Work In Progress

Past Meets Present: A Story Finds a Home

Those cooking magazines stacked on a shelf. I hold on to so little from my past that is tangible, but these long, glossy journals contain dreams and memories about which I cannot speak. I never look through them, and yet I take comfort in the pretty swirl of logo on their spines. They tell of a land where I once made Spicy Pumpkin, Peanut and Spring Onion Fritters, Harissa Lamb Mince, Black Cherry Cake with Ricotta Cream, savored wines from Gimblett Gravels and Central Otago, and pressed flat the corners of color-drenched articles about Waiheke Island, Hawke's Bay, Akaroa, planning future explorations of our new home: New Zealand.

~

A photograph of three men on a bridge in southwest Ireland. Their waterproof jackets in primary red, blue, and green are playful beacons in a drizzle that softens the air so the photograph looks brushed with mist, like the picture of a dream. One of those men is gone, now.

~

A disaster I watched unfold from thousands of miles away. A city crumbling, streets liquefying, familiar buildings collapsing on themselves, as if dealt a sucker punch to their architectural sternum. The café where I had served slow-braised lamb shanks and poured glasses of pinot noir now in ruins, streets I had walked and biked to yoga, the library, the tea shop, the bookstore turned into canyons filled with rubble. But I no longer belonged to that place. There was nothing I could do but mourn.

~

"We write to exert power over something we can never control," says Nellie Hermann, creative director of the narrative medicine program at Columbia University. "The past."

~

The stories that live inside me are threads of evidence. Evidence of my past, real and imagined, remembered and wished for. Many of those threads dangle, barely visible unless the light shifts or the breeze picks them up. But sometimes a thread catches on a thought, and then another, until they weave themselves into a pattern, and that pattern becomes a narrative of character and place, of movement and change.

~

A stack of cooking magazines that hold regrets and broken dreams. A photograph of a moment that holds memories of a man who walked by my side on a green peninsula, where together we built a bistro in the misty air. An earthquake that shattered a place I'd called home. These threads found each other last summer, twirling into a rope I held as I wrote.

~

It is an honor when someone selects your story to share with the world. It is a thrill to press a beautiful volume of prose and poetry and art against your heart and know your words beat within its pages.

~

Mud Season Review, the literary journal of the Burlington Writers Workshop, selected my short story Prix Fixe for its first annual print issue. I am so pleased.

 

Things Fall Apart

Last night the adapter cord to my MacBook Pro gave out. There is a notice flashing on my printer's display panel that the drum needs to be changed and the toner is nearly depleted.  I have a raging case of tendonitis in my right arm and my neck wobbles on my spine, as if it can't quite carry the load of my heavy head--technological and physical manifestations of too much time spent on the computer.  The computer power cord is a minor crisis.  A new one should arrive Wednesday. In the meantime, I'm coming to you from an iPad, wondering how anyone types on this thing without a keyboard. Just don't judge. This week's formatting and editing will be half-assed. I'm typing with one finger.   Folks, the power cord incident could have been a major crisis. A meltdown of epic proportions averted by the mere shadow of days. Monday (tomorrow as I write, today as you read), my next-to-penultimate round of novel edits is due. Not only that, but a literary journal to which I'd submitted a short story back in July finally turned around their edits last Wednesday, requesting that I make my changes by . . . Tonight. Yup.   Done. Dusted. Damn. I submitted novel edits on Wednesday and short story edits Friday. You just go ahead and fall apart on me, Crucial Technology. I'm way ahead of you.   The end of the edits is nigh and I'm so ready. I've read The Novel so many times in the past two months, I can quote entire passages by heart. Knock Wood, revisions are behind me as of one draft ago; now I'm fine-tuning, line-editing, killing not plot darlings, but literary ticks. I read The Novel out loud last week, catching repetive words and phrasing (I had a thing for the words bitter, bloom, flat, drain, north, and all manner of breath, breathing, inhaling, exhaling. Jeepers). From the Read-Aloud Edit alone, I cut 1000 words.   For my next edit trick, I shall read The Novel backwards. I kid you not.   My editor promises to hand off the next round by Wednesday, just in time for that power cord to arrive. For me to hope that the fix is a simple change of hardware. Otherwise I am, to put it bluntly, screwed.   I'll have about ten days to edit, and then back to the publisher it goes. A month of freedom to tackle revisions of THE CROWS OF BEARA, which my agent turned back to me last week (I used precious battery power last night, printing off the manuscript; printer toner and drum survived to print another day), then The Novel will be shuffled off to the Production team. It will undergo a final scrubbing--line editing and proofreading--before being formatted into something resembling a book. A cover is forthcoming. A frontpiece map. Sometime in April I will have galleys to proof. Then that's it: other than minor corrections that become apparent after the ARCs go out this summer, it is what it is, and it will no longer be mine.   Three elements of The Novel remain on my to-do list: Acknowledgements; Reading Group Discussion Questions; and an Author Q&A. Yesterday, I made an iPhone video of myself talking about the inspiration for The Novel for the Sales and Marketing team. No, you don't get to see it. Don't even ask.   I realize I keep calling The Novel, The Novel. It does have a name, but it's not what it was once, or even what it was after that. Can you bear one more title change? Although I'm learning never to say never when it comes to publishing changes, I'm thinking this one may just stick. And I love it. At last.   Here's a glimpse of the editorial decision making process:

