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

The Journey of 1000 Lists: A Writer Travels

The lists that precede a journey. They begin in broad strokes, months in advance: where we will go, how we will get there, where we will stay, those travel Epiphanies that occur as we drain a bottle of wine or ramble along a forest trail. One year, while mapping out cycling routes in Burgundy, we realized we were meant to hike the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest Ireland. This year, while choosing a town in Burgundy to base ourselves, we decided it was time to visit Dordogne. Someday, we'll actually make it to Burgundy.  

A plan thus put into motion, the lists multiply, separate, fan out: packing lists; project lists; things to buy in preparation; things to do before we leave; an itinerary; do we want to end our trip in Paris, or visit someplace new? Which cat sitter did we feel most comfortable with?

 

Once scattered on the desk, pinned by magnets to the refrigerator, tucked into a book, the lists merge as the date of departure draws nigh. The big decisions are made. The small ones become a running stream of consciousness: which books to take (no e-readers here, thank you); which shoes—the shoes are everything, aren't they? What happened to the spare phone charger cords? Will Lola spend three weeks under the bed, or will this new cat sitter coax her out and love her a little? I probably won't get around to dusting the furniture before we go . . . Oh God, the milk . . . don't forget to dump the milk.

 

No matter how far in advance I plan—and I'm a planner, bless my heart—these final days are filled with last-minute urgencies and "did you?" and "don't forget!" and "what about?" Timing the loads of laundry, the paying of bills, the meals; must leave the laundry basket empty, the refrigerator hollow and shining.

 

Of all the things on my pre-departure lists—now list, singular, on the kitchen counter, beside the spare house keys for the cat sitter—I haven't planned for writing. Not sure how I feel about that. This isn't an intentional holiday from writing, though I haven't left the page for more than three consecutive days in over two years. Maybe I should.

2014-09-28 17.43.22

 

I will return in late October and head straight to a writer's conference. The query letter for my first novel is poised to begin its long journey through agent in-boxes. These past two weeks, since learning about a thematic competition for a novel that dovetails perfectly with the theme of my second novel, I have been frantically revising and editing, trying to get it into some sort of shape for a Gonzo submission by the September 30 deadline. Short stories written over the summer still need to find homes. I have work behind and ahead of me. I'm burned out.

 

Yet, this stopping business doesn't feel right. Perhaps it will, when I'm pulled out of this element and routine and settle into another. Days of hiking and castle-hopping in the Dordogne, nights of cooking simple meals in our gîte, drinking supple Cahors and sipping creamy-spicy Armagnac—that should be enough to pull me out of the exigencies of word counts and submission tallies. A break from social media will slow the mind-chatter that insists I should be out there, engaging, commenting, posting, liking.

 

It is time to lift my head and look around, to pull out of the world of my imagination and let another world suffuse my senses. It is time to use a different language, quite literally, so that I may free my intellect from thinking in one so familiar.

 

I've packed one blank book (though that's a bit of a cheat; I have a thing for papeteries and no doubt I'll stock up on Rhodia or Clairefontaine or Calepino). Perhaps I will begin journaling again. Perhaps I will write, simply for writing's sake. Perhaps those pages will remain blank, the Moleskine left forgotten at the bottom of my bag.

 

There's a story idea I've carried around for years. For the first time, I travel to a specific place with the intention of absorbing its details—the contours of land, the quality of light, the aromas of villages and fields, the accents and colors of people—so that I may recall them in the months to come as I sketch out the idea I intend to sculpt into a novel.

 

There. See? I do have a plan, after all. It's just not on my list.

 

Traveling- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. - Ibn Battuta

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. - Robert Louis Stevenson

We like lists because we don't want to die. - Umberto Eco

The Souls of My Shoes

"Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them." —Marc Jacobs  

It started out as a search for our hiking first aid kit, but ended as an epic closet clean out. I’m a Virgo; I can’t help it. I’m hard-wired to sort, categorize, and arrange. We have more containers to put things in than we own things to put in them. I have banned myself from The Container Store, for I cannot resist the siren song of baskets, bins, and boxes.

 

Stuff, however, I can mostly do without. I’m not terribly sentimental about things; I’ve moved too many times to become attached to more than a handful of keepsakes. My collections are contained in pretty jars (shells and stones from around the world), or on bookshelves (Austen and Dickens in those beautiful Penguin Classics Hardcover editions), in my iPod (hundreds of albums), or bound in archival albums (travels and life moments captured on film).

 

But every so often I let something go and mourn a little at its passing. Perhaps for the object itself. Perhaps for what it represents and the memories it holds.

 

Pulling this pair of shoes from its cubby, I admitted their time had come. The soles are disintegrating, the soft and supple leather has been worn irreparably thin at the toes, and on the sides where I pronate. I love these shoes. Comfortable beyond all reckoning, they have traversed Seattle, Christchurch, Paris, and Dublin in recent years, but mostly, they’ve just been my go-to shoes, the footwear equivalent of your favorite pair of lived-in blue jeans.

 

2014-09-06 17.24.28

 

These shoes appeared in my life in early 2007, on a day very much like today—a warm splash of gold at summer's end—in Christchurch, New Zealand. Which means it was February, not September, in that topsy-turvy shift of hemispheres. I recall telling Brendan, "I never want to work at another job where I have to “dress up.”" We were several months into our new lives in the Land of the Long White Cloud. I’d just finished culinary school and we’d bought a house in a village on the Pacific Coast, leaving Christchurch to make our way in the vineyards and olive orchards of the South Island's pastoral idyll. I’d found an office job, but it was all-casual, all-the-time. At a slaughterhouse, actually. But that’s a story for another time.

 

But never did I dare dream, when I made that declaration in a tony shoe boutique on a summer’s day in Christchurch, that I would find myself slicing away at my wardrobe, discarding piece by piece all those blouses and skirts, dress pants, and heels worn by the white-collar professional I had been, for a writer’s uniform. I don’t know what you all wear to the page each morning, but my current wardrobe, workout gear notwithstanding, could fit on the end of a pencil. Once the weather is such that I must remain indoors to write, I grudgingly don denims and comfy shoes before heading to a café. These shoes, specifically.

