Writing

Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I signed up for guitar lessons. To learn my way around an acoustic was something I'd wanted for pretty much my whole life. I showed up to class every Monday evening and dutifully practiced every day. I loved it. I was awful, I knew it, and I didn't care. The day I was able to strum Cat Stevens' Wild World without hesitating over chord changes was one of the most gleeful of my life.  

But I quit those lessons after a couple months. The instructor. I think I was causing him actual physical pain. I was the only true beginner in a beginner's class and everyone just blew right past me. So I shrugged, set the guitar aside, and decided that one day, I'd find someone who was interested in teaching someone like me—earnest, with short, stubby fingers.

 

Late February, the Seattle-based alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger printed a piece by author Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One, and the internet blew up, at least those bits writers pay attention to. Several brilliantly-worded rebuttals have been penned in the intervening days, and I'll include links to a few of those at the end.

 

I could rant about Mr. Boudinot's silly conjectures on the nature of talent, or the age one must begin writing in order to achieve "success", or his revolting remark,"Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more." (Yes. Yes, he did). Yet what upsets me most is the attitude of entitlement and exclusivity that pervades this piece, that the act of writing belongs only to the most gifted and Mr. Boudinot should not have had his time wasted by the hapless.

 

Mr. Boudinot does make some salient, if not terribly original, points: Writers must write a lot (and not make excuses why they cannot); they must read a lot; they must work very, very hard, and expect obscurity; they must write authentic prose; and the publishing industry is really different than it was several years ago. Boom. Now you know.

 

I trust most MFA faculty do what they should: instruct and guide, rather than smirk at and bemoan the talentless or anoint the rare "Real Deals", as Mr. Boudinot refers to the handful of MFA students he taught over the years whose prose he could celebrate, rather than merely stomach. The profession of creative writing instruction is better for seeing the backside of Mr. Boudinot.

 

A few days after the Boudinot Debacle, another discussion unrolled in an online group of writers, this time about an interview with literary agent Chris Pariss-Lamb, The Art of Agenting, and his comment:

 

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? ...  I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

 

Okay. Here's the thing. I agree 100 percent with this statement. Except when I don't. I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—the November event that encourages people to pen 50,000 words of a rough draft from November 1-30—and can't see that I ever will. But does that mean I find it insulting (assuming of course that I'm a "real writer")? Does that mean I have the right to pass judgment on how others find and express their writing voice? Was Jimmy Page pissed off that I was butchering Peter, Paul and Mary because my feeble attempts belittled his years of practice? Did I actually think what I was doing was easy, just because I had a guitar? Seriously?

 

NaNoWriMo might have as much to do with writing a novel as the Runner's World Run-a-Mile-a-Day-for-30-Days challenge has to do with training for a marathon, but that's not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is to commit to the act of writing, perhaps giving a story a chance to take purchase in one's otherwise-distracted mind and busy life. It is a celebration of effort, a jubilation of creation.

 

Critics contend NaNoWriMo gives the impression that writing a novel is easy, if you can just crank out 1,667 words a day. Of course, no one understands what it takes to write a novel if they haven't put in the years of writing and revising and collecting rejections (the latter being an integral part of the writing process), and if the amazing happens—the book deal—all the work of revising and promotion that follow. But the Special Snowflake approach to writing—that no one really understands how hard it is unless they are the Real Deal or a Real Writer—oh, get over yourself.

 

Someone commented that we don't want/need more people writing novels. Fie on that. We want more people writing, painting, plucking out terrible renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a guitar. We want more people thinking creatively, telling stories, dreaming. It's the rare few who take it all the way past dream and hobby to send their work into the world, fewer still who find their way past the gatekeepers and into the realms of a profession. The "Real Deals" are those who show up to the page, day in and day out, despite lousy teachers and naysayers, despite the competition. The "Real Deals" make room at the table for all. Even those lumbering in with guitar cases in hand.  

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” ― Ken Kesey

Things Fall Apart

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

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

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

Getting the Words Right

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

Behind the Curtain: A Novel's Publication Schedule

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Approximate Manuscript Schedule:

First revision back to editor: January 26, 2015

Next edits to me: February 6, 2015

Final ms due: March 20, 2015

Cover for Author Review: probably Feb or March 2015

Copyedits for Author Review: April 13, 2015

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

ARCs** printed: Early June 2015

Synopsis for Sales: July 1, 2015

2nd pages for Author Review: Late September 2015

Blurbs due: Mid-October 2015

Final Closes to Printer: November 2015

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

 

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

 

Kinda sorta.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Can't Stay Long: A Writer On Deadline

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Janus Gate

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

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

2014 Whidbey Island Writers Conference

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

An Enchanted Life

An enchanted life has many moments when the heart is overwhelmed with beauty and the imagination is electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within a thing, a place, or a person. ~ H.L. Mencken  

Oh great, here comes AFPGO: Another Fucking Personal Growth Opportunity. ~ Unknown

 

About a mile into a run last week, I stopped. Just stopped. I couldn't. There are times when my body needs a break from running and I try to listen. I try not to judge. I walked home with tightness in my chest and heaviness in my limbs. I thought, "I'll just swim laps at nine." Nine came and I lowered myself into a hot bath. That was the water I needed, water like the warmth of the womb. I needed to be comforted, not challenged. I needed to soak, before I sank. I was utterly overwhelmed.

