Writing Tips

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.

Solstice Stillness

It's in stillness that we prepare ourselves for dealing with the realities of life, which are often very difficult ones—Pico Iyer 'How Can We Find More Time To Be Still?' Ted Radio Hour 

 

When the nettles of frustration brush my skin and leave tiny welts of irrational ire, when I strain to speak and manage only a raspy caw, like the ubiquitous crow that everyone hears but no one listens to, when the voices in my networks become the clashings of a thousand cymbaleers, I know it is time to seek silence.

 

I cradle the familiar collection of equilibrium-shifting triggers in my hands. The drawing down of light as winter approaches is a smooth cool stone, heavy in my palm; within the spiraling centers of delicate shells echo the hollowness of the holidays. I am learning not to fear these found bits of worn, sculpted, worked nature, for they are natural parts of me. They are opportunities to withdraw and listen deeply, to embrace and elevate the heavier parts of my soul.

 

Author Colm Tóibín once stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. I find such comfort in this notion, for it is a way of accepting the world that speaks to a writer who is so often overwhelmed by it. Not surprisingly, it is the times when I seek stillness that I find clarity in my writing, that new characters or ways over seemingly-insurmountable plot walls are revealed.

2014-12-12 15.41.54

 

But beneath the stone and carapace are broken bits of shell and sea glass not yet smoothed by the wisdom of time. Their sharp corners, coated with grating sand, poke into the soft meat of my palm. These are the events external to my life, the headlines and sound bites and smartphone photos of action and reaction. The shared moments of our culture that become hashtags and status updates. The voices opining about it all. Briefly, I join the discussion, but quickly overwhelmed, I retreat and determine the most important thing I can do is to listen. Carefully choose the voices I allow in, and fall quiet, listening.

 

Susan Cain reminds us that this culture values action over contemplation. We are a nation deeply uncomfortable with silence and we often equate opinion with action. Author Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, expressed in a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, "I have no tolerance for people who are not thinking deeply about things. I have no tolerance for the kind of small talk that people need to fill silence. And I have no tolerance for people not being a part of the world and ... trying to change it." Jacqueline Woodson On Growing Up, Coming Out And Saying Hi To Strangers. During his seventeen years of silence, John Francis realized what a relief it was to listen fully to others, instead of listening only to the point of formulating his own response.

 

We change the world for the better only when we understand what makes the world better for others. The only way to develop the degree of empathy necessary to effect change is to listen to what those others have to say.

 

In this week of longest nights, as I continue to seek stillness within and without, I offer you a Solstice wish of peace and quiet so that you, too, may listen and hear your own heart and the hearts of others.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

Draft 2: Novel 2, begins September 1.

 

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

 

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

 

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

~

 

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

 

I thought my head might explode.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shedding Light

Leaving An Impression

The only characters I ever don't like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don't write characters that leave no impression on me. ―Lauren DeStefano  

One of the criticisms an early reader offered about my novel Refuge of Doves is that my protagonist, Lia, is too likable. As a young widow, the readers' sympathies are already with her, so this reader asked that I flaw her up, muss her up, make us not like her so much. Granted, the critiquer didn't read the manuscript past Chapter Three, so she saw little of Lia stumbling through her world, but this notion of likable characters has been on my mind.

 

Literary food fights broke out last year when Claire Messud blasted back at an inane question during a Publisher's Weekly interview after the publication of her novel The Woman Upstairs. Jennifer Weiner penned this tart rebuttal to Messud's reply for Slate I Like Likable Characters and lines were toed in the sand. You can Google the hell out of this and come up with endless commentary on this fascinating debate—I'll link to a few articles at the end—but, well, back to ME and MY characters, right?

 

Honestly, I hadn't considered Lia's likability score when I created her. I wanted her to be believable, even if the story itself requires significant suspension of disbelief. I envisioned a woman conflicted by grief, loneliness, and the physical and emotional longing she's waking up to eighteen months after her husband's death. I created a historian caught between her dedication to facts and the proof that fantasy, or what the religious may consider faith, is real. I wanted an ambivalent, angry, compassionate, curious person, but I hadn't considered whether I was asking the reader to like her.

