The Refuge of Doves

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

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

 

 

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

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

Arriving Where I Started

I felt it burbling away in my belly last week, a little rush in the blood, a tugging smile. The End was moving up to meet me. I worked late Wednesday night, the words pouring out in a rare torrent (I am the slowest damn writer, let me tell you). I stopped before the final scene. I wanted to complete it in the daylight, when I could rush out of the house and tell someone—anyone—that I had finished my novel, at last. Late Thursday afternoon, I wrote that scene and typed THE END. Then I burst into tears.

Eighteen months. I started in early July 2012 (The First 10,000 Words chronicled). I wrote through a miscarriage, two surgeries, three weeks hiking in Ireland. I wrote as I sensed my husband's professional world coming apart, I wrote as the betrayal sent us into a tailspin of anger and bewilderment. I wrote while we picked up the pieces and moved to a sweeter life, in a place so rich with beauty and peace it makes my heart hurt. I wrote through a half marathon and a four-month sidelining injury. I wrote through one job I quit, another that collapsed. I wrote through the most glorious summer I've had since I was five and through a descent into depression that caused me to doubt my worth on this planet. I wrote through the guilt of not bringing in a paycheck. I wrote even though I was writing crap. I wrote through the lead softball of doubt that grew in my gut like a tumor and despite the snickering demon on my shoulder. I wrote through rejection and criticism. I wrote because I didn't know what else to do. I wrote to finish. I wrote because the most important thing isn't to see the novel published. I wrote because my heart was bursting with a story and the most important thing was to get it out.

These past months—since I got into a plot pickle in July and decided to begin the revision process—have been about weaving together the strands until I got to The End. It took longer than I thought, for I had to untangle so many knots. I came within days of chucking it in, but I powered on out of sheer spite. I WOULD FINISH. Even if every page ended up in the shredder or shoved into a box in the closet, I WOULD FINISH. I learned doggedness from running so many races in ridiculous pain. It's the only way I know what really matters to me—if I keep after something, no matter how much it hurts, I'll look back with gratitude at lessons learned.

In late October, I fell in love again. I switched my protagonist's point of view and found her voice. She, at the eleventh hour, told the story she'd wanted to tell all along. Suddenly, things flowed. Flowed inexorably to The End.

And there it is. If I tally the words that have lived in this story since July 2012 (never discard ANYTHING), I get 167,264. Actual finished first draft: 105,047.

Now what? Well, here's the thing. Now the real work begins. I have weeks, possibly months, of revision and rewriting ahead of me. I have to decide if I'll pursue traditional publication—seek an agent, try to land the novel with a publishing company—or dive into the world of self-publishing. I need to power through a substantive series of story, copy and line edits in the next two weeks to deliver a complete manuscript to the publisher and agent I pitched to in October, fulfilling a delivery promise by the end of the year. After that, I need to walk away for a few weeks. Start something new. Refresh. I need to find a handful of beta readers I trust to give me honest, respectful, constructive feedback (any volunteers? Seriously). Then I need to begin the revisions all over again.

I took a day off writing to enjoy a day of play with my husband. Today I regrouped. I drafted my revision plan. I'll share it in my next post. It'd be great if you shared yours.

But for just this moment, let me feel the glow I felt typing these six letters: THE END.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot

IMG_1330

Time The Avenger

I've arrived at one of those "If someone had told me a year ago, I'd be here/doing this" moments.  Do you do that? Look back, I mean. Pick an arbitrary point and see the recent past unrolled behind you like a tapestry and marvel how much things can change in such a short period? I do. And I'm always relieved that reflection's opposite isn't possible, that the laws of physics deny me the power of foresight, for I couldn't bear knowing what the future holds. Even if its palm extends to offer me what I wish for. And a year ago, that wish was to write full-time. I don't believe things happen for a reason. As in, there is no grand scheme for our lives with the wonderful and the wretched meted out by an omnipresent deity. I'm more in the "Shit Happens" camp. I believe we create reason from the compost. That doesn't stop me from praying, of course. But by the time I get into prayer mode, the shit is already happening, so I guess prayer is just an attempt to create reason, with hope and desperation mixed in.

