Writers Resources

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

Not To Live Too Small: Thank You, Kent Haruf

77156  

I can tell you the moment I decided to be a writer when I grew up: I was six and I'd just read Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. I wrote a bunch of stuff for years—stories, mostly—oh where did they all go? But I can't tell you when I stopped writing. I just sort of drifted away.

 

Junior year of high school, there was Mr. Compton, who turned around the life of a kid determined to fail of her own accord before the world could catch on how worthless she really was. He reminded me how much I loved to write and pushed me to keep at it. There was Professor Martin from English 301 in college, who handed back a paper with a long note at the end that basically said, "You're an outstanding writer. I wish you hadn't switched your major." (Yeah, Doc Martin, me too. Psychology was worthless, but someone convinced me along the way that I'd never get a job as an English major. Not that I got one with Psychology, either. I sure as hell would have learned more had I stuck with English.) Yet somehow by thirty, the only writing I'd done for years was in my journal.

 

I'd never stopped reading, of course, but I hadn't sought out literature in any meaningful fashion—I read whatever came my way: highbrow, lowbrow, and all sorts of stuff in between.

 

But then, late in the 1990s and early 2000s, as I was zooming up the slope of a career I clung to until we chucked it all and moved to New Zealand in 2006, a handful of contemporary literary fiction nudged me toward a different path. In 2003, it was Wallace Stegner's classic deconstruction of marriage, Crossing to Safety (1987); 2001 introduced me to Jhumpa Lahiri and her transcendent short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999); a bout with the flu late 2000 put David Guterson's atmospheric slow burn Snow Falling on Cedars (1995) into my hands.

 

Plainsong by Kent Haruf, which I read the year it was published (1999), was the first of these transformative reads. Its prose is so powerful, its narrative profound; I was astonished that anything so quiet could pack such a solar plexus punch.

 

These works knocked something loose inside of me. They changed the way I read and changed the way I thought about writing. These novels and stories continued the preparation and education of my heart and mind, which had started decades earlier with Harriet the Spy, for the time when I would finally decide that every other ambition had to go.

 

Kent Haruf visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—where I worked—to read from and discuss his new novel. He signed my copy of Plainsong. I wish I had a clever anecdote, something that I learned about writing just from being in the presence of so gifted and hard-working a man, but I recall only that the author was gracious, gentle, soft-spoken, and full of quiet dignity, just like his books.

 

From my own review of his novel, Benediction:

'Kent Haruf is a master of the understatement. He is a sublime observer, less a storyteller than a whispering carney offering glimpses into the circus of life. His narratives are quiet, moving to a gentle rhythm. At first glance, they can seem as dry and simple as the flat, square towns on Colorado’s eastern border where his stories are set. You think you have taken it all in, standing there on the edge by the feed store, looking straight down 6th avenue to the water tower that rises like at sentinel on the other end of town. But you must look beyond what you see to discover what is really there . . . Haruf rarely grants redemption to his characters, just as life itself doles out redemption in meager dribs, offering only enough grace to keep us going until our time is played out.'

 

Last week, Kent Haruf's time played its last notes. But the quiet strength of his gracious prose will continue. Our Souls at Night, the novel he was editing when he died, will be published in 2015.

 

Earlier this fall, Granta published an essay by Kent Haruf as part of its series The Making of a Writer. Read it, please, it's lovely. Ironically, I captured the link in an obituary in The Guardian: Kent Haruf, 'a great writer and a great man,' dies at age 71 I'm thrilled a British paper memorialized this American treasure; he wasn't well enough known in the United States, which perhaps suited him just fine.

 

Thank you, Kent Haruf. Rest in peace.

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.

466488_2853850181498_178228739_o

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

If you don't have time to read ...

... you don't have the time (or tools) to write. So sayeth Stephen King in his most excellent memoir and writing guide, On Writing (Pocket Books 1999)  

I began the summer with such grand writing goals and by the middle of August, I was nearly there: I'd written one of two short stories; completed two flash fiction pieces; created a database of literary agents to query and finished my query letter (or at least revised it 684 times); drafted one-, two-, and four-page novel synopses; I blogged and book reviewed. In between were two revisions of my first novel, Refuge of Doves—undertaken after receiving story and copy edits from my editor. I was determined to dance through my writing project list and take a bow on August 31.

 

Draft 2: Novel 2, begins September 1.

 

The second short story wasn’t going to happen. Writing the first story, and then trimming it from a bloated 8,500 words to a civilized 6,000-something, took weeks. That one story and the two flash were about all I had in me. I accepted I couldn't start fresh on another story in the final two weeks of August—a period that included a lovely visit with out-of-state guests, when I stepped away from writing for more than one day in well over a year—and have something worth sending out for submission by the end of summer.

 

Saturday afternoon, after our guests had gone, and I’d emptied the dishwasher and brought up the last load of laundry, I poured myself a glass of Saumur rouge and opened Francesca Marciano’s short story collection, The Other Language (click for my review).

 

The next morning I sat down to write. By Tuesday evening, I’d completed the first draft of a 5,100 word short story. Several revisions later, it lives and breathes at 4,800 words. I’ll give it, and myself, a bit of a rest before a final edit and proofread, but it’s solid. Complete.