 

The slow creep of mud that finally reached my mental shoes, stopping me in my tracks—this weird blend of acedia and agitation—wasn't a surprise; I'd felt it coming. It started, perhaps, a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself in the midst of a tremendous online chorus of writers, some of whom are my literary heroes. I was amazed and delighted to have been included in their ranks. Their voices swelled and rose in a mighty roar of energy and affirmation that took my breath away. I found my way through the crowd to quieter corners and rooms down the hall, making personal connections with a few voices that reached me with calm clarity, but I couldn't shake the feeling that somehow I didn't belong there, that these writers, these thousands, were accomplished and ambitious in ways that are completely foreign to me, perched as I am on this almost-island, in my quiet sunroom, spinning my modest tales that no one would mistake for great literature or groundbreaking creative non-fiction.

 

Time to retreat. I stopped reading the bios that made me feel so woefully inadequate, I withdrew from conversations that sped past faster than I could read or type, reminding myself that time spent wishing I was more, did more, risked more, reaped more, was time spent not doing the one thing that mattered most: writing.

 

I returned to my keyboard and to my mind, wrote a flash fiction piece, finished the first draft of short story, and began researching literary journals to submit each. I did yoga on the beach, I hiked, I walked. I read a volume of beautiful poetry. I filled two boxes for Goodwill, because when I get like this, I want to lighten all my burdens, I want to clean out, get rid of, eliminate, discard, set myself free.

 

But still the disquiet remained. A torpor dulled my sense of possibility and joy, sitting heavy in my core, while anxiety beat a woodpecker's refrain against my heart. I knew I hadn't gone far enough in seeking the peace that would guide me to back into the light.

 

When the interwebs cease to be a source of information, of playfulness, of social release and friendship, I know that something is happening inside of me that bears watching. I know it's time to be careful, that the world is about to swallow me with noise. When I agitate instead of participate, it's time to shut it all down and walk away.

 

When I begin to despair that my writing doesn't stack up and that my future will never brush the dizzying heights of those in my online communities, it's time to recommit myself to the page.

 

Echoing a remark a writer friend made here recently, it's possible to read too much about and into the writing and publishing process. It's possible to fill your mind with so much advice on craft, so many dos and dont's of seeking publication, that you get mired down and find yourself unable to move forward.

 

It's possible to let the world get too loud.

 

I shared a draft of my query letter on a limited-public board last week, seeking critiques from fellow writers. One commented that my query was too perfect, too textbook. I'd felt the same, so the comment didn't sting, it confirmed. It came as a relief. I was right. In trying so hard to adhere to all the pro tips, I'd lost my voice. I rewrote it (again. again. again.) and I feel there's more of me in there, but it's not yet where it needs to be.

 

Until I can find my stride and run again, I'm deleting those writers' tips blog posts that get routed to my inbox. Until I feel safe in myself again, I'm staying away from the social media where I feel vulnerable.

 

I want to be overwhelmed with beauty. I want to be electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within. These happen only in two places for me: outside and on the page. That's where you'll find me, in case you're wondering where I've gone off to ...

 

7/5/14

ETA: A couple of wonderful articles have made their way into my life in the week since I first published this post. Just had to share:

The Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasan, for The Atlantic

Why Every Story You Write is a Guaranteed Failure by K.M. Weiland, on her eponymous blog

 

2014-06-28 16.41.42-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking a Literary Agent: The Quest Begins

Alternate title: The Crying Game. Ah, but I'm not crying. Not really. I'm just curled up in a fetal position on the floor, rubbing noses with the cat, whimpering a bit. And I have yet to send out a single query letter to a literary agent.  

No, I'm in the Agent R&D stage. I spent the past week–a few tedious hours each day that zapped my creative writing energy, blurred my vision, and caused my head to throb–compiling a list of potential agents to query. One of whom I hope will fall in love with my novel, Refuge of Doves.

 

From a list of 1000+ U.S.-based literary agents, I narrowed my search with a few key words and came up with 364 potentials. I created an Excel spreadsheet, opened up some Chrome windows, and started cross-referencing. I culled the list of 364 to 238. In addition to the standard name, agency, city, and agency website, my spreadsheet has a Submission Preferences column (Snail Mail? Email?). A Notes column. Columns for Date Query Submitted; Response Received; Resubmit? I ranked each agent who made it through my first pass with a Tier 1, 2, or 3 designation.