 

I have other shoes. Sure, I do. But I don’t have other shoes that represent a decision, a moment in time, a dream. A heartbreak. For never did I imagine that in less than a year after buying these shoes, we’d be back in the United States, looking for work, that our hearts would be broken, if not our spirits. Turns out, I did end up in one more job that called for the occasional pretty-girl tights and mascara, but I loved that job, and sigh. Yes. I do love the occasional dress-up.

 

These shoes walked, worked, wandered. I’ll never have another pair like them, for I will never be in that place again. It's the road I've already travelled, the road behind me.

 

Here is another pair of shoes from New Zealand, which I found in a tiny boutique in central Christchurch that no longer exists. 2014-09-07 12.33.14The building collapsed in a heap of stone and brick and beams and dust in the February 2011 earthquake. These are my dressiest shoes and I reckon they’ll be around a while. But I don’t have a thing to wear with them.

 

Bottoms Up

"When I've painted a woman's bottom so that I want to touch it, then [the painting] is finished." Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841--1919).  

Last October, two-thirds of the way through a desperately messy first-ish draft of Refuge of Doves, I turned to my husband and declared, "I'll finish this thing because I've come this far, but once I get to The End, it's going into a drawer." There was little worth salvaging other than a learning experience.

 

But then I joined a writing group, and since I had to share something, I gave them chunks of the novel each time we met. They encouraged me to go on. Then came a few beta readers, whose feedback inspired me further. In the spring, I undertook a major rewrite, changing point-of-view, tone, themes, even the ending.

 

I don't have any stats, but I reckon most unagented writers do not seek professional editors before submitting their manuscripts to the Slush Piles of Doom (aka: Literary Agent E-mail Inboxes). The usual course is to seek an agent. If the book is picked up, the agent will tear apart your manuscript before she tries to sell it and you to a publisher. And if she succeeds in finding a publisher, your assigned editor will tear apart your book all over again. Why would someone pay cash money for something all sorts of people will do for "free" on your behalf?

 

Because the publishing world is changing and hand-holding agents are becoming a remnant of a sepia-and-whiskey-toned past. Because all the writing groups and beta readers in the world, at least in my writing world where most are aspirants like me, don't have the skills, time, courage, or interest to tell me what I need to know. Because I'm pretty good with the little voices. Listening to them, that is. And the little voices said, "There's something here worth believing in. But it's not ready . . ."

 

Do you know what I thought would happen? I thought my editor would return Refuge of Doves with a heartbreaking assessment of all the many ways my plot fell flat, my characters said ridiculous things, or tripped over themselves in a hurry to get out of my way. Let's face it, I'd bitten off a big chunk of crazy by mixing historical fiction with contemporary with religious intrigue with romance with supernatural with winemaking. Hang your disbelief at the door, please.

 

But that's not what happened. She LIKED it! Hey, Mikey!! Yes, of course, there were wobbly bits and I had to rewrite a scene here and there and rearrange a few others, but at first glance of her edits, I thought, This is going to be easy. 

 

Heh heh heh.

 

What really did happen is hard for even this writer to articulate. In the course of six weeks of rewrites, I changed. My writing changed. Seeing, hearing, feeling my words through someone else's perspective took me inside my brain and I began to toss things from that cluttered closet. One outstanding beta reader led me inside this mind-closet over the winter, prompting my spring rewrite. But I'd still leaned into that closet door with my hip and shoulder to shove it all the way shut. This time, most everything I threw into the hallway went straight into the rubbish bin.

 

Working with a professional editor was the clean sweep this story, and my writing, needed. She exposed my bad habits, while showing me the tendencies that are a part of my writing and storytelling voice, and how refining, correcting, and tightening my language would strengthen that voice. But, aside from an occasional suggestion, her comments weren't prescriptive or instructional—they were all show, don't tell. She gave me the tools I needed to come to an understanding of my writing and make changes on my own.

 

In the first post-edit revision, I waged war on comma splices and clichés and conjunctions. Another read-through and I tore into it again, considering the rhythm of each sentence and how it fit into the melody of the sentences around it. I let go of the need to make certain the reader was thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing what I thought they should and allowed the language to settle into itself, to belong more to the story and the characters than to me.

 

With my heart in my throat, I returned the manuscript to my editor for her second pass edit, expecting to hear a scream that would splinter the Continental Divide. I'd sent back a mess of Track Changes that looked as if a child had splattered fingerpaints over 320 pages of Times New Roman 12-point.

 

That didn't happen, either. My editor cleaned up my mess, praising me for the work I'd done during those long weeks, my Summer of Revision. And here sits my manuscript, white and full, like one of Renoir's women. For accessories, she boasts a query letter and a synopsis. She's ready to be presented to the Literati. 2014-08-31 12.35.59

 

I believe, for better or for worse, that I must present to potential agents and publishers the very best this story can be. And if I choose to shepherd Refuge of Doves along the independent publishing road, I know I've considered my readers with that same spirit of respect and hope.

 

Today I begin the second draft of my second novel. Don't worry. I've got this. For a while, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking a Literary Agent: The Quest Begins

Alternate title: The Crying Game. Ah, but I'm not crying. Not really. I'm just curled up in a fetal position on the floor, rubbing noses with the cat, whimpering a bit. And I have yet to send out a single query letter to a literary agent.  

No, I'm in the Agent R&D stage. I spent the past week–a few tedious hours each day that zapped my creative writing energy, blurred my vision, and caused my head to throb–compiling a list of potential agents to query. One of whom I hope will fall in love with my novel, Refuge of Doves.

 

From a list of 1000+ U.S.-based literary agents, I narrowed my search with a few key words and came up with 364 potentials. I created an Excel spreadsheet, opened up some Chrome windows, and started cross-referencing. I culled the list of 364 to 238. In addition to the standard name, agency, city, and agency website, my spreadsheet has a Submission Preferences column (Snail Mail? Email?). A Notes column. Columns for Date Query Submitted; Response Received; Resubmit? I ranked each agent who made it through my first pass with a Tier 1, 2, or 3 designation.

