Author

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

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Book Club Redeemed: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

DocDoc by Mary Doria Russell My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you follow me Goodreads, you’ll know I’ve disliked, vigorously, most of the titles our book club has selected in recent months. My reading philosophy forbids wasting time on books that don’t capture me in their opening chapters, but I’ve had to bend my rules to honor book club commitments. Number Five—a memoir—fared better, but only by a thread. Number Six was my pick. I loved it. I feel sheepish because it was my selection, but after months of insufferable duds, I went after an author I adore.

Enter Lucky Number Seven. Last month one of our club members selected Doc by Mary Doria Russell for our November read. Cue inner cheer and moan. Russell has been on my “must-read” list for eons. Okay, truth. She felt like one of those writers I should read. But the spark hadn’t lit. A book club obligation seemed like a good way to tick the Mary Doria Russell author box. But, God, a WESTERN? Do I have to read a book about Doc Holliday? Seriously? Sigh.

O vos pusillae fide

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

And from this sentence on, I was spellbound. I have a new writer crush (sorry Jess Walter, you’ve been displaced. Love ya,babe).

Doc is based on a very brave conceit. Russell takes an element of our collective cultural imagination—the sepia-toned Wild West—and gambles that we’ll embrace her rendering of its most iconic figures and places. Or that we'll even care about one more depiction of the Earp boys and world-weary, hack-a-lung Doc Holliday. What Ms. Russell needs to know is that she touched this reader, who had to go out of her way to pick up a novel set in the American west, with some of the most sublime storytelling I’ve read.

John Henry Holliday became a dental surgeon at twenty-one and was stricken with tuberculosis that same year. He boarded a train for the West, in search of drier climes. By twenty-two he was a heavy drinker and gambler. By twenty-six he was a frontier legend with a permanent limp from a gunshot wound and a multi-lingual Hungarian aristocrat-turned-prostitute on his arm. And he hadn’t yet set foot in Dodge City, Kansas.

But follow Mary Doria Russell there, as she takes Doc to his single season of happiness. She will prove to be a cracker-jack guide—nimble, sophic, soulful. Doc is a character study, with its title protagonist the sun around which a host of personalities spin. Russell sinks the reader into the skin of her characters-and there are heaps, as evidenced by The Players section that prefaces the narrative. But it’s Doc as the sun, Kate Harony, his companion, as the moon, and Wyatt Earp as the grounded Earth who make this universe breathtaking and epic.

Russell creates a world that will consume each of your senses until you are wiping the Kansas grit from your skin, gasping at the sweet-sour burn of bourbon, pausing to wonder at the beauty of a prairie sunrise, cringing at the wet iron scent of fresh blood, and hearing the crack of gunshot and drumming of hooves as Texas boys pound into town for a night of cards and whores. The details of time and place are artfully offered without ever being cliché. We know this world—we grew up with these legends—yet Russell brings freshness to the American frontier. It’s not retread. It’s raw and unaffected worldbuilding.

The narrative is a slice of Doc’s life. Outside the brief chapters chronicling his early years and an even shorter Epilogue, Doc takes between April 1878 and April 1879. It’s the year Doc spent in Dodge City, Kansas, endearing himself to Wyatt, Morgan and James Earp, an Austrian priest, an Irish entertainer, a Chinese entrepreneur, not a few prostitutes (though Kate was his only lover) and making enemies with just about everyone else. Russell weaves a subplot into the narrative—the suspicious death of a young faro dealer of black and Indian heritage. The investigation of the boy’s death becomes the linchpin of the story, allowing us to witness the players and politics at work in Dodge City.

This is as fine a work of historical fiction as I any I have read. I’m not well-versed in literature of the American west, but I have taken John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich and Cormac McCarthy out for a spin. Doc slips easily into the tremendous canon of these writers.

The moment I turned the final pages of the Author’s Note I hopped lickety-split to Mary Doria Russell’s website, where she had announced the same day a sequel to Doc, entitled Epitaph, will be released early 2015: Epitaph update: bad news, good news And she’s committed to writing a novel about Edgar Allen Poe. Oh, we lucky readers!

Doc makes up in spades for the months of dreary book club reads which preceded it.

Mary Doria Russell, you are my huckleberry.