Hi Julie, We have come up with an incredible new title for (the book formerly known as REFUGE OF DOVES, and then REMEMBERING! This title came out of taking a hard look at the positioning of the book and what the heart of the story is. Part of what you wrote in your first response to my editorial letter was really helpful for us-- We’re not concerned with the how of reincarnation, but rather the more profound emotional reactions to it. This pointed us in the direction of focusing on the experience of reincarnation and got us thinking about books like THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE and LIFE AFTER LIFE, both of which have time travel/reincarnation elements, have been hugely successful, and also have very revealing titles that tell you basically what the book is about. My latest idea was to shift focus from just the title to concentrating on the entire front cover—what the title, cover tag, and cover image together as a unified package will communicate about the book. I think we have come up with a really strong title and tag that play off of each other in a compelling way. Title: In Another Life Tag: Three men are trapped in time. One woman could save them all.

  Well, I'm tapped out. Please laugh at that. I need to know you're laughing.   Just one last thing.  Do you know what else I ordered yesterday, in addition to that damnable power cord? Of course you don't. I ordered a portable keyboard for this tablet. It's coming with me this summer on a grand adventure. Which I'll tell you all about, soon . . .

Cutout Heart

Walking past a jewelry store a few days before Valentine's Day, I see a window display of cutout hearts dangling on silver ribbons.

 

I forget, until I remember.

 

Hearts cut out, dangling on ribbons of memory. I see tender threads of sorrow connecting us to our losses: loved ones passed on; friends who have passed us by; lovers whose touch has faded with time. My cutout hearts: our first child, due February 10; our second child, due February 14.

 

I forgive, until I rage.

 

This time of year usually finds me deep underground, out of the chatter, holding my grief silent and sacred. But this year—the year of charmolypi—I decide to hang on and hang out, to push through and pretend. I forget how raw I can become, as though my skin has been stripped away.

 

I am together, until I fall apart. 

 

What happens is coincidence. A curse of timing. Mercury in Retrograde. At my most vulnerable, I linger in a social media forum on the cusp of a weekend, like a child in the schoolyard at recess, watching as a group knits together, their backs to me, intent on their own games, speaking their secret language. The language of sisterhood. The language of motherhood. Languages I will never speak, countries I will never visit.

 

I am whole, until I break. 

 

All the rage. All the raw hurt. It pours out in little-girl loneliness. I lose my shit. I really do. For days, a ticker-tape parade of all my faults and shortcomings replays in digital neon shoutycaps:

JULIE, NO ONE WILL EVER PICK YOU FOR THEIR TEAM BECAUSE YOU ARE

withdrawnawkwardweirduglysillyclumsyboringnotasisternotamothernotoneofus

 

And then it stops. Not all at once. It takes some serious self-talk and soul-searching. The gushing fire hydrant of self-hate eventually diminishes to a lawn sprinkler, and then to the last trickle from a closed water spout. It takes keeping my eyes peeled for moments of grace.