~

 

A few weeks ago, I landed in the middle of a discussion with a few writers about routines and patterns, the things we must or cannot do at certain stages of our writing process. I was baffled by the number of writers who stated they read nothing, other than what they might be using for research, while writing new material. Several fiction writers commented they could read no fiction because they feared losing their own writing voice, imitating another writer, or being otherwise influenced by his style. Another commented how she feared comparing her work to other, published authors and losing heart. Still others cited lack of time, energy, interest.

 

I thought my head might explode.

 

If I stop reading, it means I've stopped breathing. Reading brought me to writing; from the first eager devouring of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy at the age of six, I ached to wrap my hands around a pen, smooth open a spiral-bound notebook, and scribble. Something. Anything. The words. All the astonishing words.

 

It had never occurred to me that a writer could be anything other than a helplessly voracious reader. I can’t fathom silencing other writers, or emptying my ears and eyes and brain of beautiful language, of precise structure, of rhythmic flow.

 

But hey. We each have our own processes and systems and conditions by which we work the best. Some need near-silence to hear their own voice. I have never—tap wood—lost my voice in the presence of great writing. Instead, I overflow with inspiration and feel a sense of release and possibility.

 

My ear for music and language turns me on to a writer’s cadence and I find myself playing along in my own sentences, discovering new ways to structure my thoughts. It’s an invisible collaboration with another writer, a jazz riff played in admiration and homage in a quiet room, or in my case, in the front seat of the car, where I get most of my writing done. No wi-fi, you see. There are other voices I need to silence, to hear my own. But as for reading, it’s what sustains me as a writer. As a human being.

 

Grazie cara, Francesca Marciano. Your gorgeous stories, your strong and confident voice, restored me. You made me crave to write. The words gushed out. I had one more story in me this summer, after all.

 

Shedding Light

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

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

Stop. Look. Go.

It's not happiness that makes us grateful. It's gratefulness that makes us happy. David Steindl-Rast The wheelbarrow dropped into a rut and I rammed it through the mud, cursing. My lower back would pay for that pig-headed push. While waiting for the next dump truck load of soil, I squatted in catcher's pose and poked strawberry plant runners through a weed barrier cloth. I yanked weeds and tossed centipedes from kale. I ate a warm, homemade brownie with my gloves on, smearing my teeth with chocolate and dirt. My nose was running, my left sock had skidded down my Wellington boot to my heel, and I had to pee.

Two hours later, I folded my aching limbs into the front seat of the car, peeled off my work gloves, and proudly displayed for my husband the fiery red spots that pulsed on my fish-belly white palms—blisters in the making from shoveling dirt into that wheelbarrow and spreading it over sheets of cardboard as I helped prep a new bed in a food bank community garden. I was happy. Quietly, sweetly, content.

Where did that simple happiness come from? Giving a few hours to my community? Hanging out with a group of kind, funny, hardworking people? Being outside on a blustery, sharp spring day? The raw and clean exertion? Of course. Maybe. Probably not. These were all ancillary conditions to what was really going on. And what was really going on was me, existing one hundred percent in the moment.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to this podcast:  Simply Happy: TED Radio Hour, which synthesizes several TED talks on the concept of happiness. In one, psychologist and biomedical engineer Matt Killingsworth tells his audience the secret of happiness. It's the real deal, folks—he did a slew of research, crunched a bunch of numbers, and it all comes down to this: we're happiest when we live in the moment. When our minds don't wander. When we lose ourselves in an activity, we find our bliss.

On the other side of the Matt Killingsworth hard data approach is the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, who also believes that happiness is found by living in the moment. But he takes the process a few steps beyond. He tells us to Stop. Look. Go. First, be in our moment, then recognize it as an opportunity, and finally, go forward with gratitude. Steindle-Rast does not offer false platitudes about gratefulness for the horrible things that happen in life, but he explains how people who suffer terrible loss can also be those who discover transcendent joy.

I'm lousy at this being in the moment business. My brain flies in seventy-five directions at once as I brood over my recent stumbles and fret about the hurdles yet to jump. But there are times, like the hours I pushed that wheelbarrow and shovel around the community garden, when I am nothing but a mass of breathing peace and awareness. Those hours were a gift and I felt the gratitude of the moment.

As I listened to this podcast, the bell of recognition chimed low and sonorous. I'm happiest when I write. Of course. Not grinning ear to ear, giddy, playful Happy, but present, focused, immersed in the moment Happy. Shoveling compost in the garden Happy. I'd go so far as to dispense with the notion of Happiness altogether and call it the even more desirable state of Fulfillment. And, I am grateful.

I agonize about the future, the certainty of failure, the choices that push their way to the surface—some weeds, others nourishment—yet, I need to remember that cultivating gratitude is priority number one. Not success or achievement, but the recognition of opportunity each moment brings.

Do I write because being published makes me happy? Certainly, it's thrilling and validating. But does it make me happy? Hmm ... no. The acceptance of a piece of work is fleeting pleasure. The happiness, the Matt Killingsworth-I've-got-the-data-to-prove-it Happiness, comes from the being present in the process. And from recognizing the joy the act of writing brings. In the end, that's got to be enough.

Stop. Look. Go. Change your world one moment at a time by being grateful for the moment you are in.

Unloading Dirt, Quimper Grange Food Bank Garden ©Julie Christine Johnson

Quimper Grange Community Food Bank Garden ©Emily Vagts

And the Winner Is...