 

At this point, my spreadsheet has 144 Tier 1 agents. This is just Step One in a process that will take several more weeks. Again, all before I send out that first hopeful, stomach-looping round of query letters.

 

Several agents are from the same agency, and OF COURSE I will determine which of these is the best fit for my novel (you know this is protocol, right? Unless the agency's guidelines indicate otherwise, query only one agent). This will whittle the Tier 1 list down to ≈ 111 names. And I bet, as I dig further into the agents, their agencies, their preferences, discover who is not accepting new clients or non-referrals, my Tier 1 list will come in well under 100 names. That's about right. To start.

 

Then, and only then, will I begin sending out query letters. Just a few at a time, to gauge the nature of the rejections. Form letter/canned rejections are a clue that my query needs work. Real feedback will let me know if my story itself is the problem. I can't even begin to contemplate what I will do about that. Rewriting. Again. But, as is my custom, I'm already fretting over it.

 

It helps me to focus on the spreadsheets, the research, and the content of my query, see, because they are the things over which I have control. If I stop and think too much about what I'm doing and where all this is heading, I will stumble. I will sink.

 

Seeking agent representation is like searching for a job and searching for a romantic partner. You want to be recognized for your skill at your chosen craft. You want to show that you can do the job. Your query letter, like your job cover letter, has to be unique and rich with voice, but it must be short, clean, concise, and follow some standards. The query must sell your novel in the first 10 seconds–three short sentences–or it's into the rubbish bin.

 

And you, human being that you are, just want to be loved. Well, okay, you want your book to be loved, but who is really so thick-skinned they can separate their work from their soul? Certainly not I, not at this tender stage of my writing life. A rejection of your writing is like watching someone pore over your online dating profile and hearing them snort at your too-big nose and your freckles. Oh, the hurt.

 

Yet, I believe in approaching this process with respect, humility, and mindfulness. Even though I am but one in the faceless mass to an agent, it's my integrity on the line if I am anything less than authentic. I don't know if traditional publishing is the right path for me, but I know I must travel this road to find out. I must face the rejection and learn from the feedback. And I won't walk alone. Serendipity wrapped her warm and gentle arms around me this week and guided me toward a group of aspiring novelists who are on the same journey.

 

Each agent receives thousands of query letters a year. Thousands. The odds are so stacked against me, it's not funny. No, it IS funny. It's funny that anyone does this. It's funny that anyone believes this can work. It's funny that sometimes it does.

 

Oh, and I haven't even started working on my small/independent press spreadsheet. That's next week.

 

This lovely essay appeared in my blog reader this morning. So a propos of the query process, I had to share:

Don't Take It Personally, Kathryn Craft, Guest Blogger: Writers in the Storm

Resources which have come in super-handy as I get my brain around this Herculean task:

AgentyQuery.com

Association of Authors' Representatives

Mark Malatesta's Directory of Literary Agents

Poets & Writers magazine, on-line tools for writers

Predators & Editors

QueryTracker Track your submission in addition to, or instead of, a self-built database

Writer Beware

The Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino

2014-05-30 08.33.27

Shake out silver changes

The writer's life is not punctuated by the natural markers of the seasons. September is as January is as June. But this writer spent too many years moving to the groove of an academic calendar, from pre-school through Masters degree to university administrator: September will forever mean the sharp tang of new pencils, the stiff rasp of new clothes, the gurgle of dread and excitement as the first day of the new school year approaches; June will always be release, sandal tan stripes on my feet, a deserted office on Friday, the bittersweet linger of dreams on a golden sunshine, fresh-cut grass afternoon. Summer seems like the time, whether time's abundance is real or perceived, to catch up on all those plans shunted during cooler months for more pressing concerns. So, it was with great relief, giddiness (and dread, yes, dread) that I hit Send on my manuscript last night, shooting it to the Inbox of my editor. I've graduated to the next level of my writing journey and, for a few weeks, I am free.

My summer plans have been in the works since I plugged yesterday's deadline into my calendar. I couldn't wait to stretch, yawn, and sink into the time when my hands would be empty and my mind, weary of two novels' worth of Cathars and copper mines, of the southwest of France and the southwest of Ireland, would be open to new places, new ideas, new words. The layer of marine fog will keep me at my desk in the mornings, but the bright afternoons will find me pedaling into the forest or tramping along a sea bluff. Have Notebook, Will Travel. No clicking at keys in the comfort of a café, but never leaving the house without a Moleskine, a Pilot Fine Point, sunscreen, and water.

I can finally give more than a cursory glance at the short story ideas accumulating on those Moleskine pages. Shorts mean I can bury my feet in the toasty sand and write 1000 words of flash fiction, or do a series of timed writing prompts to get the new material juices flowing, or sort through ideas in long hand, see where my brain takes me as that mind-body connection works its magic in a way that a keyboard never will. Shorts mean I don't need to reengineer a scene on page 33 to fix a plot hole found on page 123. They require little research, which means no info dumps or teasing out backstory.

It will also be the summer of getting down to business with the dreaded author platform, crafting the myriad of pieces that go into my mmm....mmm...media kit. There, I said it.

It will be the summer of Dickens and Homer, as my 5th Annual Monster Classic Read gets underway.

Come to think of it, my ambitions are greater than the day is long, even in the Pacific Northwest where the summer light lingers well after I've gone to bed. I have a feeling that soon after Independence Day, an email will appear, my heart will leap into my throat, and I will spend the denim-blue days of July combing the red that bleeds through the black and white of my novel.

So I'm keeping this short. I have stories to write.

Back Yard/ ©Carl Sandburg

Shine on, O moon, Shake out more and more silver changes.

 

Summer Office ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

History is Not the Past

It pains me to admit it now, but I dreaded the rewrite of Refuge of Doves. Setting aside the first draft of a novel that had poured forth so naturally from mid-January to early April, I opened the drawer on a novel that was already eighteen months old. And still in need of So. Much. Work. But that kernel of there's something there, keep going had burrowed deep, fertilized by my inherent mulishness. Finish what you started, Johnson. Take this as far as you can.  And so I dug in.

