William Zinsser

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

Just A Homework Assignment

I'm currently enrolled in an essay writing course taught by writer and journalist Amy Paturel. Our first assignment was to craft a profile of ourself as a writer. How's that for a stretch of the imagination? Profile of a Writer-in-Progress

I ran my tenth half-marathon three weeks ago.  I completed my first long-distance race in November 2003 and I have run at least one half-marathon every year since.

So yes, I run. But I stumble when calling myself a runner. Runners are sleek, long-legged creatures who speak of fartleks, negative splits, performance shoes, PR's. Runners are "A" personality types who train to qualify for Boston, layout their gear the night before, and eat meals calibrated to maximize protein and carbohydrate loads.

Me? I've got ten pounds I can't seem to outrun, no matter how fast I sprint on interval days. I've followed several Runner's World training programs, but in all these years I've never broken out of the Intermediate Category. My running togs are crammed into a dresser drawer; early mornings find me cursing quietly as I sort out black shorts from dark blue shirts. I finally sprang for a fancy Garmin GPS sports watch a few months ago. Now I have an accurate-to-the-footfall accounting of how slow I am. Yes, I run. But I feel ridiculous saying "I am a runner."

I was in my early thirties when I first felt compelled to cross a finish line. Yet,the desire to write has been in me since I could tie a pair of tennies on my own. I have wanted to write since 1975, when I read Louise M. Fitzhugh's classic "Harriet the Spy," at the age of six. But the intent faded over the years to a "Wouldn't that be lovely?' dream as I pursued graduate work and created a career developing study abroad programs. I traveled, I schmoozed in various ivory towers, I had articles published in Transitions Abroad, a chapter in a textbook, and I contributed to our department newsletters.

But that was work; it didn't make me a writer. Writers attend Tuesday evening writer groups; they have bulletin boards covered in Post-Its that detail characters and plot threads; they have MFA's, manuscripts, agents, and a folder full of rejection letters that prove the prodigiousness of their efforts.

Two years ago I stopped keeping a journal, a practice I had started in 1975, inspired by Harriet and her notebooks. After a year's hiatus, I was aching to write. I wanted to be free from recording the minutiae of my day, yet be accountable to an audience. So last summer, I began this blog. I construct essays and book reviews and my reward is a writer's rush such as I never experienced scribbling in my journal. It's like a runner's high. Even when it hurts, and I suck, and I'm injured, and it rains, and I'm just not in the mood, running feels ridiculously good. Similarly, once the page begins to fill with words, the literary endorphins flow.

I am a self-taught writer; my classroom is the endless library of fiction and non-fiction that I live to read. I can conjugate the past conditional of irregular ˆre verbs in French, but I can't keep straight when, in English, to use a semi-colon or when a simple comma will do. I absorb the advice of the accomplished: Stephen King makes me think twice before employing an adverb; Natalie Goldberg fills me with guilt for not writing enough; William Faulkner compels me to murder my darlings; William Zinsser just scares the crap out of me.

Returning to the page in this blog has given me the courage to find my voice and to pursue fiction writing. I enrolled in a two-year, non-residency fiction writing program late last autumn. My writer-mentor critiques my assignments. I bask in or shrink with her feedback. I rewrite and carry on. I attend the occasional workshop at The Richard Hugo House, a writing center in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. I soak in the amazing writer juju and soothe my sense of inadequacy when we read our efforts aloud with the knowledge that I am taking essential risks. By risking, I will learn.

I find myself using the essay to mine my memory for inspiration. I search for sensations, images, encounters, even fragments of conversation that I can pin to my mental bulletin board. I am learning to listen and to look for the smallest details that will spark my imagination and ignite a new story. Based on the work I have submitted as part of my writing program, I am now working on a series of short stories inspired by my experiences living in Appalachia, the Rockies, central Africa, France, Japan, and New Zealand. And I dream of a stone cottage in the Languedoc where I would write to the sound of goat bells in the garrigue.

My first short story - and I mean first, as in written and submitted - was published last month.Thirty-six years after a precocious eleven year-old from Manhattan's Upper East Side - sporting black-rimmed spectacles, with a penchant for tomato sandwiches, and mentored by a Dostoevsky-quoting nanny - entered my life and inspired me to write, I have published my first story. Just don't ask me to call myself a writer.

N.B. I am now four weeks into Amy's essay writing course and preparing a couple of non-fiction pieces to submit to magazines in the coming months. The class been hugely beneficial - I highly recommend it - Amy is an amazing writer and teacher. And I'm keeping a journal again.