I do believe in paying attention to the little shifts that are the universe's way of trying to get our attention. Not a full yanking of the rug out from under our feet, just the tugs that keep us off-balance. Wait, doesn't that mean I believe things happen for a reason, that there is an omnipresent...something? No, I think it's a matter of opening oneself up to possibility, of casting one's intentions into the wide world and then listening and watching carefully for the ripples of circumstance that follow in our wake.

So, things happened. The past year is what it is. We wrested control from circumstances not of our creation, we recognized the grace of opportunity, we leaped and we landed. I'm not writing full-time because of all that happened. I'm writing full-time because this was the reason we created from the compost. Be careful what you wish for.

Scrivener tells me I have three days. Three days to reach my goal of 78,0000 words on this novel. It's a date and word count I set just over a year ago, not long after I wrote this post, here: Today was the day.

I wasn't certain--with a full-time job, a shaky idea of my plot, all that research on medieval France, a writing habit that wasn't yet habit--what I could hope to complete in just over twelve months. I wasn't certain how many words constituted a full-length novel. So, August 1, 2013. 78,000 words. Sounded reasonable.

The goal date held steady. August 1 looms. But that word count? I recall upping it to 82,000 in the fall. Then 98,000. 105,000. 115,00. There, that should do it. The target bar in Scrivener shifted from red to orange to yellow and various shades of green as I approached 115,000.

Earlier this month I crested 130,000 words. There is no color shift in Scrivener when you exceed your target. That bar just glows a steady green. Good Girl, it says. You did it.

Since then, I've embarked on First Draft, Revision B and in the slicing and dicing and rewriting, I'm in the neighborhood of 126K. That's about 330 pages of a novel, if you're wondering.

I didn't set a goal of finishing a novel in a year. Thank goodness. Because I'm not finished. Good God. I have months of revision ahead of me. But it's all there--beginning, middle, and mostly the end. I'm muddling through the final third. Some days I run in place, others I leap hurdles. I try not to think ahead, not to worry about where I will be in a month or in a year.

But I do wonder.

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.

- Gloria Steinem

Your present circumstances don't determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.

-Nido Qubein

Seeing the forest for the trees.    Quimper Peninsula

Related Posts:

The Personal Apocalypse--When Are We Real Writers?

Slip Sliding Away

I locked the door behind me and slipped into the cool morning, my final e-mails sent, my final bank statements reconciled. I slipped the key into the mail slot next to the front door and just like that - no fanfare, no trembling of the earth -  I became unemployed a full-time writer. I think I've done what I could to set this up so I can look in the mirror every morning and assure myself it's going to be all right. Private health insurance for me, new and improved life insurance for the hubs, enough set aside for a disaster. I have a sense of direction and a few self-imposed deadlines. I rearranged my office, ordered a stand-up desk for my laptop, made out a writing to-do list and sallied forth.

The Gremlin of Self-Defeat perches on one shoulder. Picture him nearly tumbling off, he is cackling so hard. The Faerie of Belief (who looks amazingly like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North) twirls her sparkly wand and makes all sorts of soothing noises, but thus far hasn't been particularly helpful. Like, not giving me the right words so I don't have to sweat them out on my own.

Still, I had a lovely transition to the writing life last week, attending the Port Townsend Writers' Conference. The Conference offered the inspiration I needed to believe I had to give this a try. That even failure would be better than a lifetime of woulda-shoulda-coulda. It's been only a week, so I'm a little wobbly with what I'm supposed to be doing, besides writing. Which I was doing before unemployment  I decided to try writing full-time, of course. But now I have so many more hours to fill. And finding they aren't enough for all I want to do.

In the past week, I revised an already-published short story and sent it off for consideration for a new anthology. I'm revising/polishing two other published short stories for a couple of contests and two unpublished shorts and a flash fiction piece to send out to journals. I started a new short story. I'm thinking I'll take a day or two each week to work on these - a little cross-training for the main event.

I landed on 128,000 words a couple of weeks ago - roughly a 340 page novel. I'm so close to the end, but struggling to write the final scenes and bring all the pieces together in a tidy but satisfying dénouement. I decided it was time to print out the whole crazy mess and start a re-read and a revision from page one, trusting I'd find resolution of the end along the way.