 

I stand in shadow, until I turn my face to the sun.

 

Grace comes first from the inside. A recognition that all my rational energy is fighting the good fight—the one that keeps my head above water when it sees the tsunami wave of depression bearing down. It comes in the letting go of unfair expectations—of myself, of others.

 

Other moments of grace follow: an article, shared by Rene Denfeld—whose powerful writing and capacity for compassion serve as inspiration for the writer and woman I strive to be—and in the reading, I accept my grief for what it is—endless and all right (Getting Grief Right); an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert that makes me realize I must reclaim the shit I've lost and own it. Own that I hurt, that I overreact in moments of acute pain and loneliness, and forgive myself for not always getting the really awful stuff just right.

 

Emotional healing guru Iyanla Vazant says, “When you see crazy coming, cross the street.” In this case, I meet crazy in the middle of the road. I put my arms around her and say, "You are loved. You are worthy. Now, let's celebrate."

 

I walk, until I dance. 

 

A wee package arrives in the mail from someone who has never met me, but who offers up her faith in me, her heart, her home. In the grace of a sparkling just-spring day, I melt.

 

"I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." I pulled this from that lovely New York Times article to which I linked above. The thing is, I'm writing about my sorrows. I'm writing a whole huge novel about the sorrows. It's the toughest work I've ever done. My character, Holly, she isn't me. The story isn't autobiographical, although some of the places are places I've been, some of the experiences are ones I've had. But it's not so much that I'm writing about what I know; rather, I'm writing what I feel.

 

I write, until I heal. 

 

That girl on the playground feels a warm hand slip into hers, pulling her away from what she doesn't have, into the embrace of what she does: the love of wonderful boy. My Valentine.

 

I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy. ~ Isak Dinesen

 

2015-02-23 08.31.08

 

Getting the Words Right

Friday morning. Café. Rain. Quad shot Americano. It's early afternoon in Chicago. Here on the island, I check my inbox like a lab rat presses the sugar water lever. This craving for the e-mail from my editor. The e-mail with her responses to my five weeks' worth of edits on IN ANOTHER LIFE. The e-mail that signals the beginning of another five weeks of editing. Craving, yet dreading it, too.  

I'm tired, feeling fragile. Sleep was elusive last night, although my restlessness allowed me to finish Tess of the d'Ubervilles and I surely could not have spared a moment's thought for my characters while Tess was wandering forlorn and forsaken in pages yet unread. I'm debating the wisdom of opening that e-mail when it does come. Tomorrow morning, after a solid night's rest and a peaceful hour of yoga, would be the smarter bet for my soul.

 

Maybe I shouldn't look at my e-mail for the rest of the day.

 

The past two weeks of freedom from the manuscript have been devoted to tying up loose ends before I dive back into the Slough of Revision: assembling 2014 forms and receipts for the tax preparer (can you believe it, I found someone who works with writers!); preparing two writing residency applications; making dentist, optometrist, and doctor appointments that I've pushed down the to-do list to the next week or the one after that; emerging from my cocoon to see friends, send thank you notes, connect with family, bake bread, go the movies.

 

I've also been working on TUI, my third novel. I think longingly to a year ago, when THE CROWS OF BEARA poured out of me, unfettered by other obligations, free from competing distractions. The story flew from my fingertips with such certainty: 105,000 words in ten weeks.

 

What a different writing experience this time, in part because I had to set TUI aside for so long and I'm about to set it aside again. In part because the storytelling itself is different—deeper, more personal. There's something I'm reaching for and I won't get there in a first draft. I won't know the layers I need to uncover until I see the whole of it spread out before me.

 

This is something new, this switching of writing gears from revision mode into first draft creativity, this distraction caused by the business of writing—all the thinking about websites and blog tours and blurbs and head shots and author platforms.