And now I break from my regularly-scheduled programming to accept the honor of the Versatile Blogger Award. Blogs are strange little creatures. I wouldn't be a writer without mine, for I started it with the sole intent of forcing myself to write as if I had an audience. Of course, I had not a single follower when I started, which was the ONLY reason I began to blog. Much to my mortification, people— strangers, friends, colleagues—began to follow and comment. I still babble away to myself here and I'm still astonished that anyone reads, but as long as you do, I hope I say something of value every so often.

But awards such as the VBA aren't about the blogger herself. They are an opportunity to recognize and spread the word about a valued community. Many supportive, creative, passionate souls have appeared in the time I've been filling this space and getting settled into this writer's life. We blog in isolation but if we keep at it, we'll be rewarded with feedback and followers who assure us our voices are heard and appreciated.

Accepting the Versatile Blogger Award means following the rules. I'm not so good with rules, but in the spirit of this great community, follow them I shall. The most important rule is to call out and thank a few of the bloggers I follow. Their words, appearing in my e-mail or blog reader several times a week, remind me how and why writing changes lives. Y'all are so great.

 

Thanking first the blogger who nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award: 

Anawnimiss  Thank you and Peace.

 

Blogs I Follow, for Inspiration and Empathy:

Writing and Other Forms of Suffering

Kev's Stuff

Dragonscale Clippings

Highland Hind

Grace Makely

Sylvie's World is a Library

BG Bowers

Claudia Cruttwell

Velvet Skies

Journey with Julia

Mag Offleash

Celenagaia

An Amateur Author

Ordinary Canary

Unexpected Paths

 

And Those Seven Things You Probably Don't Know About Me. For Good Reason.

  • Introvert that I am, I'm quite good at public speaking. In fact, I love being on stage.
  • Dancing makes me outrageously happy. Me, dancing I mean. Not watching other people dance. That's nice, too, but not the same.
  • I have a potty mouth. Particularly when driving. It's best I drive alone. You would be shocked.
  • Clumped-together seeds in or on fruit give me the heebie-jeebies. Like the inside cores of bell peppers, or seeds on strawberries spaced too closely together, or seeds inside gourds. Oh, I just get the willies. Does this make me completely insane?
  • I weep easily at movies. Or touching commercials. I'm a weeper. Completely sentimental. "Titanic"? Fuhgedabboudit. I bawled.
  • I hate going out at night. And for me, night starts at 5:30. I'll do it, for your birthday, or a concert, or for Lord of the Rings. But mostly, it's torture. I just want to curl up and read, then go to bed at 8:30. Leave me alone.
  • It took me a week to come up with this list. Who wants to talk about themselves? That's why I write stories about other people.

    Impromtu Improvisation

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

The Breathings of Your Heart

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart - William Wordsworth  

Someone remarked to me the other day that writing isn't craft, it's art. The commenter stated she isn't a writer, but an avid reader who can tell when a writer has crafted the story, rather than allowed it to unfold.

This came in response to a discussion of a recently-published writing guide I had read, enjoyed and learned buckets from, though with a solid caveat emptor. There were elements to the guideopinions posited by the author as writing shoulds and muststhat made me twitch. At times it seemed I was reading the Starbucks business plan: no matter where you arebe it Seattle, Shanghai, Salamancathe store, the coffee and the service will be exactly the same. In other words, just stick to the blueprint for guaranteed success. Although I applaud Starbucks for its acumen, the coffee is unpalatable. And so it is with story.

Perhaps my fellow bibliophile was offering an antidote to the writing guide: respect the process of creation and value writing as an art form, not as a craft with a set of rules.

Yet, I disagree that writing is only art and not craft. Just as a photographer must know her camera and understand composition, a painter must know how to create perspective, understand human anatomy and mix paints on his palette, a dancer must spend hours at the barre or a pianist at the keyboard, practicing the same pieces over and over, so too must a writer understand and practice plot and structure, be proficient in grammar, and revise revise revise, becoming a better writer through the magic of hard work. Reading widely is a natural companion to writingI'm a voracious reader and can't imagine my life without booksbut only by writing can a writer become a better writer.

And yet. My friend has a point. A very, very good one. It's art über alles. But what is the art of writing? Hell if I know, I just got here. Ask that guy at the barhe looks like he knows the place.

Perhaps art is imagination or inspiration, perhaps it is an ear intrinsically attuned to the music of language. Perhaps it is the calling or compulsion to create. Art is passion. Passion for the subject, certainly, but more than that. It is passion for the act of writing, it is a helplessness that says "If I didn't write, what else would I do?"

Art is beyond rules. It is emotion. It is the breathings of your heart. It is, as Richard Hugo so poignantly stated, the way of saying you and the world have a chance.

Perhaps craft is the ability to make art that people enjoy and/or find meaningful. It is the means by which we harness the heart just enough to put words and structure to our passion.

I have a small library's worth of writing guides. I adore them, for it is like having a shelfful of mentors who are there when, and only when, you really need them. One in particular, Priscilla Long's The Writer's Portable Mentor, gave me the courage to commit to the writing life; others provide motivation, inspiration, direction and enlightenment. But they are only guides. In the end, the writer must move forward on her own.

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. -- Neil Gaiman

 

P.S.:

1) Butt in Chair. 2) Write Words.

IMG_1357

Of all the gin joints in all the towns...

Two years ago, I wrote a story based on someone who slipped in and out of my life in a matter of weeks, set in a place where my heart swelled, then shattered. The short story was published earlier this year and I was so pleased. But it's an unfinished work. It is the foundation of an idea I'd considered developing into a novel, before I settled upon the tale I'm writing now. The characters knock around in my head, waiting. When the time is right I know they'll still be there, ready to tell me what's been happening since we last met.  