 

At this point, my spreadsheet has 144 Tier 1 agents. This is just Step One in a process that will take several more weeks. Again, all before I send out that first hopeful, stomach-looping round of query letters.

 

Several agents are from the same agency, and OF COURSE I will determine which of these is the best fit for my novel (you know this is protocol, right? Unless the agency's guidelines indicate otherwise, query only one agent). This will whittle the Tier 1 list down to ≈ 111 names. And I bet, as I dig further into the agents, their agencies, their preferences, discover who is not accepting new clients or non-referrals, my Tier 1 list will come in well under 100 names. That's about right. To start.

 

Then, and only then, will I begin sending out query letters. Just a few at a time, to gauge the nature of the rejections. Form letter/canned rejections are a clue that my query needs work. Real feedback will let me know if my story itself is the problem. I can't even begin to contemplate what I will do about that. Rewriting. Again. But, as is my custom, I'm already fretting over it.

 

It helps me to focus on the spreadsheets, the research, and the content of my query, see, because they are the things over which I have control. If I stop and think too much about what I'm doing and where all this is heading, I will stumble. I will sink.

 

Seeking agent representation is like searching for a job and searching for a romantic partner. You want to be recognized for your skill at your chosen craft. You want to show that you can do the job. Your query letter, like your job cover letter, has to be unique and rich with voice, but it must be short, clean, concise, and follow some standards. The query must sell your novel in the first 10 seconds–three short sentences–or it's into the rubbish bin.

 

And you, human being that you are, just want to be loved. Well, okay, you want your book to be loved, but who is really so thick-skinned they can separate their work from their soul? Certainly not I, not at this tender stage of my writing life. A rejection of your writing is like watching someone pore over your online dating profile and hearing them snort at your too-big nose and your freckles. Oh, the hurt.

 

Yet, I believe in approaching this process with respect, humility, and mindfulness. Even though I am but one in the faceless mass to an agent, it's my integrity on the line if I am anything less than authentic. I don't know if traditional publishing is the right path for me, but I know I must travel this road to find out. I must face the rejection and learn from the feedback. And I won't walk alone. Serendipity wrapped her warm and gentle arms around me this week and guided me toward a group of aspiring novelists who are on the same journey.

 

Each agent receives thousands of query letters a year. Thousands. The odds are so stacked against me, it's not funny. No, it IS funny. It's funny that anyone does this. It's funny that anyone believes this can work. It's funny that sometimes it does.

 

Oh, and I haven't even started working on my small/independent press spreadsheet. That's next week.

 

This lovely essay appeared in my blog reader this morning. So a propos of the query process, I had to share:

Don't Take It Personally, Kathryn Craft, Guest Blogger: Writers in the Storm

Resources which have come in super-handy as I get my brain around this Herculean task:

AgentyQuery.com

Association of Authors' Representatives

Mark Malatesta's Directory of Literary Agents

Poets & Writers magazine, on-line tools for writers

Predators & Editors

QueryTracker Track your submission in addition to, or instead of, a self-built database

Writer Beware

The Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino

2014-05-30 08.33.27

History is Not the Past

It pains me to admit it now, but I dreaded the rewrite of Refuge of Doves. Setting aside the first draft of a novel that had poured forth so naturally from mid-January to early April, I opened the drawer on a novel that was already eighteen months old. And still in need of So. Much. Work. But that kernel of there's something there, keep going had burrowed deep, fertilized by my inherent mulishness. Finish what you started, Johnson. Take this as far as you can.  And so I dug in.

The very week I began the rewrite, Terry Gross, the host of NPR's Fresh Air, interviewed Bart Ehrman, a UNC-Chapel Hill historian and professor of religious studies, about his new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from GalileeI will forever remember that Eureka moment, walking through the woods just east of the Chinese Gardens at Fort Worden, when Professor Ehrman said ".. there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer. What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. History is what we can show to have happened in the past. One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that's miraculous ..." I did a little dance right there on that forest trail. Probably scared the bejesus out of any onlooking deer.

 

Serendipity, Baby. 

 

My protagonist is a historian faced with accepting past miracles made manifest in the present. The very suspension of disbelief she faces is the same that any religion asks of its followers. It's the same that writers ask of their readers when the story leaves the realm of historical fact and plunges into the hinterlands of "what if?" I had been been flirting with this theme from the very first word, but finally I understood how to take the story deeper, to tie the narrative set in the present with that set in the 13th century. To depart from known history and delve instead into the nebulous past. 

 

The story became something different. Not hugely, but significantly.