The very week I began the rewrite, Terry Gross, the host of NPR's Fresh Air, interviewed Bart Ehrman, a UNC-Chapel Hill historian and professor of religious studies, about his new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from GalileeI will forever remember that Eureka moment, walking through the woods just east of the Chinese Gardens at Fort Worden, when Professor Ehrman said ".. there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer. What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. History is what we can show to have happened in the past. One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that's miraculous ..." I did a little dance right there on that forest trail. Probably scared the bejesus out of any onlooking deer.

 

Serendipity, Baby. 

 

My protagonist is a historian faced with accepting past miracles made manifest in the present. The very suspension of disbelief she faces is the same that any religion asks of its followers. It's the same that writers ask of their readers when the story leaves the realm of historical fact and plunges into the hinterlands of "what if?" I had been been flirting with this theme from the very first word, but finally I understood how to take the story deeper, to tie the narrative set in the present with that set in the 13th century. To depart from known history and delve instead into the nebulous past. 

 

The story became something different. Not hugely, but significantly.

 

The first change was immediate, drastic, even: I switched the protagonist's POV from first person to third. Writing this character in first person allowed me to understand her completely, but the story is greater than her character alone. Intimacy and immediacy are richer in first person POV, but third is a better fit for the style of the story. We'll see how I feel after this week's read-through ...

A minor character was shredded, his scenes folded into others. One major character has gone through three name changes in six weeks, bless his heart. A handful of new scenes written, and one dredged up from a long-ago draft. It's one those darlings I hated to kill, and there it sat, waiting patiently to find its place. In the end, I excised 10,000 words. And more will go, I'm sure, as I sit down with a paper copy and red pen.

Plot holes opened and scenes were reengineered. The ending changed from happy to hopeful. Love scenes went from blush-making to black-fading or dropped altogether. Dialogue tightened, personalities sharpened but characters became more ambiguous. Hopefully, you're not entirely certain whose side you're on. Because few things in life are black and white. Especially the truth.

In two weeks, this happy mess is off to a real, live, professional editor. It will be time. I have a couple of passes to make, an out-loud read-through to get through, but I feel it in my belly. The story is becoming what it should be—its own. Now I am ready for someone to tear it apart and work with me to rebuild. I believe in it in a way I haven't before. I feel a smidgen of giddy. this could be something.

2014-05-22 07.04.30-2

 

 

Digging Deep

I have a theory how my fear of enclosed spaces began. I'm saving the big reveal for my memoir, but suffice to say, it's been with me since childhood. Claustrophobia flared only intermittently until May 15, 1999. Prior to this day, there had been some bad moments in high school, after which I tried cognitive behavioral therapy until I could enter an elevator again without turning into a puddle of scream.

After the incident in 1999, which involved a small plane stranded on melting tarmac in broiling-hot Champaign, IL, I canceled work trips to Europe and Australia. Within a few months, I got a handle on myself. My GP approved a flight-specific Ativan prescription. My next job involved domestic flights every two weeks and regular international travel and I got to the point where I stopped the drugs except for international flights.

There have been many bad momentscold sweats, bowels like molten lava, racing heart, certain at any moment I'll panic myself into a heart attack or my mind will shatter with madness. There was the awful time in Charles de Gaulle when I realized I'd packed the Ativan in my checked luggage. My first triathlon where the open water swim nearly sank my will. But I got through it all. Each and every miserable episode of icanticanticanticant.

Each flight is a compromise between my intense distrust of psychopharmaceuticals as a treatment for anxiety and fear of a full-blown panic attack. And I don't do elevators. I don't book a room at a hotel until I know the room can be accessed via a stairwell. I walked up and down fourteen flights after a surgical procedure. I'm serious. I don't do elevators.

~

Last year I experienced a series of panic attacks, some of which I chronicled here: Emptying TomorrowI've worked through this shaky period and I'm making peace with the underlying causes of my anxiety. Fear of my mind's evil machinations flutters just underneath my brain-skin, but I find fighting back is a good use of excess anger. My doctor agreed I had the power to overcome my own emotional betrayal. She suggested I add meditation to my healing toolbox.

But that goddamned claustrophobia. It clings to me, and I to it, like a bad marriage.

~

We cancelled a trip to Europe last fall because our unexpected spring move brought a change in finances. Dirty little secret: I was overcome with relief because I knew I couldn't get on the plane. I hadn't flown since the panic attacks started and the thought of compounding the whole stupid thing with a transoceanic flight was more than I could bear. We planned another trip for this spring, but I simply couldn't get my finger to click "Confirm Purchase" on the Iceland Air website.

My brain said it was the money. My heart knew it would simply stop beating once I started down the jetway.

 

icanticanticanticant

~

A couple of months ago, my thankless first readermy husbandsaid one of the things he appreciates most about my writing is my sense of place. You always know where you are in my stories, because setting is vital to me. It sets the mood and provides context, color, sound, scent, texture, and the backdrop to emotion and action. I want the reader to be immersed in my worlds and feel as much a part of them as my characters.

What Brendan said illuminated a dark corner of my mind. The moments of the most profound well-being I have ever experienced have come about while I'm out and about, experiencing. Nearly everything I've written is set in a place where I've travelled or lived long enough to be inspired, but not so long, it became routine. Not just the act of travel, but fully engaging in a unfamiliar community, fuels my imagination. To deny myself the opportunity to travel is to deny myself as a writer.

And I was hesitating, why? Because some broken piece of me is afraid that I can't cope with a transoceanic flight? A flight I've coped with countless times before? Seriously? SERIOUSLY???

~

A few weeks ago, I tuned in and turned on to the meditation programs I'd downloaded several months ago and then ignored. A soothing voice drips like honey into my psyche, helping me envision the plane as a place of comfort (snort) and safety and reminds me how blessed I am to make a journey most only dream of making. The Voice helps me create a place where I can lock away my anxieties. I enter a state of such deep relaxation, I fall asleep before I can finish even a single module. I'm still wondering what happens at the end of the flight anxiety-specific segment. I'm assuming I make it to my destination.

~

People. We're headed to France in October. Tickets purchased. A barn-now-cottage outside a village in deep in the Dordogne rented. Paris hotel reserved. And yes, the hotel has stairs to all floors. I asked before I booked.