Round about the same time my short story found its way to print, a slim and elegiac novel landed on bookshelves. It came to my attention over the summer and a few weeks ago I read it. I hadn't heard of the author, but the novel had solid recommendations. The high praise is merited. It is an introspective, fragile story written in quiet but lyrical prose. It's a book I'm glad to have read.

 

Except.

 

There is a French word which combines disappointment with a feeling of having been set up, somehow: déçu. I read this lovely novel and I said, "Je suis déçue."

 

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

 

The similarities between the novel and my short story are striking. All the more so because the similarities are completely coincidental.

 

Which writer hasn't heard the maxim, "There are only seven basic plots, but thousands of variations"? But I'm not just talking plot here. We each wrote a story with the same evocative setting, about a woman struggling in isolation who meets a vulnerable soul in need of rescue. The same kind of rescue, through the same means and bureaucracies and from the same sort of community. And in the distance stands another character, eager to help, if she'd only drop her defenses and let him in.

 

There's a certain beautiful karma to the thought that perhaps we worked on our stories at the same time, that there are ideas, a place and themes big enough to carry us both in similar directions but which allow us to explore different emotions, interactions and outcomes.

 

But there's a part of me that says,"Well, shit. Now what do I do?" Change the setting? No way, José. It's as integral a part of the story as any of my characters. It is a character. And if I changed the story, well, that doesn't work for obvious reasons. I feel deflated. Flattened.

 

Deçue.

 

And yet. The story I have written, the one that rattles around in my heart saying "Write more of me" is still mine to tell. As much as the other author owns the story that appears in the novel. Our stories may not be unique, but our voices are. I'll admit, I'm relieved my short story was published before the novel appeared, so there can be no question that any similarities are coincidental should I ever take my plot and characters further. But I believe once I begin writing it again, something very different will emerge. I will, as Melissa Donovan advises (paraphrasing),"Forge ahead and believe in the story I want to tell." 

 

Here are a couple of posts from great writers/writing coaches which help me keep perspective.

Melissa Donovan, Writing Forward: Are There Any Original Writing Ideas Left? (this is the post where I pulled the paraphrased quote above).

And because every writer keen on storycraft should read Chuck's rockin' blog

Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing

 

And thanks to Casablanca for having the best quotes at the right time.

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

Pitchin' and Moanin'

A Seattle suburb. A high-rise hotel. Each with as much character as a styrofoam cup. 2:16 a.m. I am wake. I don't know why. Then, Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Beep. Beep.

You've got to be kidding me.

"Hello, this is Emily at the front desk. How may I help you, Ms. Johnson?"

Fifteen minutes later, Dave sets up a ladder underneath the smoke alarm. I'm curled in a fetal position on the king bed, wrapped in thick cotton robe. The alarm emits several prolonged shrieks in protest before Dave wrangles it into submission and changes its worn battery. I wait for my neighbors to bang on the walls.

At last, I lock the door behind Dave and his ladder. I cue Bach on my iPad and turn off the light.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

You've got to be kidding me.

Parked on an overhang a few feet from my window is a giant exhaust unit. Every two minutes it clicks on, sounding like a Boeing Dreamliner making an emergency landing on my balcony.

3:16 a.m.  I am imprisoned in Egyptian cotton and chrome Purgatory, held hostage by insomnia.

In four hours and forty-four minutes I meet with an editor to pitch my manuscript. First editor. First time out. First pitch.

Four hours of sleep.

First pot of coffee: 4:30 a.m.

One of my writer's goals this year was to pitch. No pressure, no expectations, just give it a go. On the advice of a fellow Northwest writer, I signed up for a writers' conference she assured me was low-key, warm and welcoming, where there would be agents and editors and an opportunity to deliver a standard five-minute pitch.

The agents and editors at this conference represent writers and books in a genre I don't write, though a few have broad portfolios. I felt I had little to lose. But I wanted to be prepared and professional. I researched how to pitch, spent several weeks honing a few paragraphs, tried out my pitch on two writer buddies, revised and rehearsed it again and again. I came to the conference with my manuscript distilled to one hundred eighty words that I could deliver in one minute, thirty-six seconds. Yes, I had my pitch memorized. No, I did not recite it from memory. It's okay to bring notes.

I was assigned an editor of an independent press. Not just an editor. The publisher's founder and CEO. She was my first pitch. My second, an hour later, the founder and CEO of a New York literary agency. I expected to be nervous, keyed up, a little hysterical from too much coffee, too little sleep and no breakfast. I expected to have fun, to receive feedback, to walk away with another learning experience in my writer's kit, my skin a little thicker for the "Thanks, but that's not what we're looking for."

I didn't expect to walk away with two requests for my manuscript.

Rumor has it only ten percent of writers send in a manuscript after a successful pitch. And yet, writers are admonished, "Don't be in a hurry to publish. Don't submit too soon. Revise, polish, revise and polish again."

I'm not rushing to hit "Send" with attachments. I know my manuscript isn't ready. But after two days of excellent workshops on craft and a renewed sense of inspiration and ambition, I emerge from this conference with a solid rewrite and revision plan. And determination to be in that ten percent by the end of the year.