 

The first change was immediate, drastic, even: I switched the protagonist's POV from first person to third. Writing this character in first person allowed me to understand her completely, but the story is greater than her character alone. Intimacy and immediacy are richer in first person POV, but third is a better fit for the style of the story. We'll see how I feel after this week's read-through ...

A minor character was shredded, his scenes folded into others. One major character has gone through three name changes in six weeks, bless his heart. A handful of new scenes written, and one dredged up from a long-ago draft. It's one those darlings I hated to kill, and there it sat, waiting patiently to find its place. In the end, I excised 10,000 words. And more will go, I'm sure, as I sit down with a paper copy and red pen.

Plot holes opened and scenes were reengineered. The ending changed from happy to hopeful. Love scenes went from blush-making to black-fading or dropped altogether. Dialogue tightened, personalities sharpened but characters became more ambiguous. Hopefully, you're not entirely certain whose side you're on. Because few things in life are black and white. Especially the truth.

In two weeks, this happy mess is off to a real, live, professional editor. It will be time. I have a couple of passes to make, an out-loud read-through to get through, but I feel it in my belly. The story is becoming what it should be—its own. Now I am ready for someone to tear it apart and work with me to rebuild. I believe in it in a way I haven't before. I feel a smidgen of giddy. this could be something.

2014-05-22 07.04.30-2

 

 

Shattering the Silence: Three Minus One

18669335Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love and Loss by Sean Hanish My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure note: I am one of the contributors to this anthology.

In July 2009, my first pregnancy ended. In July 2012, my second pregnancy ended. There will be no others. Those experiencesas well as the years of baffling infertility that preceded the losses, the attempts at adoption, the anger and hope, resolution and relief, the sense of a life unfinished and unfulfilledhave shaped me as an adult. They have affected me as a woman, a writer, as the mother I will always believe I was meant to be, as a wife who shares forever-grief with her husband.

In 2005, the wife of writer-director-producer Sean Hanish gave birth to a stillborn son. In their journey through sorrow and healing, Sean wrote the screenplay for a film. That film, Return to Zero, starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, premieres worldwide on Lifetime Network, Saturday May 17, 2014, 8:00 p.m. EDT. Return to Zero. Sean's original intention was to see this film distributed on the big screen. But realizing he would reach a vastly greater audience on a solid television network, he signed on with Lifetime at the Rome Independent Film Festival in Italy earlier this year. Bravo, Sean. Congratulations for your brave and beautiful work.

In tandem with the release of the movie and in the spirit of shattering the silence surrounding neonatal death, stillbirth, and miscarriage, Sean and Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press, conceived an anthology of prose and poetry written by women and men affected by child death. Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love & Loss is the result of their collaboration and ourthe contributors'journeys.

This collection of essays and poems speaks of pain and loss so profound, you are left breathless. Yet there is also incredible beauty, joy, and redemption. The writing is extraordinary, each voice unique in its expression of universal themes, experiences, and emotions. The relief to know one is not alone is profound.

In just a few lines Heather Bell's poem, Executioner, captures the absurdity of grief--the acknowledgement that life goes on, even as yours is falling apart, and the strange, sad ways people reacttrying so hard to empathize, to understand—yet botching it all, bless their hearts:

And the baby is dead but we need lettuce in the house, maybe some bread for morning toast so

I am at the store touching the potatoes at the spin, the slim wrists of carrot. And the baby is dead so

this entitles humans to talk about their dog's death, or gerbil's. This means I am expected to sympathize at

their loss. Because all death becomes, somehow, equal

Gabriela Ibarra Kotara reveals the Masters of Disguise that grieving parents become after the loss of a child: "I am that cautionary tale. No one wants what happened to us to happen to them." In Address Book, Meagan Golec reflects on how her friendships have changed since her child was born dead at 38.5 weeks. Elizabeth Heineman's What to Do When They Bring You Your Dead Baby in the Hospital is a tender, beautiful, elegiac prose-poem that I read over and over, wanting to sink inside her words. Marina del Vecchio, Silent Miscarriage, Shoshanna Kirk, To Balance Bitter, Add Sweet, and Susan Rukeyser, Our Bloody Secret, made me realize for the first time that I was not crazy for wanting to miscarry in my body's own time, even though it took weeksthe first timeor left me writhing on the floor for hours, hyperventilating in painthe second timeand that searching in the mass of blood and tissue for signs of your child's body is horribly, gruesomely, okay.

All this death and loss is not a thing you talk aboutnot in polite company. Not with strangers and rarely even with friends. But death brought me to life, as it were. The deaths of my children brought me at last to the page, to be the other thing I've always known I was meant to be: a writer. Isn't that strange and awful and wonderful? I can't fulfill one destiny, but in its denial, I am walking the road of another. My essay Their Names touches on the discovery of another way to create life.