Ah, Jeez. What year is this? How does 2015 sound for a goal end date? Crikey. This is going to take some time. I park at the beach and read aloud to myself in the front seat of the car, red pen in hand. I spent Sunday afternoon filling pages with plot notes that I had to sort through and transcribe. Two mornings spent rearranging scenes. Literally laying them out on the floor and rearranging them, storyboard-style.

But more on the process of revision later. I had a couple of a-ha moments last week, thanks to some super-amazing lectures and workshops which I'll share in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, here I am, with Gremlin and Faerie on my shoulders, doing their thing. I had some very dark moments during the week, rereading and falling into my own plot holes. I thought, "Julie, this is shite. Really, sweetheart. It's crap." But then I'd read a passage or part of a scene and I'd feel it, I'd feel the story. I'd lose myself and forget to look for junky little filler words or moments of telling instead of showing or a better verb.

I tell myself I have to see this through, I have to take it as far as I can. There will always be jobs - I'm through with careers, but I can always find another job. I won't always have this time, this summer, maybe I won't even have this hope. But I have it now. And I want to use it, before it slips, slides away.

Whoah God only knows, God makes his plan  The information's unavailable to the mortal man  We're workin' our jobs, collect our pay  Believe we're gliding down the highway, when in fact we're slip sliding away 

~Paul Simon

 

Entering the Wilderness

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover is yourself.” ― Alan Alda This year - no longer new and fragile, but not yet settled in its skin - has been defined by intuition. I've held my intuition at arm's length, examined it from all sides and shoved it back in the drawer. Only to take it out, shake it out, and embrace it at last.

Intuition is what you turn to when you have exhausted the alternatives. It's the last entry name on your dance card, the partner ready with a firm hand and a sure foot to waltz you into the new day.

We knew, way back that dreadful New Year's Eve day, that moving on was the only option worthy of our consideration. But we argued against it, fearing the unknown; fearful of losing the comfort and security which appeared like magic in our bank account every two weeks; of losing our identities, our community, our friends.

But we knew. I knew the moment I heard Brendan's shaking voice on the telephone telling me he was coming home. He must have known several minutes before, standing up from his chair and standing up for his dignity. We would have to go.

And we did. We moved on, in our own time. In our own way. Ten weeks later - our decisions made, papers signed, notices given, bags packed, boxes filled - we turned faces westward, toward the water, toward the mountains. Toward home.

I gave in to intuition again last week, knowing that no matter how much you hope something will be the right thing, it can often be the wrong time. Or you're not the right person. So I rinsed off my gumboots and set them on the back patio. Yesterday morning, I walked down the hill to a new job, one my gut tells me is the better choice.

Without tapping into intuition, creative writing is about as inspired as a grocery store list. It's what compels a writer return to the page day after day. By releasing our creative unconscious, by listening deeply to our instincts, we connect with our characters and through them, our true stories are revealed.

I had a word count goal in mind for this first draft - something in the 110-115,000 range. A complete novel. Not a long one, but something of substance. Not that word count much matters in the dung heap of first drafts, but it gave me an end point from which I could see across a chasm of edits to less crappy drafts. I also allowed for Plan B - the Intuition Plan - that gave me an out if I felt Draft 1 was ready to be pillaged and plundered by my red pen in search of treasure worth salvaging.

Not surprisingly, the Intuition Plan was put into effect 'round about the time I unpacked the last box, set my office to rights, and this long winter of our discontent came to a close. I had a beginning, a bunch of middles, and an end. I had started to write circles around myself, falling into plot holes and bringing the earth down around me in my attempt to clamber out. It was time to bring scenes together, to strategize and lay out, in systematic fashion, the story's arc. And to shake out the bogeys. IMG_0183

April 1, (no foolin'!), 90,000 words of Draft 1 became (magically!) Draft 2. While I was upending all other constants in my life, why not toss my writing routine into the mix?

Early morning sessions with my blue Pilot and Moleskine, scribbling to fill blank pages with scenes and silliness became, after a few awkward attempts, early morning sessions with my red Pilot and 8.5 x 11 Helvetica-filled Hammermill.

And hours - at all hours - of retyping and tweaking, shuffling pages and shaking my head.