 

icanicanicanican

Brendan & Julie, Languedoc, France, April 2011

Timshel: The MFA Dilemma

“But the Hebrew word, timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” John SteinbeckEast of Eden  

I'm wrestling with a decision. What's happened is a good thing. It's an opportunity. I'm not kvetching. I'm kveln. But it presents a dilemma, nevertheless. Ponder with me.

In December 2012, I applied to an MFA in Creative Writing program in Seattle, a process I chronicled here: The Things That Come in Threes. I didn't know we would be leaving Seattle three months later.

In March 2013, the week we moved, I received an acceptance to the program. Returning to the city in six months for a two-year MFA wasn't feasible and I had to say no. But I was invited to resubmit the same application for consideration for this academic year, so I did. You never know, right?

My present circumstances are no more logistically nor financially amenable to an MFA than they were last year, so when the second acceptance came through, the no had already formed on my lips. But the ante was upped. The admission offer included a scholarship that covers half the tuition. Kveln for sure. But what's Yiddish for, Ah Jeez. Now what do I do? 

A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon-evening on campus, meeting the other Fall 2014 admits, current MFA students and faculty, attending a class, and reminding myself why this seemed like such an amazing idea eighteen months ago. I walked away inspired and excited, but after the glow wore off, I was left wondering if it still is an amazing idea. Not just this program. The whole notion of an MFA in Creative Writing.

I've been a runner for about thirteen years. I was a late starter to the sport, certain I'd be lousy at it. Then in 2001, I walked a full marathon. Or set out to. I ended up running a fair bit of it, simply to be done with the damn thing. It was November, it was Seattle, it was cold and wet and dark. I lost a toenail. My thighs were tree trunks after months of tedious training. I thought, "Never again." I started running instead.

And I got into it. Process and method float my boat, so I learned how to talk fartleks and negative splits and tapers. I plan my weeks around hill repeats, tempo, and long-distance days. I track the number of miles I put into my shoes and replace them on a regular and expensive basis. I own more running bras then the regular kind. I have a watch that cost about a third of a plane ticket to Europe.

And I raced. Mostly half-marathons, several 10ks, a smattering of 5ks, a couple of triathlons. Because that's what legit runners do. Why else would you run if you weren't in training for something—had some goal goading you on?

About three years ago, the injuries set in. Every single flipping time I trained for a race, I got hurt. And I'd race anyway. I'd have to take a few weeks or months off post-race to heal, then I'd start training for another event, wreck something, race, and start the whole stupid cycle all over again. I just couldn't seem to turn off the inner competitor, the one who said, this is what runners DO. You make training plans, you study, do the work, stick with the plan, meet your goal.

I've amassed a collection of injury-recovery resources: a boot to stretch out my plantar fascia; another boot for metatarsal stress fractures; there's a stack of PT exercises for a weak psoas and over-worked hip flexors; ice packs that conform to various parts of the body; a big foam roller for fussy IT bands; a bar that looks like one half of a set of nunchucks to roll over tight calves; custom orthotics for my high arches and to compensate for a left leg that is a blink shorter than the right.

Good God, the hell I've put my body through. Why don't I just find a different sport?

Because I love to run. And most of the time over these past thirteen years, running has been incredibly good to me. I run because it's what I do.

But I think I'm through with racing. I can't seem to train without hurting myself.

Thinking about this MFA, any MFA, makes me feel like I'm staring at a marathon training plan. I want to do it so badly, my teeth hurt. I want it because I want it. I want the badge, the medal, the plaque, the 26.2 sticker on my rear bumper (hey, I should have one of those anyway!). I want the MFA to show I had the discipline and the cojones to get through training, all the way to the main event. But I don't need an MFA to be a writer. Any more than I need a marathon finisher's shirt to prove I'm an accomplished runner.

To be a runner, I need to run. Check. To be a writer, I need to write. Check. Check. To be an author, I need to publish. Check. Check. Check. To make a living at this, I need to get paid. Alas, No Check. Okay, one small check so far.

The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

There are many important and wonderful reasons writers seek MFAs. They are the same reasons that compelled me to apply to the program, that make my heart ache to say "Yes." But for who this writer is now, none of the reasons is compelling enough to go into the kind of debt--even with a generous scholarship--that two years' tuition and living part-time in Seattle would require. None is compelling enough to pull me from the pages that I've written, to defer me from my dream and determination to see my novels published.

Last Monday, I--like thousands of runners across the country--dedicated my day's run to the Boston Marathon, to honor those killed and injured on April 15, 2013, and to support in spirit the runners setting out to fulfill a dream one year later. I intended to do my standard 5-6 miles. At some point, I decided to keep going. In the end, I ran 13.1. There was no finish line to cross, no shirt or medal to commemorate the effort, no bagels or banana or hot soup at the end. There was just my inner crazy person and my steady training to get me through a spontaneous half marathon on two cups of coffee.

I came home, propped up my weary legs, and I began to write. It was then I realized the same grit I'd used that morning to keep running was the same I've called upon to achieve my greatest dream--seeing my words reach a wider audience through publication. I've managed this far without the stamp of validation an MFA could give.

Let's see how far my legs can carry me through the ultra-marathon I started when I wrote the first words of a novel. Now that I've got two behind me, I feel I'm just getting warmed up.

Hey, thanks for helping me get this sorted.  ... Timshel. Thou Mayest. And Thou Mayest Not.

The Fast and The Furious: First Drafts

I have never written anything in one draft, not even a grocery list, although I have heard from friends that this is actually possible.—Connie Willis  

You guys. Guess what? I finished the first draft of my second novel last week. Wait, what? A second novel?

I know, right?

On January 13, I began sketching out characters. On April 2, I typed THE END at, well, the end of a 105,368 word manuscript.

How did that happen? How did this writer go from taking eighteen months to bash her way through a first manuscript—one that split its seams at 167,000 words before it came to a stop at 99,000—to a ten-week blitz of a pretty clean first draft?

Crikey! Can I do it again?

Well, let's not worry about that now.

Let's think about what went right.