Miscarriage affects an astonishing number of would-be parents: an estimated 30% of pregnancies ends in loss. Mercifully, many of these occur so early that the mother doesn't know she was pregnant. But many of us spend weeks and months planning for and anticipating life.

Stillbirth occurs in 1 of every 160 births in the US and neonatal deathdeath within the first 28 days of life1 in every 85 births. Shocking, isn't it? It's probably happened to someone you know. If and when it does, a simple "I'm so sorry for your loss" and a hug would be a beautiful gift. Offering Three Minus One would be a precious gift, as well. Parents in mourning need to know they are not alone. This book offers all the right things to say and do and feel and not feel. It is an embrace of compassion and empathy.

N.B.: The following readings by contributors from Three Minus One are scheduled in the Seattle Area (* I will be reading):

May 9, 1:00 p.m. Pacific Northwest Writers Association Cottage, Gilman Village, Issaquah

*May 22, 7:00 p.m., Third Place Books, Roosevelt, Seattle

*June 15, 3:00 p.m. Elliott Bay Books, Capitol Hill, Seattle

View all my reviews

Timshel: The MFA Dilemma

“But the Hebrew word, timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” John SteinbeckEast of Eden  

I'm wrestling with a decision. What's happened is a good thing. It's an opportunity. I'm not kvetching. I'm kveln. But it presents a dilemma, nevertheless. Ponder with me.

In December 2012, I applied to an MFA in Creative Writing program in Seattle, a process I chronicled here: The Things That Come in Threes. I didn't know we would be leaving Seattle three months later.

In March 2013, the week we moved, I received an acceptance to the program. Returning to the city in six months for a two-year MFA wasn't feasible and I had to say no. But I was invited to resubmit the same application for consideration for this academic year, so I did. You never know, right?

My present circumstances are no more logistically nor financially amenable to an MFA than they were last year, so when the second acceptance came through, the no had already formed on my lips. But the ante was upped. The admission offer included a scholarship that covers half the tuition. Kveln for sure. But what's Yiddish for, Ah Jeez. Now what do I do? 

A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon-evening on campus, meeting the other Fall 2014 admits, current MFA students and faculty, attending a class, and reminding myself why this seemed like such an amazing idea eighteen months ago. I walked away inspired and excited, but after the glow wore off, I was left wondering if it still is an amazing idea. Not just this program. The whole notion of an MFA in Creative Writing.

I've been a runner for about thirteen years. I was a late starter to the sport, certain I'd be lousy at it. Then in 2001, I walked a full marathon. Or set out to. I ended up running a fair bit of it, simply to be done with the damn thing. It was November, it was Seattle, it was cold and wet and dark. I lost a toenail. My thighs were tree trunks after months of tedious training. I thought, "Never again." I started running instead.

And I got into it. Process and method float my boat, so I learned how to talk fartleks and negative splits and tapers. I plan my weeks around hill repeats, tempo, and long-distance days. I track the number of miles I put into my shoes and replace them on a regular and expensive basis. I own more running bras then the regular kind. I have a watch that cost about a third of a plane ticket to Europe.

And I raced. Mostly half-marathons, several 10ks, a smattering of 5ks, a couple of triathlons. Because that's what legit runners do. Why else would you run if you weren't in training for something—had some goal goading you on?

About three years ago, the injuries set in. Every single flipping time I trained for a race, I got hurt. And I'd race anyway. I'd have to take a few weeks or months off post-race to heal, then I'd start training for another event, wreck something, race, and start the whole stupid cycle all over again. I just couldn't seem to turn off the inner competitor, the one who said, this is what runners DO. You make training plans, you study, do the work, stick with the plan, meet your goal.

I've amassed a collection of injury-recovery resources: a boot to stretch out my plantar fascia; another boot for metatarsal stress fractures; there's a stack of PT exercises for a weak psoas and over-worked hip flexors; ice packs that conform to various parts of the body; a big foam roller for fussy IT bands; a bar that looks like one half of a set of nunchucks to roll over tight calves; custom orthotics for my high arches and to compensate for a left leg that is a blink shorter than the right.

Good God, the hell I've put my body through. Why don't I just find a different sport?

Because I love to run. And most of the time over these past thirteen years, running has been incredibly good to me. I run because it's what I do.

But I think I'm through with racing. I can't seem to train without hurting myself.

Thinking about this MFA, any MFA, makes me feel like I'm staring at a marathon training plan. I want to do it so badly, my teeth hurt. I want it because I want it. I want the badge, the medal, the plaque, the 26.2 sticker on my rear bumper (hey, I should have one of those anyway!). I want the MFA to show I had the discipline and the cojones to get through training, all the way to the main event. But I don't need an MFA to be a writer. Any more than I need a marathon finisher's shirt to prove I'm an accomplished runner.