You can do anything, as long as there is coffee. Even if Dave changes your smoke alarm battery at 2:30 a.m. And a Boeing 787 lands on your balcony at 3:00. Sleep when you're dead.

English: Artist impression of Boeing 787-9 Dre...

If I wanted your opinion, I'd...Oh, wait...

It's been a wobbly week here in Paradise. I received, in two separate batches, the first sets of anonymous critiques of my opening chapter. And that's my post. Thanks for stopping by.

No, seriously. When the critique bundles landed in my e-mail, I scanned for disaster, then perused them without breathing (maybe that's why I nearly passed out). I set them aside and eliminated 5,000 words from Chapter One. As a start.

A few days on. I reread the critiques. And I smiled. Eight writers saw my work. Eight published authors had criticisms and suggestions--some delivered far more gracefully than others--to make my story cleaner, snappier. Richer.

But I have to admit, I've put myself in a bit of a sticky place. I submitted these pages to a group of writers planted within a specific genre of fiction. More than that: a sub-genre of genre fiction. I picked a thematic element of my novel and tossed it to authors who write solely within this genre. The challenge is to extrapolate from a limited definition of story construction--according to a tried-and-true formula and for a specific group of readers--to the larger world of satisfying, engaging reads. And with some exceptions, I think the feedback was spot on. In the days since receiving these critiques, I've made enormous changes to my manuscript--not because I accepted everything offered as Gospel, but because I recognized the patterns. There were consistencies between the criticisms. And nothing my gut hadn't already warned me about.

This morning, while my coffee was hot and my mind was clear, I read the feedback and read it again. Honest. Encouraging. All of it useful advice, even if I choose not to follow it. Here are a few comments I grabbed:

The setting, the writing, the premise, the history, the - everything. I loved it.  

[[none of this is needed. I'm not trying to be harsh. This is publication ready writing. But this scene, while perfectly fine, is NOT moving the story forward.]] 

Your writing is lyrical and highly polished. I recommend that you spend a little more time on the main character’s scene before moving to a different historical time.

...That was a bit confusing. Otherwise, the writing is brilliant.  

...The writing is beautiful, but the distant viewpoint leaves me emotionally distanced from the characters. Good luck—you’ve got lots of talent.

Whenever I’m doing anything related to art (writing, acting, painting, cooking) I think of Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Structure first. What is the main character’s goal, motivation and conflict. Establish those first and then decorate to best underscore the story elements. I believe this story will be fantastic.

In a sweet twist of serendipity, I read William Kenower's book of essays for writers, Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion, the day before I received the first set of these critiques. He has this to say about facing rejection and criticism:

The world does not want you to fail. The world is forever supplying you with the information needed to do exactly what you want. Whether you accept this information is up to you. But do not fear the information. The only thing to fear is your judgment of that information. When those letters come back, look with friendly eyes upon what the world wishes you to know, and be grateful that you are one letter wiser.

I have so much to learn about storycraft. So much work to do before this novel is ready for a real editor to shred to bits. Mired in my isolation, I've had no idea until this week whether what I've been working on for the past fifteen months is viable, publishable work. I still don't know that, but I feel more confident I'm on the right path. I believe the world does not want me to fail.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow

IMG_1141

The Sun Also Rises. Every Single Day.

Related Posts from wise writers~astute bloggers:

Five Reasons You Should Embrace Rejection Linda Formichelli for copyblogger

Doubt, Fear, False Alarms, and "Giving Birth" To Our Dreams Kristen Lamb

When Writers Face a Constant Climb

The Scum Also Rises. Or, How Writing is like Vodka

I dig distillation. I dig that a mad farmer-artist-scientist can take a bushel of rye, wheat, potatoes, corn, grapes, sugar cane--what have you--ferment it to potent alcohol and pass it through a still to create a liquid that will straighten the tangle of your intestines with searing, rich, and lusty fire. Without getting all spirit-ual on you, the purpose of distillation is to separate the impurities found in the heads and the tails--the first and last parts of the distillation process--from the heart--the desirable middle portion. Less heads and tails in the heart, the purer the spirit.

I'm a Cognac, Armagnac, Scotch whisky, and Bourbon girl, myself. I like my brouillis bold and my congeners cocky. Give me smoky peat and sour mash--I want booze with grit. Water-white, über-distilled, neutral vodka has never done much for me. Until now.

Oh, don't worry. I'm not pounding the Absolut in my pursuit of the writing life. Tazo Green Ginger tea is my potion of motion while huddled over the laptop. It's just that I've spent the past six weeks distilling The Novel with more effort than a custom-made Christian Carl pot still with multiple rectification columns.

IMG_0908Since my foray into full-time writing began in mid-July, I've been editing. I started at the beginning of The Novel and I'm working my way, scene by scene, to the end. I'm filling in plot holes, finessing the details of setting and history, and adding dimension to my characters. Revising. Rewriting. Amending. Emending. Butchering. Compiling. Tightening. Refining. I nearly entitled this blog post "Revising is like Vodka" because it feels as though I haven't done much writingBut it's all writing, isn't it? It might not be the curl-up-on-the-sofa-at-4-am-with-Pilot-Fine-Point-and-Moleskine that got me the meat of a novel, but it's the work that will get me to the heart of all I've written.