I had no idea what this story would be about when I sat down in January with a blank notebook and a blue Pilot fine point. I knew the setting: southwest Ireland. That was it. Once I had the characters and their internal conflicts roughed out, the external conflicts and themes gradually took shape. I cobbled together a very general outline that provided guideposts along the way. It's an outline I'll redraft in far greater detail when I begin Draft Two.

Conversely, with Refuge of Doves, I had a story idea—an image in my mind of a woman standing before the ruins of a Cathar citadel in Languedoc, France—and a "what-if?" of history, around which I built the plot. But I had no idea where it would take me. I didn't know my characters all that well. In a couple of cases, I still don't. And it shows.

Blossoming  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Really, I had no idea what I was doing the first time out. I just needed to start writing. I knew if I got bogged down in research or plotting, I'd never start the story. I had to develop the habit of writing every day and trust that the rest would sort itself out in time. And so I did. And so the story did, too. Over the course of months, a narrative began to take shape and I fell in love not just with the process, but with my people.

But I did not write sequential scenes. Primarily because I had a beginning and a vague idea of the end, but not much notion of what would happen in between. I just wrote a bunch of stuff.

So, a year after typing the opening words to Refuge, I had to lay out the scenes—and I mean literally: the living room floor was a giant grid of 8 1/2 " x 11" pages, with my prone body on top, sobbing—and try to put them in some sort of order. I spent the next five months cleaning it up and straightening it out, simply to get to The End. Of a first-ish draft.

What happened last week (let's give it a name, shall we? Working Title: The Crows of Beara) was the product of a writer determined not to repeat the past. I set a weekly goal of 10,000 words and butt stayed in chair until that happened. I wrote scenes in order. I shut down the inner editor (repeatedly, daily, hourly, by the minute) and just wrote.

I'd planned to reserve one day a week for editing, but I abandoned that notion early on. Editing mired me down in minutiae and side-tracked me from simply letting the story pour forth. I jotted notes where I knew I needed more character development or technical research or where theme threads dropped or things got backstory heavy, but I left the writing alone.

I wrote fast. I wrote furious. It was a joyful experience. So much so that it's all I want to do. I just want to write first drafts, you know? First Drafts Are Art, Baby. Unfettered by the rules of craft, playing loose with grammar, throwing ideas and not bothering to see what sticks and what drops to the floor like limp spaghetti.

Alas. The First Draft Fantasy. First drafts are like those early, googly-eyed days of a relationship. No matter how besotted you are by the First Draft, at some point there will be morning breath and the electric bill and someone's red shirt in the washer with your white socks. At some point, there will be a revisions. Many. Revisions.

Refuge of Doves, which I finished in December, sits on my desk—set aside, but not forgotten. I'd been dreading the inevitable rewrite(s), but as I think about what went right this second time out of the gate, I know I can sort it.

One of the greatest unintended consequences of burning through the first draft of The Crows of Beara has been the building of eagerness to apply what I've learned about myself as a writer—and the shoring up of my weaknesses—on the massive project that awaits me.

And more than ever, I realize that the eighteen months I spent writing Refuge of Doves were eighteen months spent learning how to write a First Draft. Now I'm ready to turn it into a novel.

 

Worth Checking Out:

Why Your First Draft Isn't Crap by Bryan Hutchinson for Positive Writer

Get Messy with Your First Draft by Elizabeth Sims for Writers Digest

Getting Over It, Getting It Out: On Embracing A Bad First Draft by Jon Gingerich for Lit Reactor

The Elephant in the Room: Are you ignoring your story revision instincts? by Alythia Brown for Wordplay: The Writing Life of K.M. Weiland

My Lemonade Stand

The "I finished my novel" honeymoon recedes into memory like the scent of suntan lotion on last year's bikini. The road to publication stretches as far as the eye can see. And damn. That road ain't paved with yellow bricks. The lovely, optimistic and oft-asked, "When's your book coming out?!" is answered with a cheery "Someday, I hope!" while inside my heart stutters. The true answer is, "Well, you see, writing a book and publishing a book? It's the difference between graduating from university and getting a job. The first is never a guarantee of the second. You got the goods, and hopefully the goods are good. But before anyone buys your goods, you must do all the hard work of selling them."

First, generous strangers and writing buddies dissect your pounds of literary flesh.. You revise, then pay a story editor cash money to tear apart your work again. Revise again. Maybe find a few more willing, generous readers. Pay more cash money for copy editing and proofreading. Only then do you release it to the clutches of agents and publishers who, in all likelihood, will send you a rejection six months later.

Meanwhile, you agonize over the traditional vs. self-publishing routes, potentially spinning that roundabout without ever choosing an exit.

You despair of ever seeing your name in print again, because you've all but abandoned writing and submitting short form prose for this freaking-fracking what-am-I-doing-with-my-life?-Help-Me-Rhonda novel.

I anticipated this period of waiting, doubting, towel-throwing-in contemplation and immediately started work a second novel. It's given me needed distance from the first and released the pent-up desire to create new material after months spent in revision mode. I'm six weeks and 60,000 words in—and finding the process more graceful the second time around. This writer is more confident, disciplined and determined.

The other day, I did a little something else to keep myself focused on my goals. Somethings else. First, I signed "Writer" to the occupation line on our tax return. Go, me.

Then I did the other something else. I organized my creative life for business. It was my way of saying "Hey, not only is it okay to think that you may, someday, make an income as a writer, you'd be hella smart to start organizing your writer's financial life now."

The IRS says I have to make money from my writing 3 out of 5 years to be considered a professional writer (versus writing as a hobby). But there is more to convincing the Taxman that Julie Christine Johnson, Writer is a legitimate Lemonade Stand.

As a writer residing in Washington state, I am a sole proprietorship and make quarterly estimated tax payments. Or would, if I had, you know, any income. But I'm planning ahead. The IRS wants evidence that I regard myself as a professional. This means attending classes and workshops and participating in conferences to learn, network and pitch my work. A bank account. Computer and office supplies. Detailed receipts... Not a problem. I do details for a living.

The day my Lemonade Stand opened for business, the universe threw me a bone.

Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers

This is the just-published Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, edited by Patricia Flaherty Pagan. It is a collection of thirty-three works of prose by writers from around the world. I'm gobsmacked to be included and honored that my story, Colorado, was one of six read at the Up, Do launch on February 24 in Houston, TX.