I worried that editing would mean an end to creating. Yet, despite the taking away that is inherent to the revision process, Draft 2 finds itself 5,000 new words the richer. And I'm still in the early scenes. I'm have a sense of what Draft 3 will entail (You didn't think this would be over any time soon did you? Honey, we're just getting started): the fleshing out and enriching of detail, the gathering of historical minutiae, most of which will be discarded in...Draft 4? I jest. Or not.

But Draft 1 - there it is, on the table, in black and white. Now being sliced and diced into something resembling a story by my fine point red pen.

I'm still a bit wobbly - one month into this new life - my emotions giddy but uncertain, like a colt taking his first steps. The world around me is so fresh, brimming with the vibrant colors of new growth, the richness of blossoms and sea air, the madness of wind and the changing tides. I feel that delicious disconnect of being far away on holiday, in a place that is so beautiful you feel simultaneously calmed and energized. But I'm not on holiday. I'm in the wilderness of my intuition. And I think I'll stay here awhile.

The Light That I Have: Reflections On A Winter Solstice

IMG_1102 You wouldn't know looking around our small apartment that Christmas is but a few sleeps away. We've forgone our annual wet and windy visit to the Boy Scout Troop 100 Christmas Tree lot at St. Alphonsus Church across the street from Ballard Market. Although the stack of holiday greetings grows daily, the cards and letters remain unopened, as do the boxes of cards I bought for our own missives. I won't be watering poinsettias well into March because neither red nor white bloom graces our table. I can hardly be bothered to light even a candle.

We've decided to keep our heads down and plow through the rest of this year without celebration. Maybe we fear attracting any more attention from higher powers that seemed to hold the screw to us during 2012. Maybe we're just weary. Maybe celebration right now feels wrong.

But I can't stop myself from yearning for light, from reaching for the promise of renewal that the Solstice offers. It is not Christmas that holds my wonder and feeds my anticipation. I absolved December 25th of unreasonable expectations and spiritual significance some years ago. I just like the lights on the tree.

It is this ancient tradition of honoring evergreens and the burning of bright light in the darkest days that allows me to find solace in the Solstice. I think upon this day as the year's end, the time to pause and reflect as the seasons shift and the earth stutters, then marches resolutely toward Spring.

This was a year when light and dark were in constant flow, when the weight of deepest sorrow was counter-balanced by the relief of joy. Yet I come to the Solstice feeling smaller somehow, a bit shrunken and defeated by the 365 days that have passed since the night last receded, then grew full again. I watched as a loved one received the death sentence of a terrible, prolonged disease. A few weeks later life inside me stilled once again, even as I imagined names and hair color, tiny hands to hold and a little voice calling after me. I've had to stand idly to one side, fists clenched, heart pounding in rage, as the person I adore and respect most in the world agonizes over present and future and what little control he has over each seemingly stolen away. I've looked in the mirror at a body that seems hell-bent on thwarting every good thing I try to do for it, forcing me twice under a surgeon's knife and taking away in recent weeks the one thing that brought me endorphin-surging physical release. I've had to accept that many of those who've known me the longest are the least interested in discovering who I have become. And then, in the last days of this year, my voice joined the chorus of rage and grief as a stunned nation absorbed, helplessly, the news of the slaughter in Newtown.

And yet.

And yet there is light. There is laughter. There is deep happiness and certain peace. There is the celebration of twenty years of marriage - defying odds set against two very young people who knew one other five months before vowing to spend a lifetime together, listening to their hearts instead of their heads. I'd do it all again. One hundred times again. It takes my breath away to think how easily we could have slipped past each other during that busy, distracted spring of 1992, never to know what soul mate meant.

There were winter days in medieval ruelles of Paris and late summer afternoons in Irish meadows. Hundreds of miles of Seattle pavement under my running shoes (and there will be hundreds more, believe me: Body and I are working out the terms). Sunsets over Shilshole Bay. The sweet joy of new friendships blooming. The unexpected embrace of a colleague who says, "Things are better with you here." Laughter, dancing, beer and music in a beautiful community that is home, with spirited and loving people who are my family.