I entered a couple of "Opening Chapters" contests--these are where you send the first pages of your novel and hope you make it far enough in the process to have your work seen by an agent and/or an editor. It took me over two weeks of mind-numbing revision to prepare forty double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point pages. I changed a major plot point, rearranged a ton of scenes, and sheared off 6,000 words. SIX THOUSAND WORDS. Five percent of my work, gone. The Novel went on a crash diet. I distilled those opening pages over and over again until my inner refractive index said "Enough."

I sent off my entries and walked away from The Novel. A few days later I sat down to reread my forty pages of marvelously redacted prose.

AAIIGGHH!!!!

AAIIGGHH!!!!

Three pages in and I was running for the red pen. Heads and Tails all over the place. Does the distillation never end?

Author Ann Hood told a packed crowd at the Port Townsend Writers' Conference in early July that she had revised her novel The Knitting Circle thirty-five times. Thirty-five times BEFORE sending the manuscript to her editor, even before letting her first reader--her husband--have a peek. Thirty-five trips to Kinkos to pick up a boxed copy of the current draft.

Ann left us with a laundry list of outstanding editing practices, which I may share with you when I muster up the courage to face the list again. Each of her suggestions could be a full-draft edit exercise; since I wrote down twenty parts to the process, I reckon I've got at least twenty full edits ahead of me.

Distillation: the process by which aromas, flavors, and alcohol are concentrated and negative compounds removed.

I'll drink to that. But my title simile has its descriptive limitations. Let's not forget that impurity is another name for character. You can have your vodka martini. Pour me a Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old. Neat. 

Use Your Words

You know those lists that ping-pong around the internet every few months, those "If You Don't Use These Words Correctly, You're An Idiot" lists? You know the ones: "My head literally exploded when I heard Anthony Weiner was caught sexting AGAIN." Wow. Did you call the Sunshine Cleaning girls to deal with the mess?  

I hate those lists.

 

Yes, yes, all right. It's like fingernails raking down a chalkboard, sticky jam between my fingers, creeping underwear I can't adjust to see it's/its, you're/your, their/they're/there, I/me, fewer/less than, etc., and so on, misused and abused. I like my punctuation neat, my spelling correct, my homonyms sorted and selected with care. I could care less about usage. I'm a descriptivist with a moon in prescriptivism.

 

What chaps my hide about the lists is their cheap SNOOTiness (you'll have to click the link to read all about SNOOTs. I'm trying to keep my word count down). They are the syntactical equivalent of the No Child Left Behind approach to education, with all the constancy social media can bestow (like, three seconds' worth): Here, memorize a list of rules, never attempt to use nonplussed in a sentence, and off you go into the wonderful world of language.

 

These smarmy compilations often self-identify as lists of grammatical mistakes, when in fact they are spelling, punctuation or word choice errors. Grammar is the structure we use to create meaning from the piles of words at our disposal. But I'll acknowledge the broader definition of grammar, which spills beyond the classic meaning to include spelling, punctuation, and usage.

 

Grammar is Greek in derivation, meaning the art of letters. Isn't that lovely? The Art of Letters.

 

These punctilious lists would be unnecessary if we placed a higher value on the learning of language, and the reading and writing of beautiful and thoughtful texts. If we just read and wrote more. But that's a rant for another place and time.

 

I want to celebrate the Art of Letters, not rap across someone's knuckles for ending a sentence with a preposition. Which is perfectly legit, thank you very much.

 

Grammar Police, wielding these lists like rulers, clamp on the blinders instead of opening readers' eyes. They favor pedantry over playfulness. They ignore that language lives, breathes, expands. It's rough, rowdy, and ridiculous. It grabs at and sinks its teeth into words, masticates chews grinds them up, and spews great spitballs of meaning. Some stick, some don't.

 

And if you snigger when bemusement is used to express wry or tolerant amusement instead of puzzlement, or peruse to mean scan instead of delve into, snigger to yourself. It might make you nauseous (yup, 'nother one, whether you like it or not). Those "incorrect" definitions are on their way to becoming accepted usage. Not yet in the O.E.D., but Watch This Space.

~

I've studied French for many years. I love its graceful precision, how there seems to be one correct way to say something--and it's the perfect way, the only expression or construction you need to say exactly what you mean. French is clean, crystalline, harmonic. Like Fauré. Like Chopin.

 

English is jazz. It's hip hop. It riffs, it borrows, stakes its claim, then runs off with the secretary. It's irreverent and innovative.

 

Studying languages--French, Italian, and Spanish--and teaching English to speakers of other languages has allowed me to appreciate and use English grammar with greater care. And I am so very grateful to be a native speaker of English. I wouldn't want the hassle of making sense of our gumbo tongue.

 

To become a better grammarian and editor, as any writer should aspire to be, arm yourself with great writing guides, dictionaries, a thesaurus or two. My current favorite guide is Ben Yagoda's sparkling, concise, and spot-on How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. Stephen King still rocks my writing world with On Writing. I did a "Find" of -ly words in a 50-page portion of my novel that I'm entering in a contest, scrubbing 70 percent of  the -ly adverbs this search uncovered, replacing them with verbs and nouns. Thanks, Steve. I recently snagged a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Best Friend by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I carry it with me wherever I go to write.

 

But I believe the best way to become a better writer is to read. Read well-written everything: articles and poetry, essays and novels. Friday Fiction tweets, where writers craft stories in 140 characters. Lyrics.

 

Read sentences such as these:

 

"She moved between them as a chaise between carts, was heard after them as a romance after sermons, and was felt among them like a breeze among furnaces." Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

 

"She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved." Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine

 

“It’s a clear October day. The wind scatters bright leaves against the blue opalescence of air.” Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces.