 

If I'm fortunate and THE CROWS OF BEARA sells, I will be in a cycle of writing-revising-promoting for the foreseeable future. What a gift that cycle will be in sustaining a viable career, but it's something I will need to learn to manage: making the intellectual and emotional leap from one work to another, from one type of writing to another, scraping together the free moments—whether for a day or a few weeks—to clear my brain and allow new material to enter unabated.

 

It's late afternoon in Chicago now. Cold and clear. Maybe my editor is watching the clock, hoping to be on her way home before dark to a quiet night in with her husband, or dinner out with girlfriends. Maybe she's nearing the ending that I decided I wanted to change after I'd sent her my edits.

 

It's not too late to make that change. But by April it will be. And I will be ready for too late. I will be ready to move on.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do? Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied. Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you? Hemingway: Getting the words right. — Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

Behind the Curtain: A Novel's Publication Schedule

March 2016. Mark your calendars. Okay, plan on marking your calendars. I haven't gotten around to filling in important 2015 dates, much less thirteen months from now.  

Well, there are a few I've inked in. A series of deadlines, a set of anticipated events, a dream that's fast becoming a series of To-Dos, as REMEMBERING walks this path toward publication.

 

When I tell people that March 2016 is the publication date, most—unless they've gone through the process already—look at me with eyes wide and mouths agape. That long? they exclaim. Why the delay?

 

Oh, there's no delay. In fact, REMEMBERING is a bit rushed. Most novels run on an eighteen-months-from-contract-signing-to-publication calendar. Mine's about fifteen. And I'm grateful for each month, week, day between now and launch. Here's a glimpse of what's happening, what will happen, and what I need to make happen, in the time I have:

 

Approximate Manuscript Schedule:

First revision back to editor: January 26, 2015

Next edits to me: February 6, 2015

Final ms due: March 20, 2015

Cover for Author Review: probably Feb or March 2015

Copyedits for Author Review: April 13, 2015

Reading Group Guide & Author Q&A: April 27, 2015

ARCs** printed: Early June 2015

Synopsis for Sales: July 1, 2015

2nd pages for Author Review: Late September 2015

Blurbs due: Mid-October 2015

Final Closes to Printer: November 2015

**ARCs stands for Advance Reading Copies, which are sent to reviewers and other publicity/marketing contacts several months before the book is published. From these, cover and promotional blurbs are generated.

 

Last Thursday, five days ahead of deadline, I submitted my first round of edits. I stand back, a bit trembly and astonished at how many story changes I've made in these five weeks. Entire chapters eliminated; a character killed off; another just erased, as if he'd never existed; material I wrote a couple of years ago and then deleted—now revived, revised, restored. Names changed, plot points altered. And the revising is not over. A couple of weeks to breathe, to return to TUI, before I receive the next round from my editor. By sometime mid-April, when the copyedits are complete and I've submitted a Reading Group Guide and an Author Q&A (a little shiver of delight!), I'll be released to think about other work.

 

Kinda sorta.

 

In late fall, I'll begin working with my publisher's publicist on planning the book's "launch"—a publishing term I love: launch means the book's release. I get this visual of a rocket lifting into the sky from a platform of flames, of confetti tossed from the window of a high rise, of a great bird spreading its wings and rising on a current of air. I love the idea of REMEMBERING launching into the world.

 

What I don't love is the idea of a launch party. I'm an introvert. I hate parties. Do I have to have one? Who's going to pay for it? What will I wear? What if no one comes? Would you bring your dog so I have someone to talk to? These are the things I worry about at 3 a.m.

 

But of course, that promotion work begins well before next fall. It's work I must do, work my agent and I will map out together. It's what I'm most dreading and most excited about. Self-promotion gives me the heebie-jeebies—it embarrasses me terribly—but it must be done. The learning curve will be steep, and my challenge is to find ways to make it thoughtful, compelling, inclusive, fun and sustainable. What excites me is the possibility of engaging with readers, but of course that won't happen until I actually have some. Sigh. For the time being, I soak in and glean wisdom from writers in a couple of Facebook groups who are in the same stage of publication or a few steps ahead; arm myself with back issues of Poets and Writers, Midge Raymond's excellent Everyday Book Marketing, and Dan Blank's weekly newsletter, and scribble out must-dos and wish-lists, budgets and bios.