To be a runner, I need to run. Check. To be a writer, I need to write. Check. Check. To be an author, I need to publish. Check. Check. Check. To make a living at this, I need to get paid. Alas, No Check. Okay, one small check so far.

The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

There are many important and wonderful reasons writers seek MFAs. They are the same reasons that compelled me to apply to the program, that make my heart ache to say "Yes." But for who this writer is now, none of the reasons is compelling enough to go into the kind of debt--even with a generous scholarship--that two years' tuition and living part-time in Seattle would require. None is compelling enough to pull me from the pages that I've written, to defer me from my dream and determination to see my novels published.

Last Monday, I--like thousands of runners across the country--dedicated my day's run to the Boston Marathon, to honor those killed and injured on April 15, 2013, and to support in spirit the runners setting out to fulfill a dream one year later. I intended to do my standard 5-6 miles. At some point, I decided to keep going. In the end, I ran 13.1. There was no finish line to cross, no shirt or medal to commemorate the effort, no bagels or banana or hot soup at the end. There was just my inner crazy person and my steady training to get me through a spontaneous half marathon on two cups of coffee.

I came home, propped up my weary legs, and I began to write. It was then I realized the same grit I'd used that morning to keep running was the same I've called upon to achieve my greatest dream--seeing my words reach a wider audience through publication. I've managed this far without the stamp of validation an MFA could give.

Let's see how far my legs can carry me through the ultra-marathon I started when I wrote the first words of a novel. Now that I've got two behind me, I feel I'm just getting warmed up.

Hey, thanks for helping me get this sorted.  ... Timshel. Thou Mayest. And Thou Mayest Not.

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

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a time there was a woman who dreaded the staff meeting roundtable, when each person had to share what was good or bad or on their professional plate that week or in their personal life. All five, nine, fifteen pairs of eyes would be upon her as she forced her voice to carry down the table, knocking off as few words as she could to express, “Everything’s great!” before turning her flushed face to the colleague beside her. This same woman could take the stage before an audience in the hundreds and deliver a speech with poise, loving every moment she was in the spotlight.

She’d spin around her shopping cart to avoid meeting an acquaintance in the produce department at the grocery store, then host a wine dinner that night for twenty strangers, the joy bubbling as much as the Champagne she poured, explaining to the assembled crowd the difference between méthode traditionelle and transfer method of production. She could spend hours waiting tables at a busy restaurant, engaging in happy grace and good humor with dozens of customers, but the thought of a Friday night party at a friend’s, hanging out in a kitchen drinking beer with a few people from work? She’d feign a sudden flu or a last-minute family obligation to avoid hours of mindless chatter.

That I am an introvert is not news to me. I can’t recall when I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test, but I should have INFJ tattooed on my forehead, for the results never waver. And at some point, I got the message that being an introvert doesn't mean I'm shy, for I am not. It doesn't mean I'm not a risk-taker, for I am, or that I don’t form deep personal attachments, for I have many. What it does mean, among many things, is that socializing wears me out. I abhor chitchat, loud people, group projects and “going out.” It means I love to lose myself in solitary endeavors. It means I love process, not reward.

It means I’d rather just sit and listen. And when I have something to say, please be patient. I’m not a fast talker and I pause a lot, searching for just the right word. And even then you’ll probably have to strain to hear me. Unless I’ve thoroughly rehearsed my responses, I’ll never deliver my thoughts with articulate confidence and my volume is usually turned to low.

There are parts of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking that made me laugh, even as tears stung my eyes. Knowing I prefer to be alone—that I have little tolerance for casual social situations—never released me from feeling I needed to overcome my social awkwardness and impatience, my thin skin and tendency to fret about the future and things beyond my control. I thought these were faults, not characteristics of a personality type shared by millions, most of us existing in contemplative, considerate silence.

Through research, anecdotal interviews and personal experiences, Cain explores the ways introverted personalities manifest themselves in the workplace and personal relationships. The section on “highly-sensitive” people struck home.

The highly sensitive tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions—sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. They are highly empathetic…with thinner boundaries separating them from other people’s emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world (pages 136, 137)

Yes, please. Reading this, I realized one of the reasons I tend to shut myself off and away is because I am overwhelmed by my own helplessness to change the world. I take things so personally and feel them so deeply that I become frozen in place, not knowing how to translate feeling into action.

When Cain, on pages 217-218, discusses her professional epiphany, I had another laugh/cry moment. Hers was realizing that she was never cut out to be a corporate lawyer; mine, a university or corporate administrator. There is so much about each profession at which we excelled, rising quickly through the ranks. But neither of us is cut out for committee work, for schmoozing and glad-handing, for blowing our horns—all required in legal circles and ivory towers and boardrooms. I loved the one-on-one time I spent counseling students, building relationships with individual faculty or business partners, developing administrative processes and procedures, doing research and yes, presenting at conferences and leading workshops, for which I rehearsed and prepared weeks in advance.