 

I've seen what happens to readers' opinions of the writer when her protagonist is deemed unlikable. They flat out don't like her book and dismiss the author. This has been nibbling on the edges of my brain since encountering readers' reactions to Claire Messud's character Nora in The Woman Upstairs. I wonder how much of my ego is at play when I write. Am I subconsciously creating sympathetic characters because I, the writer, want to be liked?

 

I write women. I don't write for women and there are a fair number of XY-chromosome characters in my stories, but to date, my central character is a woman crashing around in large or small ways. She is written with ambiguous motives and sometimes slippery moral imperatives, but she is reacting to and processing in ways I believe most of us do: with self-preservation, compassion, and utter bewilderment. I've seen my novels' characters deepen in revisions, becoming perhaps less sympathetic, yet more relatable. But likable? Dot Dot Dot

 

As I work through these questions, I must own this truth about myself as a writer and a woman: I want readers to feel for and identify with the characters I create. I want them to experience the same depth of emotions, appreciate the mistakes, nod knowingly at the flaws. Perhaps some day I will create protagonists who so infuriate or frustrate, like Claire Messud's Nora, that I risk alienating readers. But frankly, it's not the readers I'm thinking of. It's me. I don't relish spending months or years with protagonists I don't like.

 

Maybe someday I will. And I bow in thanks and amazement to Claire Messud and every writer before her who had the goddamned incredible writing chops and confidence to create characters who get under our skin, making us squirm, gnash our teeth, and grind our jaw. Because it takes courage to stick with such characters and write them with integrity.

 

Really though, I will not write with a likability agenda. I didn't sit down with Pilot Fine Point and a blank Moleskine in January to start a second novel and plan how I could create what Meg Wolitzer calls "slumber party fiction – as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends." I found a woman fresh out of rehab who screws up her marriage, her job, and is handed an opportunity to make at least one of those whole again, only to discover the opportunity is a stick of dynamite with a lit fuse. The story that follows is what she does with the messes of her own and others' creation. She's not perfect. But yeah, I probably wouldn't mind meeting her for coffee.

 

Excerpt from an interview with Claire Messud in Publisher's Weekly, 4/29/13

PW: I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

CM: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.

Great Male Protagonists We Wouldn't Want to Be Friends With

Meg Wolitzer: Men Won't Read Books About Women

A Brief History of Jennifer Weiner's Literary Fights

Lady in Waiting ©JulieChristineJohnson 2014

Seeking a Literary Agent: The Quest Begins

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

AgentyQuery.com

Association of Authors' Representatives

Mark Malatesta's Directory of Literary Agents

Poets & Writers magazine, on-line tools for writers

Predators & Editors

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

Writer Beware

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

2014-05-30 08.33.27

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

History of the Rain: A NovelHistory of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A novel of beauty and grace, showing again that Niall Williams is more than a writer, he is a composer who elicits music from the magical combination of letters we know as words.

Young Ruth Swain has returned home from university to convalesce in her attic bedroom, where the rain of Co. Clare pours ceaselessly on the two windows above her head, and three thousand, nine hundred and fifty-eight volumes of classic prose and poetry surround her in teetering stacks. Her father is gone and Ruth seeks him, his history, and his truth, in the vast library he left behind. Her clear, funny, and poignant voice guides us through misty decades of Swain and MacCarroll family lore to illuminate how her father, Virgil, and her mother, Mary, came to farm the worst fourteen acres of land in Ireland.

The reminders of present-day Ireland—references to the Crash, the internet, Marty in the Morning on RTE's Lyric FM—jolted me out of the dreamlike meanderings in a timeless world, casting a surreal glow over this rain-sodden ode to Ireland, literature, and love. But the anachronisms make the story more bewitching; Williams shows us that even in this hyper-connected world, it is possible to escape. And the greatest escape is found in the pages of a book.

This is a book to savor, slowly and delicately. It pokes gentle, meta, self-mocking fun at the conventions of novel structure. If you are a reader who expects tidy packages of chronological storytelling, plot points, and story arcs, give this a try. You might be surprised what beauty can be woven outside the confines of the Fiction 101 blogosphere. And read with a notebook by your side, because you'll want to make note of each volume Ruth references in her vast library—it's a primer on Western literature's greatest works of poetry and prose. Tissues would be good, too. I reckon you won't make it through this with dry eyes.