 

I remind myself what a gift I've been given—this hand on my shoulder that says, "We believe enough in this book that we're taking it out into the world." This opportunity to realize a dream.

 

I don't have to have a launch party. But if I do, you're all invited!

You write because you need to write, or because you hope someone will listen or because writing will mend something broken inside you or bring something back to life.” ― Joanne Harris, Blackberry Wine

One month, four drafts, 1300 pages: First Round Edits

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

Can't Stay Long: A Writer On Deadline

This will be short, raw, uncut: I'm on deadline. I'm also a little hung over from a wonderful dinner with friends, where there was paella, cheesecake, and bourbon. No one paid attention to the time until suddenly, it was tomorrow. Which is today. And I have so very much to do.  

They're heeeeere . . . the first round of REMEMBERING edits (I believe that's the title we've arrived at. First Lesson in publishing—don't get too attached to your title. And don't balk at change. It will make it easier to move onto the Second Lesson: You're not as good a writer as you think you are).

 

I knew to expect the manuscript at some point on Friday. I knew that once that manuscript arrived—Track Changes activated, the accompanying letter meant to brace me for all the notes my editor left within—it would be weeks before I returned to TUI, my novel-in-progress. It would mean saying goodbye to characters I was just getting to know, interrupting a train of thought, a progression of story I was finally settling into. I reached a stopping point, the end of a scene, a turning point in my protagonist's life, 40,000 words into a complicated, emotional story that I hope to make even more complicated and emotional when I can return to it. One critical character is in the wings, waiting for my cue to make a first, defining appearance.

 

I saved TUI in all the right places, closed down Scrivener, left my editor's e-mailed attachments unopened, and went for a long walk. I regretted what I had to leave behind, felt vulnerable and anxious about the work on REMEMBERING that lies ahead, and just ridiculously excited for this next part of the process—seeing my novel take its final shape and come roaring to life.

 

Returning to REMEMBERING means welcoming back characters who've become such an important part of my life. Characters who've changed my life. Do they know? Do they have any idea that in a year, their pasts, presents, futures; their mistakes, secrets, and hopes will be open for all the world to read? What have they been up to in the months since I laid them to rest on my hard drive? What will I be asked to change? How will I give them even greater depth, higher stakes, complicate their choices and alter their stories to make a more cohesive whole?

 

As I walked and breathed, buffeted by winter winds, I was reminded how this uncertainty and this feedback are so priceless. We write in isolation much of the time, hoping against all odds that we will be called forward, chosen, set on a path with a team of professionals devoted to making our work the best it can be. It's a what-if I barely allowed myself to imagine. As I begin to consider the suggestions and changes, I accept that this thing is now bigger than me. REMEMBERING has left the shelter of my imagination and enters the real world of publishing, and I with it.

 

In between REMEMBERING and TUI sits my second novel, THE CROWS OF BEARA. Last week, this happened:  The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature 2014

 

The writer hugs herself with glee. And gets to work.

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.

2014-11-16 07.55.46

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

The Janus Gate

There are times of passage in everyone's life: times when we leave the old familiar self-image and move to a new understanding. 

Author Janet Lee Carey, from her workshop Plot and Passage, 

2014 Whidbey Island Writers Conference

 

Unable to afford the real thing, I've pulled myself through a DIY-MFA these past few years, attending workshops and conferences; reading books on craft; subscribing to magazines and writing blogs; stuffing my Readability account, Pinterest boards, three-ring binders, and file folders with articles on writing craft, the publishing industry, and creative inspiration.

 

At a certain point however, all the craft advice, the bullet point lists, the twelve different ways to structure a plot, began messing with my brain and disrupting my writing. And it only stands to reason, more time studying my craft means less time working on my art.

 

Gradually this past year, I've unsubscribed from all but a few choice craft blogs and I've stopped clicking article links—except for the brilliant essays on art and creativity Maria Popova writes and curates for Brain Pickings and the occasional New York Times series Draft. Leaving a day job for the full-time writing life means a budget of one conference a year, one workshop a quarter.