But I knew I’d never rise to the ranks of the one in charge; I simply wasn’t built for the social demands and networking required of a Director. So, for twenty years I left job after job just at the pinnacle of power and success—always the Bridesmaid, never the Bride. I never really knew why, except that something was inherently wrong with me. At long last, I accept nothing is wrong with me: denying myself the opportunity to advance is recognition that moving up meant moving into roles for which I was constitutionally not suited.

Now I am a writer. And a peaceful little clam. I work to create niches of social balance to avoid complete isolation—I belong to a book club, a writer’s group, I volunteer, meet friends for coffee. Social media is a great release for me, because I talk only when I want to, I have all the time in the world to construct my thoughts (which I can edit later!) and no one is looking at me as I speak. Quiet has given me permission not to regard my limited in-person social circle as evidence of a failure of personality, but as respect given to my true nature: “Love is essential: gregariousness is optional.”

In some ways, working through the theories and examples in this book is exhausting and dispiriting—if I’d had a better understanding of how I function best, would I have made different choices? Yet, the most important choices I’ve made—a life partner who is warmer and friendlier than I, but even more of an introvert; excelling at and loving parts of my profession that I’m built for and not being swayed by extrinsic rewards to pursue paths for which I am not; the dogged determination that puts me in front of a keyboard every day with few indications that I will be able to make a living doing what I love—I’ve stuck to my temperament. My life’s path hasn’t been without its stumbles, but even without knowing quite what makes me tick, I've been true to my nature. This is Cain’s consistent and loudest message, delivered with the gentle power of an introvert.

A Manifesto for Introverts (from Quiet) 1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: Thinkers. 2. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation. 3. The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths. 4. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend extrovert. There will always be time to be quiet later. 5. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is key to finding work you love and work that matters. 6. One genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards. 7. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk. 8. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron. 9. Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. 10. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it's a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers -- of persistence, concentration, and insight -- to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems. make art, think deeply.”

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Before and After

I knew this day would come. For months, I've been anticipating it with equal parts dread and jubilation. Well, no. That's crap. I've dreaded it. The day I would begin writing Novel Two. My mind has reached forward these past couple of months, wondering which story drifted just beyond my grasp. What would I write next? I have a few ideas tucked away, but none of them feels right, not right now. With Novel One, I had a very clear picture in my head of two characters, two eras, a place and one footnote to history. That's a lot to start with. It's a whole plot, in fact.

This time, however, no strong image came to me, no question begged to be answered and I've felt a little panicky. Shoving away the doubts and keeping my focus on the story in front of me, I told myself to trust the writing.

During this journey I've learned—particularly when things got very scary late summer-early fall and I was certain I'd birthed a disaster—to keep writing. Eventually, you will write yourself out of a hole. You'll figure it out before you even realized you've figured it out. You just keep writing. It all comes together in the end.

Friday, I sent Novel One to the publisher I'd pitched to in October. I met my goal and set the manuscript aside, to be reviewed and revised in the months to come.

I gave myself Saturday to rest and savor the ending of one thing and the delicious anticipation of something new. I went for a long run, during a NOAA-defined "hazardous wind event." I managed to find a brief window where the rain held off and the wilds winds sent the clouds scurrying to Vancouver Island. The rest of the day it rained needles and sunspikes, but I had dry ten miles.

During my run, I caught this interview with E.L. Doctorow on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. Doctorow chatted with host Scott Simon about the inspiration for his new novel, Andrew's Brain, and about the process of writing. What he said was a balm to my fretting soul. It's a great interview. Listen to it.

"..write in order to find out what you're writing. You don't start with an outline and a plan, you start with these images that are very evocative to you..." E.L. Doctorow

I'm not much of an outliner or planner. I tend to write to my intuition and let my characters guide my pen. That all sounds very lovely and mysterious, but an inexperienced writer can sure twist an ankle or sprain a wrist falling into her own plot holes this way. Ahem.

With Novel One, I was so eager to begin the journey and so terrified I wouldn't retake the road if I stopped along the way, that I didn't bother to fill the gas tank or stop at the ATM for cash on the way out of town.

With Novel Two, I'm taking a more structured approach, while still allowing for the magic of accident and the unforeseen. I will begin by discovering whom I'm writing about, and why.

After my run, I curled up on the sofa, turned to page one of a murder mystery set in 1919 Surrey, England and didn't move until I came to "The End" a few hours later, when it was time to share an Old Guardian Barleywine with my husband and watch The Godfather.

Yesterday, I mucked around with laundry, grocery shopping, yoga, baking bread, shredding a bunch of crap, organizing a bookshelf, doing a sweep of my hard drive, watering plants, until the weight of what I had to do became too heavy to carry. I had to face the blank page.