Tied up in my delight with History of the Rain is my love for Ireland, particularly the west. Williams, as he always does, captures this incomparable spirit, the particular state of longing that I feel when I am in Ireland, or just thinking about being there:

We're a race of elsewhere people. That's what makes us the best saints and the best poets and the best musicians and the world's worst bankers. ...It's in the eyes. The idea of a better home. Some of us have it worse than others. My father had it running in the rivers of him.

Let this river of words take you away. But be forewarned: you won't want to return.

View all my reviews

Digging Deep

I have a theory how my fear of enclosed spaces began. I'm saving the big reveal for my memoir, but suffice to say, it's been with me since childhood. Claustrophobia flared only intermittently until May 15, 1999. Prior to this day, there had been some bad moments in high school, after which I tried cognitive behavioral therapy until I could enter an elevator again without turning into a puddle of scream.

After the incident in 1999, which involved a small plane stranded on melting tarmac in broiling-hot Champaign, IL, I canceled work trips to Europe and Australia. Within a few months, I got a handle on myself. My GP approved a flight-specific Ativan prescription. My next job involved domestic flights every two weeks and regular international travel and I got to the point where I stopped the drugs except for international flights.

There have been many bad momentscold sweats, bowels like molten lava, racing heart, certain at any moment I'll panic myself into a heart attack or my mind will shatter with madness. There was the awful time in Charles de Gaulle when I realized I'd packed the Ativan in my checked luggage. My first triathlon where the open water swim nearly sank my will. But I got through it all. Each and every miserable episode of icanticanticanticant.

Each flight is a compromise between my intense distrust of psychopharmaceuticals as a treatment for anxiety and fear of a full-blown panic attack. And I don't do elevators. I don't book a room at a hotel until I know the room can be accessed via a stairwell. I walked up and down fourteen flights after a surgical procedure. I'm serious. I don't do elevators.

~

Last year I experienced a series of panic attacks, some of which I chronicled here: Emptying TomorrowI've worked through this shaky period and I'm making peace with the underlying causes of my anxiety. Fear of my mind's evil machinations flutters just underneath my brain-skin, but I find fighting back is a good use of excess anger. My doctor agreed I had the power to overcome my own emotional betrayal. She suggested I add meditation to my healing toolbox.

But that goddamned claustrophobia. It clings to me, and I to it, like a bad marriage.

~

We cancelled a trip to Europe last fall because our unexpected spring move brought a change in finances. Dirty little secret: I was overcome with relief because I knew I couldn't get on the plane. I hadn't flown since the panic attacks started and the thought of compounding the whole stupid thing with a transoceanic flight was more than I could bear. We planned another trip for this spring, but I simply couldn't get my finger to click "Confirm Purchase" on the Iceland Air website.

My brain said it was the money. My heart knew it would simply stop beating once I started down the jetway.

 

icanticanticanticant

~

A couple of months ago, my thankless first readermy husbandsaid one of the things he appreciates most about my writing is my sense of place. You always know where you are in my stories, because setting is vital to me. It sets the mood and provides context, color, sound, scent, texture, and the backdrop to emotion and action. I want the reader to be immersed in my worlds and feel as much a part of them as my characters.

What Brendan said illuminated a dark corner of my mind. The moments of the most profound well-being I have ever experienced have come about while I'm out and about, experiencing. Nearly everything I've written is set in a place where I've travelled or lived long enough to be inspired, but not so long, it became routine. Not just the act of travel, but fully engaging in a unfamiliar community, fuels my imagination. To deny myself the opportunity to travel is to deny myself as a writer.

And I was hesitating, why? Because some broken piece of me is afraid that I can't cope with a transoceanic flight? A flight I've coped with countless times before? Seriously? SERIOUSLY???

~

A few weeks ago, I tuned in and turned on to the meditation programs I'd downloaded several months ago and then ignored. A soothing voice drips like honey into my psyche, helping me envision the plane as a place of comfort (snort) and safety and reminds me how blessed I am to make a journey most only dream of making. The Voice helps me create a place where I can lock away my anxieties. I enter a state of such deep relaxation, I fall asleep before I can finish even a single module. I'm still wondering what happens at the end of the flight anxiety-specific segment. I'm assuming I make it to my destination.