 

Easing up on the intake of information allows the real gems of guidance to sparkle, as they did at the recent Whidbey Island Writers Conference, where author Janet Lee Carey tilted my writing life ever so slightly, but significantly, on its axis. In her workshop Plot and Passage, Carey introduced us to the concept of the Janus Gate. Janus is the Roman god of Passages, both literal—the history of Ancient Rome describes a long temple with two arched gates on opposite ends and a statue of Janus between; and temporal—our calendar year begins with the month named in his honor.

 

But as a literary device, the Janus Gate represents an emotional passage for your characters. One side of the Gate is safety, the familiar, home. It can also be a trap, stasis, stagnation. Your plot may push a character across the Gate's threshold into risk or danger, or perhaps into opportunity, new relationships, and a greater understanding of himself. Your plot may also hold your character captive on the "safe" side or force her to return to the old way of life, thwarting her efforts to change.

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Of course, it's the writer's job to make life difficult for our characters—that's Storytelling 101. But if we just throw events and situations at our characters without taking time to consider how choices, passages, cause our characters to evolve, the story will read like a series of Post-It Notes. As Carey states, "Character Changes Story. Story Changes Character."

 

I'm never certain when I begin writing a story how my characters will change by the end. I am learning that delicate dance between my expectations of/plans for the plot and the characters' actual responses and actions. With Janet Lee Carey's metaphor of the Janus Gate, I have this simple tool—a beautiful visual, really—of character arc and plot progression.

 

Recently, a character I've been thinking about for years made the passage from my mind onto the page. I watched as she wobbled on unsteady legs, turning this way and that, toward the unknown, back at the familiar, before she finally stopped in front of me and asked, "Which way do I go?"

 

We'll find that out together, she and I.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving An Impression

The only characters I ever don't like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don't write characters that leave no impression on me. ―Lauren DeStefano  

One of the criticisms an early reader offered about my novel Refuge of Doves is that my protagonist, Lia, is too likable. As a young widow, the readers' sympathies are already with her, so this reader asked that I flaw her up, muss her up, make us not like her so much. Granted, the critiquer didn't read the manuscript past Chapter Three, so she saw little of Lia stumbling through her world, but this notion of likable characters has been on my mind.

 

Literary food fights broke out last year when Claire Messud blasted back at an inane question during a Publisher's Weekly interview after the publication of her novel The Woman Upstairs. Jennifer Weiner penned this tart rebuttal to Messud's reply for Slate I Like Likable Characters and lines were toed in the sand. You can Google the hell out of this and come up with endless commentary on this fascinating debate—I'll link to a few articles at the end—but, well, back to ME and MY characters, right?

 

Honestly, I hadn't considered Lia's likability score when I created her. I wanted her to be believable, even if the story itself requires significant suspension of disbelief. I envisioned a woman conflicted by grief, loneliness, and the physical and emotional longing she's waking up to eighteen months after her husband's death. I created a historian caught between her dedication to facts and the proof that fantasy, or what the religious may consider faith, is real. I wanted an ambivalent, angry, compassionate, curious person, but I hadn't considered whether I was asking the reader to like her.

 

I've seen what happens to readers' opinions of the writer when her protagonist is deemed unlikable. They flat out don't like her book and dismiss the author. This has been nibbling on the edges of my brain since encountering readers' reactions to Claire Messud's character Nora in The Woman Upstairs. I wonder how much of my ego is at play when I write. Am I subconsciously creating sympathetic characters because I, the writer, want to be liked?

 

I write women. I don't write for women and there are a fair number of XY-chromosome characters in my stories, but to date, my central character is a woman crashing around in large or small ways. She is written with ambiguous motives and sometimes slippery moral imperatives, but she is reacting to and processing in ways I believe most of us do: with self-preservation, compassion, and utter bewilderment. I've seen my novels' characters deepen in revisions, becoming perhaps less sympathetic, yet more relatable. But likable? Dot Dot Dot

 

As I work through these questions, I must own this truth about myself as a writer and a woman: I want readers to feel for and identify with the characters I create. I want them to experience the same depth of emotions, appreciate the mistakes, nod knowingly at the flaws. Perhaps some day I will create protagonists who so infuriate or frustrate, like Claire Messud's Nora, that I risk alienating readers. But frankly, it's not the readers I'm thinking of. It's me. I don't relish spending months or years with protagonists I don't like.