And there are my words, my sentences, paragraphs, pages. The slowly but steadily growing word count on a manuscript which has become my anchor, my refuge, my way - thank you, Richard Hugo - of saying the world and I have a chance. Perhaps Hugo meant that by the act of creating art, the world and I have chance together. And that perhaps I can, I should, I must, use my words to pursue what I believe is right and try to create good out of so much sadness.

Brendan and I went for a long walk late in the afternoon of this, the shortest day. I'm not one for portents, but I'll share this photo I captured of a Bald eagle against the cerulean sky and diamond-bright moon. I'll take the raptor's presence as the last blessing of this long season of darkness and be grateful for a moment of grace, no matter what the next seasons may bring.

Bald eagle, Green Lake, Winter Solstice

I am ready to meet this longest night and then watch as, minute by minute, it shrinks into the New Year and succumbs to the light of Spring.

"I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have." Attributed to Abraham Lincoln. No matter who said it, I like it.

Do I have to Carpe Diem today?

Go on - take at your Pinterest board, at the magnets on your fridge, at the coffee mugs replicating like rabbits in your cupboard: I reckon there is at least one version of Carpe Diem in the lot. Scattered about in forms tangible and virtual are quotes admonishing you to live life to fullest, every day, for you never know when it may be your last. Me? I've got Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever ~ Mahatma Gandhi tacked to a bulletin board; scribbled on the inside cover of my writing practice notebook is Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life ~ Seneca. But sometimes, no - most of the time - that's just more ambition than I'm capable of sustaining. In my mind, I'm the high achiever who plans to climb Kilimanjaro and pursue an MFA and march on Washington in favor of stricter gun access laws. But in practice, I'm made of simpler stuff. The thought of living at full throttle wears me out. It makes me a little sad. Maybe I will die tomorrow, but today the laundry needs folding, the car insurance is due, I'm fretting about work, my weight, my 401k. Does a life more ordinary mean a life less lived?

And hey, didn't Nero force Seneca to commit suicide? Maybe our favorite Roman Stoic jumped the shark with his pithy advice.

There are times -  usually accompanied by a quiet peace or a ripple of endorphins - that my quotidian experience achieves a Technicolor apex. These are not epic events, but simple episodes when I focus my awareness within the moment at hand. It is wrapping a cane around a fruiting wire in a Waipara Valley vineyard with the sun warming my scalp and the Southern Alps throwing shadows across the afternoon; it is mile four of a long run, when my legs finally discover their rhythm; it is the sizzle in the pan and the swirl of aromas as minced onions and butter meet as I create art for the belly and the soul; it is conversing in French without searching for the correct verb tense; it is losing myself in laughter with a friend; it is that wrung out  and hung out feeling after a good day of writing, knowing that I moved aside and allowed the characters find their way.

Nothing monumental, just a sense of doing and being as I'm meant to at that moment.

I also know when I'm at far remove from these interludes, when I'm removed from myself. My friend Will, lighting yet another of those cigarettes that eventually killed him, would drawl in his South Carolina-thick French, "Julie, j'ai le cafard. J'ai le blues."  He would confess his melancholy when work was getting him down. I knew he dreamed of opening an antiques store on the Maryland coast; he lived long enough to realize that dream. Not as long as he should have, but he had his moment.

My blues - that cafard, that cockroach of ennui - come when I spend my time and energy on things which are necessary but not fulfilling. Or on things which are unnecessary, but pleasantly distracting. In both instances, I turn away from that which makes me feel challenged and complete, either because I must - the car insurance has to be paid, yes, it does - or because I am too afraid or too lazy to leave behind the easy affirmation and pursue a lonelier path.

But I can't Carpe Diem every single bloody day, can I?

No, but I can beat back the encroaching cafard which refuses to die. I can start every single day on the page.

I've struggled with the words these past weeks. I've resisted, procrastinated, meandered, despaired, dilly-dallied, denied, tarried, equivocated, prevaricated. I've been very busy doing everything but what I most want to. I'm not sure entirely why this is - it's not writer's block, unless one counts blocking one's own way with dilatory tactics and self-doubt. However I knocked myself so far out of my groove, I'm working, slowly, to knock myself back in.