~

People. We're headed to France in October. Tickets purchased. A barn-now-cottage outside a village in deep in the Dordogne rented. Paris hotel reserved. And yes, the hotel has stairs to all floors. I asked before I booked.

 

icanicanicanican

Brendan & Julie, Languedoc, France, April 2011

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.

Flowing with the Go: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Understanding must move with the flow of the process.” ― Frank HerbertDune For the past several weeks, a lovely meme has been spreading around the blogosphere, nurtured by a generous community of writers. It's a forum to share what we're working on and how we do it. If you follow the meme backwards, set aside a few hours. You'll wander through a world of writers and emerge dazzled and inspired.

The meme goes a little something like this: accept an invitation to the blog party, show up in your party dress, thank your host, answer a few questions, and extend the invitation to three more writer-bloggers.

Since this is the season of activityeither harvest for my friends below the equator or planting for those aboveI'll simply tag a few authors whom I'd be delighted to see in their Friday night best. Folks, if you have the time and the energy to carry on with the blog tour, let it roll when you can!

Virtual hugs to Edith O Nuallain, an Irish writer and poet blogging at In a Room of My Own, and Bianca Bowers, a South African writer and poet, living in Australia. Read her at B.G. Bowers Thank you both for inviting me to participate in the #MyWritingProcess tour, and for sharing your words and writers' journeys with me.

The Main Event

1) What am I working on?

Rewrites of my first manuscript, Refuge of Doves. My goal is to finish the rewrites by the end of May, send it off to a developmental/story editor, and perhaps have a manuscript ready for the agent/publisher search by early fall. I received some very wise counsel in recent days about the relative value of critique groups and beta readers, with whom I've had decidedly mixed experiences. It's time to turn my words over to a professional. That's the other thing I'm working on: deciding whom to use. If you love your story editor, do let me know.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Perhaps the biggest difference is that I'm working outside of genre. Taking a page from Deborah Harkness, I choose not to pigeon-hole my fiction. It's literary in style, but commercial in content. How's that? There are elements of mystical realism woven through contemporary lives, but at the heart is an exploration of women's emotional journeys. In Refuge of Doves, a young widow works through her grief; in Crows of Beara, addiction and recovery are themes. My short stories have addressed miscarriage, war, and isolation. Dark stuff, to be sure, but I write in light, not shadow.

A sense of place is one of the strongest elements of my narratives. My settings become characters in their own right.

Ebb and Flow ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

3) Why do I write what I do?

Ah jeez. This is a tough one. Following the advice of Stephen King, I write what I want to read. I try not to overthink inspiration, I just try to stay out of my own way. As my confidence grows, it becomes easier to release the story to my characters and allow them steer the narrative.

4) How does my writing process work?

As the writer evolves, so does her process. I wrote here Fast and Furious: First Drafts how my approach has changed from Refuge of Doves to Crows of Beara. 

Since I began writing fiction in 2011, I've been a serious student of the craft. Part of my process is to read about and absorb as much as I can from other writers, and to experiment with different ways of approaching the craft of writing, while still respecting (and discovering) my artist's voice.

I write every day. What I'm working on determines how much. With first drafts, I let it pour forth, no revising or editing.

Now that I'm in rewrite mode, I have no word count goal, but I do have a time frame. Some scenes and chapters are trickier than others, so I just keep working and pushing ahead.

My Work-in-Progress and I are together five to six days a week, several hours a day. I set aside one day for other writing businessresearch for the book, researching agents, editors, publishers, working on my business plan. I work on blog posts or book reviews at any time. I don't plan rest days, but if I need one, I take it.

I regard my writing as a small business and I'm the sole owner and employee. It's a more-than-full-time job and if I'm to reach my ultimate goal—to earn a living through writing—I feel obligated to pour every spare moment and a not-insubstantial amount of cash outsourcing those things I cannot do on my own (e.g., editing, book design, e-pub formatting and distribution) to make it happen. And if it doesn't happen, at least I'll know I gave it every chance.

And now for the writer-bloggers whom I invite to pick up the meme and run with it:

“You came here because we do this better than you and part of that is letting our creatives be unproductive until they are.” 
― Don Draper

The Fast and The Furious: First Drafts

I have never written anything in one draft, not even a grocery list, although I have heard from friends that this is actually possible.—Connie Willis  

You guys. Guess what? I finished the first draft of my second novel last week. Wait, what? A second novel?