I haven't made a practice of flogging my writing for sale here. I don't know why, because it is my party and I can flog if I want to. Maybe it's that I love writing about writing so much, if I used my time here to say, "Buy Me! Buy Me!", I'd feel like a pop-up store in a suburban mall.

But this one is a bit different. Patricia Flaherty Pagan created this anthology to be a voice of protest at the paucity of women writers featured in leading literary journals, as evidenced by The Vida Count, an annual analysis of women's place in the literary arts. More than that, and true to Patricia's ultimate vision, Up, Do is celebration of the power of prose and the glorious voices of women.

In addition, five percent of the book's sales will be donated to the Houston Area Women's Center, B.A.R.C.C. of Boston, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, and Day One Rape Crisis Services of Rhode Island. Contributions are also planned to the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust and the Wounded Warriors Project.

You, cherished reader, can order a copy from the publisher Spider Road Press or CreateSpace Marketplace or Amazon.com

My copy of Up, Do arrived in the mail the day I ran around town, making my Stand. My Lemonade Stand. My personal Stand that, despite my best efforts to doubt myself, I'll at least go through the motions of believing. Up, Do is a beautiful and important reminder that my words can help heal.

The sky is low ~ the clouds are mean

When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about. ― Haruki Murakami The week's forecast promised nothing but grim. Day after day of rain. Heavy skies that reflect only muted grays and browns, the not-cold-not-warm-sensory-deprivation temperatures that dull the mind; outside smells of rotting wood and moldy cheese and inside your hands are always cold and you're weary of the sound of voices--your own, the cat's, the cashier at the grocery store asking how you prepare your leeks. In other words: Winter, Pacific Northwest-style. Just when my heart is beginning to ache for Spring. I braced myself.

There's no forecast for the soul, no way to predict when heavy clouds will sit on your heart and steal your breath. Each morning, you wake and listen to weather building in your mind. Usually, there is a providence of ferry horns and train whistles to signal the arrival of ideas, an urgency of sirens because you can't wait to pick up where you left off the day before, a racket of errands and chores you must shuffle so your words get the full attention of your brain-heart-hand connection.

But sometimes there comes a spell when you hear nothing. When you think you ain't got nothing. No more words or no more will to drag them from the foggy corners. The brume descends and all color, taste, music vanish. Your runs are slogs, your swims are trials by sludge, your yogic breathing stutters, because even breathing is Just. So. Hard.

Yet, if you listen a little more carefully, you can catch the signs the other forecasters miss. The slightest slings and the most harmless arrows begin to land and wound. Your confidence becomes dissonance and your inner harmony is bested by the demons of dissension.

You know what's coming. You don't know how long it will last, so you batten down the hatches, hunker in your little lifeboat, tuck your head in your sou'wester. Chatter becomes cacophony, so you turn off social media to silence the din of voices, listening for the clarion bell that signals an All-Clear.

You are beginning to accept there is release in disquietude, that depression is not to be feared, but to be used because it brings a certain stillness. The tiny moments of grace shimmer in sharp relief against the tarnished patina of sadness.

And you keep writing. You let habit be the anchor. You start each day in doubt and bewilderment and through sheer force of will (or is it desperation?) you end the day with a sense of the fullness of life. Your life.

If you keep writing, the storms will roll through and scour out the mud and detritus and leave you clean and shining. You will land safely, bumping onto shore with a wobble and scrape.

One of the things I've come to appreciate most about living on a peninsula that looks like the tailfin of a whale is how quickly weather blows through. As it did this week. Storm front after storm front smashed across the peninsula at night. The wind and rain woke me in the wee hours, our upstairs corner flat shook; I imagined the neighbors' trees crashing through the glass walls and roof of our sunroom. I groaned at 4 a.m. as I planned out my morning run, knowing the rain and wind would slow my forward momentum and chill me to the bone.

But the days were exuberant with sun. I drove with the sunroof open; I wrote in the sunroom for the first time since Autumn--the temperature approaching 70° even though it was shy of 50° outside. I hiked in shorts.

This Sunday evening, the lights flicker. The house shakes. The wind is so ferocious and the rain so pummeling, I laugh in wonder. The storm signals change, motion, rage and release. It pulsates with furious joy of being alive. I'm not too far behind.

IMG_1589

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,

The sky is low, the clouds are mean, A travelling flake of snow Across a barn or through a rut Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day How some one treated him; Nature, like us, is sometimes caught Without her diadem.

Emily Dickinson

IMG_1593

Before and After

I knew this day would come. For months, I've been anticipating it with equal parts dread and jubilation. Well, no. That's crap. I've dreaded it. The day I would begin writing Novel Two. My mind has reached forward these past couple of months, wondering which story drifted just beyond my grasp. What would I write next? I have a few ideas tucked away, but none of them feels right, not right now. With Novel One, I had a very clear picture in my head of two characters, two eras, a place and one footnote to history. That's a lot to start with. It's a whole plot, in fact.

This time, however, no strong image came to me, no question begged to be answered and I've felt a little panicky. Shoving away the doubts and keeping my focus on the story in front of me, I told myself to trust the writing.

During this journey I've learned—particularly when things got very scary late summer-early fall and I was certain I'd birthed a disaster—to keep writing. Eventually, you will write yourself out of a hole. You'll figure it out before you even realized you've figured it out. You just keep writing. It all comes together in the end.

Friday, I sent Novel One to the publisher I'd pitched to in October. I met my goal and set the manuscript aside, to be reviewed and revised in the months to come.

I gave myself Saturday to rest and savor the ending of one thing and the delicious anticipation of something new. I went for a long run, during a NOAA-defined "hazardous wind event." I managed to find a brief window where the rain held off and the wilds winds sent the clouds scurrying to Vancouver Island. The rest of the day it rained needles and sunspikes, but I had dry ten miles.

During my run, I caught this interview with E.L. Doctorow on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. Doctorow chatted with host Scott Simon about the inspiration for his new novel, Andrew's Brain, and about the process of writing. What he said was a balm to my fretting soul. It's a great interview. Listen to it.