 

Halfway through your life, death turns up and takes your pertinent measurements. We forget the visit. Life goes on. But someone is sewing the suit in silence. Tomas Tranströmer, Black Postcards

 

'Neath the halo of a streetlamp, I turned my collar to the cold and damp. When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light, split the night, and touched the sound of silence. Paul Simon, Sounds of Silence

 

Jesus wept. John 11:35, The Bible, King James version

 

Now, go outside and play.

Writing with Porpoise. Port Townsend, August 2013

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?

Twenty Words

As I grind through The Novel, with thousands of words behind me and just a few thousand more ahead, I am aching to write short fiction again. There is such challenge and satisfaction in crafting a complete story, with fully formed characters facing obstacles and arriving at some sort of resolution, in fewer than 10,000 or 5,000 or 1,000 words. Excuse the running metaphor, but short fiction is a speed workout that leaves you trembling with endorphins, legs wobbly from those fast-twitch muscle fibers that fired you through quarter-mile repeats instead of the measured slog of a long-distance run. The fast-twitch fibers in my brain were reawakened during the workshop I attended yesterday during the Port Townsend Writer's Conference: Flash nonfiction: Writing Memoir in 750 words or less led by the delightful Sayantani Dasgupta, a writer and a professor in the Department of English at the University of Idaho (Side Note for Grammar Geeks Fewer vs. Less - I'm straddling the fence here. Since we're discussing word count, I'm sticking with fewer than, but I'm open to being persuaded in the direction of less if you can make a compelling "bulk" case. Oh my goodness, I heart Grammar!).

I am preparing myself for the emptiness I will feel when The Novel is complete. Not finished, mind you - months of revisions and multiple drafts undulate like an ocean before me; I'm already a little queasy at the thought - but the characters will have done their work and will either walk away forever or lie down to rest until their time comes 'round again. I'm braced for the "Now, what do I do?" feeling that will hit about the time the year turns away from autumn and hunches its head to the oncoming winter. So, I let my mind wander away from the Languedoc just a bit and feel around for new ideas. I return to jotting down those snippets of my life or overheard bits of others' that become fodder for new tales to tell. My autumn/winter goal, to break up the tedium of editing editing editing, will be to complete several pieces - from flash to shorts and whatever is between.

In short fiction, each word carries great significance. This is true of all writing, of course, but there is the luxury of development and backstory in long form prose. Flash fiction in particular is a kissing cousin to poetry. Each word pops, stings, zings, shocks, compels, evokes, hearkens. There is a rhythm - a poetic flow - but also a tightness to the structure that makes it a complete art form, distinct, difficult and powerful.

To get us thinking about the power of words, Ms. Desgupta presented this writing prompt during yesterday's workshop:

What if you were only allowed to use twenty words for the rest of your life? List these twenty words. How will you write a story of your life so far and of your vision of the future by weaving in and out of these twenty words?

In my tendency to overanalyze even the simplest of exercises, I wanted to make certain my words could convey multiple feelings, needs, desires, and experiences. These four came immediately to mind:

  • earth
  • fire
  • water
  • air

Then I thought of the things I do that make up the who I am:

  • write
  • run
  • read
  • wander

What I value most spilled out:

  • marriage
  • health
  • peace
  • present

Random things I cannot live without:

  • coffee
  • wine
  • vision (another one of those multiple meaning words, but suffice to say I'm epically near-sighted)
  • home

Words I would not want to give up, even though I could convey their meaning by pointing my finger:

  • I
  • You

And it struck me that I included these two words:

  • Fear
  • Fuck (this one appeared on several lists; I think we all need one good curse in our arsenal. This covers so much ground in four letters: perfection)

But I didn't include Love. I reckon love is implicit in words 1 -18. 19 & 20, too, really.

Can I write the story of my life using only twenty words? I think I just did.

Which twenty words would tell the story of your life?

How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine

This Round's On Me

I almost bailed. It wasn't just the hangover. I tend to get a little manic in the early half of hangover recovery (I swear my best runs are the morning after one too many glasses of wine). But that night, it was the M. Stansfield, the Lazy Gardener and a shared carafe of sake. And the pork belly dumplings. And the kimchi. I was up early, despite the gin. I went for a swim - endorphins being the best hair-of-the-dog I know - then home to a monster plate of poison-soaking-up pancakes. And I still had hours to sneak in lunch and perusal at Elliott Bay Books before the afternoon writing workshop at Hugo House.

It was more that I'd had a shitty two weeks of writing. I'd kept up with my early morning writing sessions, except for the two days we were out-of-town almost buying a house and then not and then leasing an apartment. And the one morning I was compelled to finish the book that had so enraptured me during a bout of raging insomnia a few hours before. Turning its final pages, I sat on the sofa clutching a gut-scorching mug of coffee and I sobbed.  Then I went to work and quit my job. Didn't get much writing done that day. And then there was the morning after the night before, my brain too hazy with gin and kimchi to face pen and blank paper.

But really, I've churned out some pages. Just not as many as I'd've liked. Weekends have been distracted frenzies of packing and shopping for things that I fear I will need but won't be able to just pop out and purchase once I leave a city of 4 million for a peninsula of 10,000. I missed my February goal of 90,000 total by... oh... 5,000 words. Or so. Not fair. It was a short month by four days. I might have made it, otherwise.