I hit a manuscript milestone a couple of weeks ago: 50, 000 words. That felt like something. I'm now filling in scenes that were half-starts, completing characters' stories; I'm even thinking, 50,000 words in, that an outline might come in handy. I realized at 50k that my rough draft goal of 78,000 words was too modest, so I upped it. Perhaps I can put off that outline for another 10k or so.

I'm further along than I thought I would be at this point. But I can't shake the feeling that I'm losing ground, that I keep waiting for life to be just a bit more conducive to my creativity before committing wholly to my story again. I know the answer to that. I know my story is just waiting for me to return.

Here's a William Saroyan favorite to end with a little platitudinal dissonance:

“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Most days, I think the best I can do is try to be alive, with a smidgen extra: to laugh and to move, to listen and to look outside of myself. And to write.

The Story Takes Flight

  I clicked on "Compile" and Scrivener, the writing project management program I'm using to write my novel (italicized because I feel so goofy saying it, the cliché that I am as I tap away on my laptop in this Seattle coffee shop, with my travel mug at hand. At least it's not raining and I am drinking decaf) pulled together a multitude of scenes, a handful of chapters and the lump of Part One into a WORD document, formatted, paginated, appearing to be something so much more than it is.

And now it sits beside me, 159 pages in dreadful Times New Roman font, the 31,900 words I have written since July 7. I just had to see what all those words looked like on 8.5 x 11.

If I flip through the pages and don't read the actual sentences, it looks like a real manuscript. Paragraphs are indented, quote marks indicate dialogue, there are even chapter headings. Scrivener helpfully (hopefully?) created a title page for me, though I do believe I changed the "A" in my title to "The". Hmm. Scrivener. Must fix that. One simple word shifts the meaning and tone of the story.

If I read the pages more carefully, I see scenes that end in mid-paragraph, ellipses where I left a sentence dangling. I see "NAME", which stands in for a character (as in, "NAME crouched next to de Castelnau's supine form") who is a John Doe until I decide what he should be called. I see tenses that shift mid-page, I see notes to myself typed in a scene instead of into Scrivener's handy sidebar. I see what Anne Lamott assures writers they will create in a project's early days. I see a shitty first draft. The first third of a shitty first draft. There is far more excrement to be written before I even attempt revision.

But I see some wonderful things, too: tension and surprise, attraction and intrigue. I see darlings I'm certain I'll have to murder in future drafts - those bits and pieces a writer thinks are the best things they've written, those clever turns of phrase and evocative descriptions that really only get in the way of the story. But they are fun to look at. I'll save the assassinations for later.

I compiled and printed this happy mess out of curiosity, but also out of anxiety. I am stepping out of rhythm with the tango my story and I practice every day. It's holiday time. In a short while (I've since left the coffee shop and type at you now in the dark of my living room, the wee light of dawn still hours away), I will heft a bag full of hiking gear into the trunk of a car and Brendan and I will make our way to the airport, through security, and onto the train that will whisk us to the North Satellite and our flight to Dublin.

I fear I will lose my characters along the way, that the momentum which has carried me these past two months will stall somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean and slip beneath its cold, grey waters. So, in addition to my writing practice notebook - a brand new Moleskine with pages so white and fresh my hand trembles in anticipation - I am packing these 159 pages (double-faced, not to worry - tucked into a manila enveloped and slipped in the outside pocket of my carry-on, you'd hardly feel the weight). Just in case.

I may never once open the envelope in the sixteen days we are away. In fact, I probably shouldn't. We take vacations to escape from our current life, perhaps to rest the body or challenge it in new ways, but certainly always to rest and reinvigorate the mind. Getting some distance from my story's cast and setting, from the sticky plot points I haven't determined how to resolve, may be the best way to ensure I'll see this thing through to the end of its beginning. Because that's all it is. A beginning. My obligatory shitty first draft.

So I bid you farewell. It's 3:30 a.m., finally time for more coffee - the full throttle stuff this time. I've got my morning writing to get done, in my brand new Moleskine. Then I've got a flight to catch.