 

Maybe someday I will. And I bow in thanks and amazement to Claire Messud and every writer before her who had the goddamned incredible writing chops and confidence to create characters who get under our skin, making us squirm, gnash our teeth, and grind our jaw. Because it takes courage to stick with such characters and write them with integrity.

 

Really though, I will not write with a likability agenda. I didn't sit down with Pilot Fine Point and a blank Moleskine in January to start a second novel and plan how I could create what Meg Wolitzer calls "slumber party fiction – as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends." I found a woman fresh out of rehab who screws up her marriage, her job, and is handed an opportunity to make at least one of those whole again, only to discover the opportunity is a stick of dynamite with a lit fuse. The story that follows is what she does with the messes of her own and others' creation. She's not perfect. But yeah, I probably wouldn't mind meeting her for coffee.

 

Excerpt from an interview with Claire Messud in Publisher's Weekly, 4/29/13

PW: I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

CM: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.

Great Male Protagonists We Wouldn't Want to Be Friends With

Meg Wolitzer: Men Won't Read Books About Women

A Brief History of Jennifer Weiner's Literary Fights

Lady in Waiting ©JulieChristineJohnson 2014

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

 

 

Flowing with the Go: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Understanding must move with the flow of the process.” ― Frank HerbertDune For the past several weeks, a lovely meme has been spreading around the blogosphere, nurtured by a generous community of writers. It's a forum to share what we're working on and how we do it. If you follow the meme backwards, set aside a few hours. You'll wander through a world of writers and emerge dazzled and inspired.

The meme goes a little something like this: accept an invitation to the blog party, show up in your party dress, thank your host, answer a few questions, and extend the invitation to three more writer-bloggers.

Since this is the season of activityeither harvest for my friends below the equator or planting for those aboveI'll simply tag a few authors whom I'd be delighted to see in their Friday night best. Folks, if you have the time and the energy to carry on with the blog tour, let it roll when you can!

Virtual hugs to Edith O Nuallain, an Irish writer and poet blogging at In a Room of My Own, and Bianca Bowers, a South African writer and poet, living in Australia. Read her at B.G. Bowers Thank you both for inviting me to participate in the #MyWritingProcess tour, and for sharing your words and writers' journeys with me.

The Main Event

1) What am I working on?

Rewrites of my first manuscript, Refuge of Doves. My goal is to finish the rewrites by the end of May, send it off to a developmental/story editor, and perhaps have a manuscript ready for the agent/publisher search by early fall. I received some very wise counsel in recent days about the relative value of critique groups and beta readers, with whom I've had decidedly mixed experiences. It's time to turn my words over to a professional. That's the other thing I'm working on: deciding whom to use. If you love your story editor, do let me know.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Perhaps the biggest difference is that I'm working outside of genre. Taking a page from Deborah Harkness, I choose not to pigeon-hole my fiction. It's literary in style, but commercial in content. How's that? There are elements of mystical realism woven through contemporary lives, but at the heart is an exploration of women's emotional journeys. In Refuge of Doves, a young widow works through her grief; in Crows of Beara, addiction and recovery are themes. My short stories have addressed miscarriage, war, and isolation. Dark stuff, to be sure, but I write in light, not shadow.

A sense of place is one of the strongest elements of my narratives. My settings become characters in their own right.

Ebb and Flow ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

3) Why do I write what I do?

Ah jeez. This is a tough one. Following the advice of Stephen King, I write what I want to read. I try not to overthink inspiration, I just try to stay out of my own way. As my confidence grows, it becomes easier to release the story to my characters and allow them steer the narrative.

4) How does my writing process work?