So on this day, after my swim and pancakes, after peppermint tea and Advil, I settled at my desk with several days' worth of writing to type into my manuscript. Got the iPod queued up with hours of rainy day tunes and shut down the social media sites. My fingers flew across the keyboard. Then the pounding began. And it wasn't in my tender head.

At first I thought the culprit was the young architect upstairs who introduced himself to our complex last Halloween by throwing a raging party (my neighbors and I don't party. Sometimes the guy across the courtyard yells during football season) that resulted in me calling the landlord at 7 the following morning to have someone clean up the vomit on our patio spewed by a party girl from the balcony above. I'm not a fan of the guy upstairs. And he's a stomper. A small guy who crosses his living room like Charlton Heston in a chariot pulled by water buffalo.

But it wasn't Stomper Boy. It was coming from below the apartment. I discovered the landlord in the basement, repairing the basement ceiling, i.e. my frigging floor. For over an hour, I was subjected to hammering, drilling, thumping. Then the birds that nest in the chimney got going. Soon I was surrounded by a convention of noisemakers, all of whom were clearly aware that this was the first time in days I had sat down at the computer, knuckles cracked, primed to work. I did work, between bouts of cursing, but it wasn't quality - it was a secretarial act, retyping my longhand without registering my intent in the words.

I considering bundling myself, laptop and notebook off to the Queen Anne branch of the SPL, where I spend most weekend afternoons. But then the hangover fatigue hit and I knew after thirty minutes wrapped in the blanket of a warm, quiet Reading Room, I'd be mush. And by the time I settled in, I'd have to turn right around and schlep across town to Capitol Hill and Hugo House to attend a workshop I'd registered for last December in a pique of writerly enthusiasm. Which was now the one hundred percent last thing I wanted to do.

So I gave a "Fuck it" and stomped out the front door.

Ah jeez.

IMG_1244

Sometimes I just want to talk about writing. I want to hear other people talk about writing. Workshops are dandy and handy and I nearly always come away with a scrap, or a collection of scraps, that I can mine for story ideas, motivation, contemplation. But I am not a star at writing well on cue - it's gotten easier, as I've mentioned before - but I'm about as skilled a spontaneous writer as I am a speaker - which means I'm better off remaining the mysterious, quiet presence in the back of the classroom. Keep 'em guessing. Never let 'em hear you sweat.

At some point during the afternoon, our guide and conspirator Jonathan Evison, author of the New York Times bestseller West of Here (2011), The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012), and recipient of the Washington State Book Award for his debut novel All About Lulu (2008), confessed he'd been dreading this workshop for several weeks. "I'm not a teacher," he proclaimed in the opening minutes of our hours together. "I don't believe you can teach writing. Just ask me some questions."

It wasn't a workshop. It was a talkshop, a thinkshop, a laughshop. The topic was ostensibly the relationship between the writer and the reader, which is first and foremost a dialogue the writer has with herself. What is the effect I'm trying to create with the story? What do I want the reader to walk away feeling, considering, sorting out? We discussed the assumptions we must make about our readers' intelligence.  As writers, we should "understate our expertise" by not engaging in a brain dump of research to ensure our readers get where the story is coming from and how the context informs the present action. This is critical for me to consider, as the very nature of historical fiction is fraught with sinkholes of exposition and backstory.

We talked about allowing characters free rein, to respect the direction characters take and to be prepared to "reverse engineer" the plot when the logic of the story or the logic of the characters' character demands it. I foresee putting on my big girl pants and wading into the muck of my plot for some serious reverse engineering in drafts to come.

We chatted about tension in story arc, the dance between the logic of the characters - remaining consistent with their nature - versus "subverting the reader's expectation" by taking the story in a direction they won't expect, yet by the end, becomes the only direction that is true to the story.

But mostly, we just kvetched. We spilled about the business of writing, about beta readers, editors, publishers, agents and failure. We examined the trajectory of an author who wrote his first novel in 1987, at the age of 19. Many novels and lifetimes later, the first published novel appeared in 2008, when Evison was 40. Twenty-one years of scraping together enough part-time gigs to support a writing habit that now supports a family full-time. To have the opportunity to mine the brain of a hard-working writer who takes nothing for granted blew away the cost of admission.

We compared work styles - Evison is yet one more champion of the first-thing-in-the-morning, long-hand school (I remember a workshop I attended a couple of years ago when the author strongly advocated early morning writing. I still have my notes, in which I scribbled "I'm up at 4:30 to run as it is, how the hell can I get up any earlier to write?" It took me another year to admit to myself I was making excuses about not having the time or energy to write while working full-time. Two years later, I see a novel coming together that will have been written nearly entirely between 4:30-5:15 a.m., one page at a time. This shit works, people. If you can't be there every day, aim for a minimum of 5). Evison revises as he goes, which I'm able to do with short fiction, but I fear I'd never finish if I attempted real-time revision with the novel. He writes a page a day, 320 days a year. A novel is born.

And we talked about what it is to be a writer. Which in the end has nothing to do with anything above. It is the moment you lose yourself in the story, you feel no hunger, no thirst, no pressure on your bladder. When you look up at last, you see that hours have passed. You felt only the characters acting through you; you became a conduit for the story to flow from the universe to the page. How it gets there and who eventually reads it is irrelevant to the fact that the only requirement to be a writer is to write. Jonathan Evison is correct. That can't be taught. It can only be done.