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The Writer's Portable Mentor: Reading About Writing Is The Next Best Thing

The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing LifeThe Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel the same rush of hands-rubbing-together glee buying a new writing guide as I do a new cookbook (well, almost - if only writing guides had drool-inducing photographs of Truffled Saint-Marcellin or Bucatini all'Amatriciana or Salted Caramel (fill in the blank with anything).

An unread book on the craft of writing is full of possibility, of secrets waiting for revelation, of motivation and inspiration. It may contain the one thing I need to know that will turn my writing life around, the checklist I can follow that will make me a real writer, the advice that will level the uphill road and ensure a rejection letter will never again be addressed in my general direction.

Okay, I'm not that naive optimistic. Still, cracking open an author's literary toolbox and peering inside seems so hopeful and busy, like I'm thinking super hard about writing. When what I should be doing is, well, writing.

Priscilla Long presented at the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham this past June. She had me at, something -  I can't remember what  - but I adored her. Modest, quiet, funny, pragmatic. And a ridiculously accomplished writer who works. Hard. Every day.

Enough of the preamble, the backstory, the poorly developed characters. Let me get right to the point:

You must read this.

Poring over the opening pages of this book coincided with writing the opening pages of my novel. Only a few weeks ago, yet I've forgotten already which came first. What I remember is finally giving in to the one thing that every author of a writing guide writes in their opening pages: You must write every day. Yeah, I know. I know. But look, I have a day job - writing every day isn't feasible. I already get up at the crack of dawn. Earlier. I'm exhausted by the time I get home in the evenings. When am I supposed to do this writing? When do I get to work on what I want to work on, if I'm having to submit to the drudgery of a 15-20 minute free write, every day?

Excuses. That Priscilla Long finally gave me the courage to stop making. And it was so easy. Now I feel I have no other choice. And I'm thinking that if you aren't heeding Priscilla's advice by page 20, you should just stop reading this book until you can. The only thing that makes a writer a writer is writing. Every Day.

Thanks to my consistent daily free writing by hand, I have pages of scenes, character notes, setting sketches. Every day of scribbling brings me closer to my story, my characters, their motivations. I create and cover plot holes. A random writing prompt leads me to ask questions about my plot, jotting notes in the margins of ideas to pursue, details to research. I regularly transcribe these daily writings into my Work In Progress on the computer and doing so leads to other scenes, ideas and characters.

All that, just from reading Chapter One.

The Writer's Portable Mentor is to a writer - of any level of experience and ambition - as much a toolbox as one of those gazillion-piece Craftsman tool sets is to an automotive repair pro. And Priscilla makes you work - there are no hypotheticals here. You take your own work, you take work of authors you admire, and you examine them, rework them, learning every step of the way.

I now keep a Lexicon notebook (right, so it was an excuse to buy what comes third in my bookstore thrill-seeking - after cookbooks and writing guides: Moleskine notebooks). But I have a growing collection of lovely, evocative, provocative, delicious words and sayings that I will find a way to use or be inspired by: phrases such as back-lit light of polished steel (poet Mary Oliver), marzipan moon (author Hilary Mantel), as tender as an extension cord (Pete Wells, restaurant critic, The New York Times); words like borage, palavering, sump, scialytic. It scares me to think of all the gorgeous words and phrases I've forgotten after forty years of reading!

I have several stories cooling in a drawer. I've chastised myself for not making the time or creating the courage to rework my pieces, research markets and submit them. Turns out I was wise to leave them sit, letting my thoughts sift, before returning to them with fresh, more critical eyes.

With Long's guidance on structure, openings, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, word choice, and revision, I'm tearing these stories apart and reassembling. And I will submit, resubmit - even those previously published, where possible. Long is very keen that you get your work out there - the creative process is not complete until you have attempted to share it with the world.

I will 'fess up: I did not do all the exercises. I did not comb through books I admire and craft my own sentences and paragraphs based on their models. I'm in too much of a groove with my writing and I don't want to slow the momentum. You can't be dogmatic about these things, any more than you can cook every single recipe in a cookbook and blog about it, then write a bestseller that will become a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, now can you? Oh, wait...

This isn't the be all and end all of writing guides - there are so many astonishing and revelatory works to discover and reread - several that are on my list to explore for the first time, many others I return to for inspiration and practical advice. But if asked to make a Desert Island decision - if I could take only one book - my choice would be clear:

I'd take my writing-practice notebook. And a pen. Thanks, Priscilla.

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