I know, right?

On January 13, I began sketching out characters. On April 2, I typed THE END at, well, the end of a 105,368 word manuscript.

How did that happen? How did this writer go from taking eighteen months to bash her way through a first manuscript—one that split its seams at 167,000 words before it came to a stop at 99,000—to a ten-week blitz of a pretty clean first draft?

Crikey! Can I do it again?

Well, let's not worry about that now.

Let's think about what went right.

I had no idea what this story would be about when I sat down in January with a blank notebook and a blue Pilot fine point. I knew the setting: southwest Ireland. That was it. Once I had the characters and their internal conflicts roughed out, the external conflicts and themes gradually took shape. I cobbled together a very general outline that provided guideposts along the way. It's an outline I'll redraft in far greater detail when I begin Draft Two.

Conversely, with Refuge of Doves, I had a story idea—an image in my mind of a woman standing before the ruins of a Cathar citadel in Languedoc, France—and a "what-if?" of history, around which I built the plot. But I had no idea where it would take me. I didn't know my characters all that well. In a couple of cases, I still don't. And it shows.

Blossoming  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Really, I had no idea what I was doing the first time out. I just needed to start writing. I knew if I got bogged down in research or plotting, I'd never start the story. I had to develop the habit of writing every day and trust that the rest would sort itself out in time. And so I did. And so the story did, too. Over the course of months, a narrative began to take shape and I fell in love not just with the process, but with my people.

But I did not write sequential scenes. Primarily because I had a beginning and a vague idea of the end, but not much notion of what would happen in between. I just wrote a bunch of stuff.

So, a year after typing the opening words to Refuge, I had to lay out the scenes—and I mean literally: the living room floor was a giant grid of 8 1/2 " x 11" pages, with my prone body on top, sobbing—and try to put them in some sort of order. I spent the next five months cleaning it up and straightening it out, simply to get to The End. Of a first-ish draft.

What happened last week (let's give it a name, shall we? Working Title: The Crows of Beara) was the product of a writer determined not to repeat the past. I set a weekly goal of 10,000 words and butt stayed in chair until that happened. I wrote scenes in order. I shut down the inner editor (repeatedly, daily, hourly, by the minute) and just wrote.

I'd planned to reserve one day a week for editing, but I abandoned that notion early on. Editing mired me down in minutiae and side-tracked me from simply letting the story pour forth. I jotted notes where I knew I needed more character development or technical research or where theme threads dropped or things got backstory heavy, but I left the writing alone.

I wrote fast. I wrote furious. It was a joyful experience. So much so that it's all I want to do. I just want to write first drafts, you know? First Drafts Are Art, Baby. Unfettered by the rules of craft, playing loose with grammar, throwing ideas and not bothering to see what sticks and what drops to the floor like limp spaghetti.

Alas. The First Draft Fantasy. First drafts are like those early, googly-eyed days of a relationship. No matter how besotted you are by the First Draft, at some point there will be morning breath and the electric bill and someone's red shirt in the washer with your white socks. At some point, there will be a revisions. Many. Revisions.

Refuge of Doves, which I finished in December, sits on my desk—set aside, but not forgotten. I'd been dreading the inevitable rewrite(s), but as I think about what went right this second time out of the gate, I know I can sort it.

One of the greatest unintended consequences of burning through the first draft of The Crows of Beara has been the building of eagerness to apply what I've learned about myself as a writer—and the shoring up of my weaknesses—on the massive project that awaits me.

And more than ever, I realize that the eighteen months I spent writing Refuge of Doves were eighteen months spent learning how to write a First Draft. Now I'm ready to turn it into a novel.

 

Worth Checking Out:

Why Your First Draft Isn't Crap by Bryan Hutchinson for Positive Writer

Get Messy with Your First Draft by Elizabeth Sims for Writers Digest

Getting Over It, Getting It Out: On Embracing A Bad First Draft by Jon Gingerich for Lit Reactor

The Elephant in the Room: Are you ignoring your story revision instincts? by Alythia Brown for Wordplay: The Writing Life of K.M. Weiland

Stop. Look. Go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quimper Grange Community Food Bank Garden ©Emily Vagts

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dear Sugar,

I didn’t want to read your book. I don’t read advice columns as a matter of principle. Needy people, foolish people frustrate me. To read an entire book of advice column Q&A seemed about as necessary as professional football, with the same end result for this reader as for those players: heads bashing into unmovable objects.