I took a brand-new notebook, my favorite pens, walked to a café overlooking the bay and the Olympic Mountains and there I began to write. I wrote eight pages of a character sketch, discovering the protagonist of a story that's only beginning to take shape in my mind, because I've only just met the woman who has given me her story to tell. Give us some space. Give us some time. We'll get back to you.

The 'Before and After' Shot

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.

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Between Truth and a Human Being

Fog. Days and nights of fog so thick I wonder if the artist Christo has wrapped the peninsula in cotton batting and left us to suffocate. I drive grandma speed, hunched over the steering wheel, on the lookout for deer casing neighborhood gardens during their pre-dawn perambulations. They like to appear suddenly in your headlights with that deer-in-the-headlights look. It's a hill repeat day. That's runner-speak for "run up and down hills a bunch of times like a natural-born fool." I have a few favorite hills in and around the state park north of town. Four hundred and thirty-five acres of forest, meadow and a restored 19th century military fort built on and below high bluffs overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, bordered by two miles of seashore--it's a runner's dream.

It's just past 7 a.m. Usually there are other humans about, walking dogs or clutching travel mugs of coffee, heading for a bench on the bluff to greet the sun as it crests the Cascade Mountains. But on this morning, there is no dawn. There is only fog. The air is blue-black, thick, wet, cold. I am alone. I complete my warm-up mile around the former military parade ground and head down to the beach for my first set of repeats.

A gray ghost glides down the bluff and steps onto the road in front of me. His eyes flash gold and red, catching the pulses from my lighted wrist band. I halt in mid-stride, but my momentum nearly carries me head-over-heels downhill as my knees Jello out. I back up. Coyote watches me for a few heartbeats, then trots up the way he came. Me? I turn and run.

Back at the car, behind the safety of the open door, I search in the fog for Coyote. He stands on the edge of the bluff peering down at me, so close I could toss a pine cone and hit his brown-gray flank. I'm in awe, jolted and not a little pissed.

There goes my run. Coyote 1, Julie O.

But we're both adaptable creatures. I head back into town and run the Washington and Monroe St. hills. Ever on the lookout for the damn raccoon that snarled at me last week.

It's a jungle out there.

A few days after Coyote, I'm in a local bar with some women friends--a monthly get-together. We drink a couple of pints, talk local elections and books.

As we settle up our tabs and sort out jackets and purses, one of the women turns to me and says, "Julie, you are in such great shape. But of course, you've never had kids."

Coyote stops in mid-stride and fixes his red-gold glare on me.

God DAMN it.

There goes my run. Coyote 2; Julie 0.

You'd think at some point shit like that would stop hurting. But it doesn't.

The thing is, that statement had with no more malice than Coyote had for me, floating out of the fog and crossing my path. Said in ignorance? No, this woman knows my past, knows my pain. Said without thinking? Clearly, for there are so very many things wrong with correlating someone's physical conditioning to their experiences with childbirth. And it's one of those things you just.don't.say. to someone who has suffered infertility and miscarriage.

Yet, here I am, making excuses for thoughtless people. What am I going to do--throw pinecones at Coyote and hope he'll turn tail so I can continue down that hill without looking over my shoulder? As if.

Me? I'm the deer in the headlights. I turn and run. Straight into my own words.

A few days after the Coyote and The Bar, this e-mail landed:

Dear Julie,

We are thrilled to announce that your submission has been accepted into Three Minus One. Thank you so much for your wonderful contribution. Sean and I welcome you! 

We also ask that you spread the word widely about Three Minus One. It is a labor of love for all involved! Please feel free to share on social media any and all developments regarding the book, and create links to your own websites to presell the book once it becomes available. We will do our best to keep you all in the loop as developments happen.

Here is a link so you can share your acceptance with your friends:  Three Minus One Congratulations to Contributors 

There are approximately 75 contributors.

Again, congratulations. There were over 600 submissions and it was tough competition, so this is a huge accomplishment and we are celebrating with you!

Very best,

Brooke and Sean

Three Minus One is a book project tied to the soon-to-be-released film Return To Zeroabout a couple whose child dies in the womb just weeks before his due date. Brooke is Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press. Sean is Sean Hanish, the film's writer and director. He's also the father of that little boy. Three Minus One, to be published by She Writes Press in May 2014, will contain the essays, poems and visual art of women and men who have lost children through miscarriage or stillbirth. I am honored to be a part of this project and amazed that my voice will be among those speaking for all who cannot.

I must learn to live with Coyote, to know when it is time to raise my hands and shout to frighten him away or when I should back off and find someplace else to run. I can't fight every battle, but I can add my words to the peace treaty.

“You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.” ― Anthony de Mello

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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

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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.