"..write in order to find out what you're writing. You don't start with an outline and a plan, you start with these images that are very evocative to you..." E.L. Doctorow

I'm not much of an outliner or planner. I tend to write to my intuition and let my characters guide my pen. That all sounds very lovely and mysterious, but an inexperienced writer can sure twist an ankle or sprain a wrist falling into her own plot holes this way. Ahem.

With Novel One, I was so eager to begin the journey and so terrified I wouldn't retake the road if I stopped along the way, that I didn't bother to fill the gas tank or stop at the ATM for cash on the way out of town.

With Novel Two, I'm taking a more structured approach, while still allowing for the magic of accident and the unforeseen. I will begin by discovering whom I'm writing about, and why.

After my run, I curled up on the sofa, turned to page one of a murder mystery set in 1919 Surrey, England and didn't move until I came to "The End" a few hours later, when it was time to share an Old Guardian Barleywine with my husband and watch The Godfather.

Yesterday, I mucked around with laundry, grocery shopping, yoga, baking bread, shredding a bunch of crap, organizing a bookshelf, doing a sweep of my hard drive, watering plants, until the weight of what I had to do became too heavy to carry. I had to face the blank page.

I took a brand-new notebook, my favorite pens, walked to a café overlooking the bay and the Olympic Mountains and there I began to write. I wrote eight pages of a character sketch, discovering the protagonist of a story that's only beginning to take shape in my mind, because I've only just met the woman who has given me her story to tell. Give us some space. Give us some time. We'll get back to you.

The 'Before and After' Shot

The Kindest Cut

This is what three weeks of revising and editing get you. A laundry basket full of shreds. I have another three hundred pages—a draft's worth—to add, but the shredder cried "Uncle!" and I was forced into a time-out.IMG_1460

Three weeks ago—after taking a day to celebrate writing the final scene of The Novel and to buy a new shredder—I put together a revision plan. Then I printed off a fresh copy of The Novel, clicked my red pen and started reading. Three revisions later, I come back to The Plan to see how I'm doing.

Holy Shit, this is a lot of work.

Here's the thing. At the end of October, I wrote this here blog post Pitchin' and Moanin. Filled with determination, I set out not only to  finish my first full draft by the end of the year, but to have it in good enough shape that I could hit the "Send" button with manuscripts attached, confident I was sending something I could be proud of.

I made and didn't make my goal. The agent received the first 100 pages and a synopsis last week, in the final hours of 2013. I was saved from the hell of the standard query letter by the grace of my pitch. She asked that I simply cut and paste the content of my pitch as my query; she'd remember the rest. Ditto the publisher. Query hell postponed by two.

Two days later, the novel critique group I recently joined provided feedback for Chapters 1 and 2. Incredibly helpful, just, funny, awesome feedback that made me wish I hadn't hit "Send" quite so soon. But let's be honest: though the changes are significant on the small scale of two chapters, they aren't anything that would cause an on-the-fence-agent to say "Oh, now THAT makes me want to represent you!"

My patient, tireless and outrageously supportive spouse is providing much-needed line edits—ferreting out typos that my eyes no longer register—and getting as excited about "what happens next" in the story as I am for him to discover it.

I'm on track to deliver the full manuscript to the publisher by the end of the week (keep in mind, this is an arbitrary deadline, set by me. No one is actually waiting to read The Novel). I took another hard look at the publisher's submission guidelines over the weekend and fully registered this bullet point: DETAILED synopsis. My tight four-pager ain't gonna cut it. Thank Pete for Scrivener—the heavy lifting of a chapter outline is done, I just need to make it pretty and comprehensible. And this week, it's one more read through before I hit "Send" and put this baby to bed for a few weeks.

The Revision Plan? I haven't followed it to the letter, but it's what I've been doing every day—no holidays, no weekends—for three weeks. And in a few weeks' time, I'll take it out and start all over again. When I've recovered from killing six thousand of my darlings.

"I've found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” ― Don Roff

Revision Plan

MACRO: Story Arc, Character Development

  • Conflict Arc: Identify Inciting Incident, Conflict within the GAP, Moments of Increased Risk, Mid-Point, Black Moment, Point of No Return, Crisis, Climax.
  • Within the Crisis & the Climax: Identify Dilemma, Static Moment, Insight Moment, Choice, Reversal
  • Character Arc: edit just one character at a time. Follow him/her in each scene he/she appears. Check micro-details and macro-development & POV issues (consistency within scenes)
  • Scene Endings does each scene end with a resonant line or image and/or is there a call to action? Will it make the reader late for work or keep them up past their bedtime?
  • Internal (emotional struggle) & External (plot) Conflicts: Are they present on every page? Identify scene by scene.
  • Setting: does every scene have one?
  • Dialogue: does each conversation do at least two of these: create setting; develop character; create tension; foreshadow; escalate conflict; move internal conflict; move plot; give information.
  • FLOW & RHYTHM: variation of sentence length
  • DOES THE STORY BEGIN AT THE TRUE BEGINNING & END AT THE TRUE ENDING?

MICROGrammar ~ Punctuation ~ Spelling

  • SEARCH & REPLACE:
*TO BE verbs. Replace with active verbs.
*-ING verbs
*Change meaningless action words: look, smile, nod, frown, wink, laugh-all opportunities for an action that can develop character
*"TURN” “REACH” Eliminate and just DO THE ACTION
*“KNEW/KNOW” 
*Eliminate “weed” words: that, still, just, very, so
*“FELT” Replace with emotion or action
*ADVERBS  Replace with active, transitive verbs
*ADJECTIVE Replace with lean (specific) nouns
*Check semicolons, exclamation points, ellipses
  • Find Beta Readers. Steel Yourself for Heartbreak. 
  • WALK AWAY. WALK AWAY. WALK AWAY. Find something new to dream about. Write short stories. Read phenomenal books. Plan Novel Two.

Recognition for my Revision Plan to Wendy Call, Chuckanut Writer’s Conference 2012; Ann Hood, Port Townsend Writer’s Conference 2013; Anna DiStefano and Sabrina York, Emerald City Writer's Conference 2013