As the writer evolves, so does her process. I wrote here Fast and Furious: First Drafts how my approach has changed from Refuge of Doves to Crows of Beara. 

Since I began writing fiction in 2011, I've been a serious student of the craft. Part of my process is to read about and absorb as much as I can from other writers, and to experiment with different ways of approaching the craft of writing, while still respecting (and discovering) my artist's voice.

I write every day. What I'm working on determines how much. With first drafts, I let it pour forth, no revising or editing.

Now that I'm in rewrite mode, I have no word count goal, but I do have a time frame. Some scenes and chapters are trickier than others, so I just keep working and pushing ahead.

My Work-in-Progress and I are together five to six days a week, several hours a day. I set aside one day for other writing businessresearch for the book, researching agents, editors, publishers, working on my business plan. I work on blog posts or book reviews at any time. I don't plan rest days, but if I need one, I take it.

I regard my writing as a small business and I'm the sole owner and employee. It's a more-than-full-time job and if I'm to reach my ultimate goal—to earn a living through writing—I feel obligated to pour every spare moment and a not-insubstantial amount of cash outsourcing those things I cannot do on my own (e.g., editing, book design, e-pub formatting and distribution) to make it happen. And if it doesn't happen, at least I'll know I gave it every chance.

And now for the writer-bloggers whom I invite to pick up the meme and run with it:

“You came here because we do this better than you and part of that is letting our creatives be unproductive until they are.” 
― Don Draper

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.

Mind the Gap

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient. ~Hilary Mantel  

True Confession: I'm a tad obsessive when it comes to my running mileage. If I set out to run seven miles, by God, I'm going to run seven. If the Maritime Center—my ending point—is fast approaching and my Garmin reads 6.43 miles, I'll take a left at Taylor and track and up and down each block until I close in on the magic number. Do I run past my mileage goal? Heh Heh Heh.

 

And so it is with my daily word count. Each writer defines their own good "butt in chair" day; I find a word count goal keeps me focused and motivated.

 

When I embarked upon the Novel #2 journey two weeks ago, I established the weekly goal of 10,000 words. Factor in a day for editing and research, another to work on other writing projects, and (here come my mad math skillz, look out!) that's 2000 words each day I work on the Novel. I try to crank out 3k on Sundays—the start of my writing week—to build in wiggle room for the unexpected during the week, such as last week's weird 24-hour flu bug. So far, I'm holding steady.

 

Sunday. Today. The start of my work week. I'd left myself notes for a new scene, had already visualized the setting, the conversation, the emotions. I planned a 3000 word day—easy-peasy. I couldn't wait to get started.

 

Then, I couldn't get started.

 

Five hours in and only a thousand words, some of those written last week and left hanging in an earlier scene. My brain, mushy after two poor nights' sleep and still throwing off that flu bug, just couldn't muster the words.

 

If I feel the stall during a run, I force myself to keep on. Ignoring exhaustion, soreness, boredom, I focus on the next half mile and get through it. Endorphins take over and finish the job for me.

 

But every so often, I'll get a couple of miles in and know today is not my day. I might take a walk break and resume the run, but if the mojo truly is gone, I reset the Garmin and find a shortcut home. As a morning runner, I can always salvage the day with an afternoon hike.

 

If my writing focus fades, I keep the fingers on the keyboard, give myself permission to write crap and keep moving. The story takes over, suddenly it's hours later and I'm telling myself, "You must stop at 4:00. You promised to go for walk/make soup/see a movie. Good job, Little Buddy!"

 

Today I couldn't pull it together.

 

Stop. Reset the Garmin. Find a shortcut home.

 

Word Count be damned. Open the gap. Create the space.

 

Today, I stopped scowling at the problem. I bundled up and headed out, Bach in my ears and trail shoes on my feet. I breathed.

 

Saturday, I set out to run 8 miles. I went to 9 because it all felt so good.

 

If you'd told me two weeks ago, when I typed "Chapter One," that I'd be 21,337 words into a new novel in fourteen days, well. Dude.

 

Find the Gap.

Getting some perspective. Admiralty Bay, Port Townsend 2/02/14 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014