 

The First 10,000 Words

They are scattered about, those first ten thousand words. Cast like jacks among five chapters and thirteen scenes that make up Part One. Such as it is. As a rough outline of eight, perhaps nine, chapters and thirty or so scenes, Part One takes slow, disjointed shape. Three weeks ago I had an idea. I had two characters. I had a word count of zero. Today I have thirteen souls in various states of literary flesh (one poor guy makes his debut as a corpse, but his death is the snowball at the head of the avalanche). I have ten thousand (and ninety-one!) words. Hundreds more words live in character and setting sketches, research notes and scribbled morning writing prompts that remain to be transcribed into my Scrivener files.

I done wrote some stuff.

I have fallen to the depths of doubt - listening to the 3 a.m. demon who cackles on my shoulder, his reedy voice like the whine of a mosquito in my ear: "You know it's absolute crap, don't you?" I have flown to the heights of inspiration - lifted by the angel who tickles my ear lobe with her wings, murmuring in honeyed tones: "Just keep writing, sweetheart. Tell your story."

My process is all over the place. I am soaking up as many writing tips as I can stand, from the classics such as William Zinsser's On Writing Well to Larry Brooks's blog, StoryFix. Larry scares the crap out of me. Every time I read one of his blog posts, I shrivel inside. I can't live up to his expectations. Then I square my shoulders and dig in again.

I have planned. I have pantsed. I think my way forward is to strive for a happy medium. I need to stay one step ahead of my story; in writing historical fiction, factual events dictate my template. Yet, I can't risk sticking to a detailed plan lest I miss the direction the story wants to go. I need to stay the hell out of my way.

Reading has never been more important to me than it is now. Plowing breathlessly through Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up The Bodies" I learn that writing in present tense (so freaking risky) brings the reader into the immediacy of the past. I learn that the shadowy characters of history offer us a door to a story. We can still craft original material about those whom written history has fleshed out; but the juicy stories lie with those whom we scarcely know.

Toni Morrison reminds me of the power of opening sentences, of the deafening roar of the silent places. Poets Mary Oliver and Sam Green inspire me to leave behind adjectives and adverbs and seek for another verb or noun that shows, not tells, how something looks, feels, smells, tastes, sounds, how a body reacts, a mouth responds.

I have a title. I have themes. I have a premise - a thirty-word synopsis that states what my story is about. I may even have a plot. I wrote an opening scene and I love it so much that when I am certain this may be the stupidest book ever attempted, I reread it to remind myself that all I want is to tell a good story.

Everything else is a colossal, joyful mess. I haven't written a complete chapter. I'm not writing chronologically. I've just amassed heaps of scenes that I intend to sift into place. One scene leads me to the next, or forces me to jump back to sort out a plot hole - or to create a new one I'll have to fill in later.

I am building a library of books on medieval France, reading the fine print until my eyes cross. Into my Scrivener files I have inserted photos of holm oak, peregrine falcons, stone cottages, Romanesque churches and Cervélo cycles (bet you didn't know they had Cervélos in medieval France! Right. So, they didn't. Much of my story is set in 2010, when it isn't set in 1210...). I uncover magical connections as I research - what seemed at the outset a hoo-hoo plot device is in fact one of the fundamental beliefs of the culture I am trying to portray. The door opens and my story walks through.

What I am learning, in the hard, slow way that I learn, is that when I write, things happen on the page that I had no idea were waiting to occur. When I hear from other writers that they have their stories planned out, every scene accounted for, before they even begin to write the meat of the story, I'm baffled. I barely know my characters, how could I begin to tell them what to do, much less know what they are up to? We're in this adventure together and there's no literary GPS telling me which way to turn.

Completing the first 10K is a milestone. I feel a bit like I did when I ran my first road race so many years ago. "Hell, that was so much fun! Let's do it again!", forgetting the many lonely miles of training that led to race day and crossing the finish line.

And like any good runner, I know when to ease up after a hard race. I know the importance of rest before the attack can be renewed. I can do only so much in the time after work, during the busy weekends, in the wee hours before dawn. And I've done so much more than I thought possible.

I have other writing goals - those short stories that need revising, polishing and submitting before September journal entry deadlines come crashing down. I may have to set my heart aside for a couple of weeks as I complete other projects. So, I won't set a deadline on the next 10,000 words. But I will trust them to be there when I am ready.

At the beginning of a novel, a writer needs confidence, but after that what's required is persistence. ~ Walter Kirn