But my book club selected it. Duty calls.

A bunch of shit happened in the three days I took to read your book. Like, universe is speaking to me shit.

The First Day (Parts I & II): On this achingly bright morning I was securing a hank of hair in a little clip when I noticed gray hairs. Now, my first gray hair appeared in 1999 when we bought our first house and I’ve had a few more here and there over the years, but they’ve always been curiosities, anomalies. This morning, however, my hair was streaked in silvery white strands. I’m crazy-nearsighted and in the months since I’ve become a full-time writer, I have little reason to examine my face in the mirror; I think I last wore mascara in October. So maybe that gray has been there for a long time and it took the rays of sunshine through the skylight at just the right time to expose my new middle-aged reality.

I checked the next morning at the same time, with the same intense sun pouring through the skylight. Yep. Still there. But the hair isn’t gray. The strands are silvery white against my natural auburn. They are beautiful. I can’t fathom trying to cover them up with chemicals.

I won’t complain that people often assume I’m several years younger than I am, but along with that assumption comes the presumption that I haven’t lived, haven’t experienced, don’t quite know or get or “Just wait until you’re my age …” This beautiful hair says “Yeah, baby. I’m forty-fucking-five. I’ve lived it. I get it. I’m older than you know.”

I almost stopped reading after How Do You Get Unstuck—only the second Dear Sugar— about the woman suffering after her miscarriage and you sharing the horror stories of the young women you’d encountered as a youth advocate. It was all too raw for me. It hit too close to home. But I kept going and a few dozen pages later, you rewarded me with Write Like a Motherfucker, a statement I printed in Sharpie on a Post-It and pinned to my bulletin board.

Dudes in the Woods gave me a different way to think about friendship and I realized I needed to share a piece of knowledge about someone with a mutual friend—that it wasn’t gossip, but a search for the best way to help. Turns out that mutual friend was suffering, too, and now we’re able to move forward together.

The Woman Hanging on the End of the Line slapped me in the face with the force of my bitterness and rage at a few individuals who wronged and betrayed my husband and me and the price I’ve paid for that rage. I’m not sure I’m ready to let it go just yet, but now I accept that I have a choice.

The Second Day (Part III & IV): I went to coffee with a new writer friend (three lovely words, don’t you think?). We shared our writing journeys. I explained I’d wanted to be a writer my entire life, but I quit writing at ten, when my parents split, and didn’t resume until I was 41, after I lost my first pregnancy. And finally found the courage to begin my novel days after losing my second, when I was 43. Those are the facts.

You succeeded in making me cry with Beauty and the Beast and laugh out loud with The Known Unknowns: “I’d rather be sodomized by a plastic lawn flamingo than vote for a Republican…” Can I use that? I’ll credit you, of course!

But it was A Glorious Something Else I’ll carry with me: “…boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well the as the responses you will have to those behaviors.”

Day Three (Part V): I finished your book this morning. Of course you would end with a letter from a reader who wondered what your now-forty-something self would tell your twenty-something self that made me cry. I closed your book and cried loud, cathartic sobs. My twenty-something self had already found an amazing guy and was deep into a rewarding career, so it’s not like I could relate to your encounters with the Ecstasy-dropping gay couple or your heroin addiction or failed first marriage. But there are other pains, other regrets, other mistakes, betrayalsabandonmentslosseshates for which I cried. It was a collective of tears for the stories I’d read and the empathy I’d felt.

Moments later I learned a friend’s marriage is ending, with a bitter custody battle underway. Reading her words, I became my ten-year-old self, caught between two bitter, angry, vengeful people who had a choice. And didn’t choose me. Didn’t choose what was best for me. They chose hate and recrimination instead of cooperation and love. I wrote to my friend with that little girl’s soul, hoping she would make the right choice for her young child. And then I went for a run.

I ran in the same aching light that three days before had revealed the undeniable proof: my body is fading from the solid brilliance of youth to silvery, tenuous old age. I ran straight into the epiphany that I stopped writing when the child I’d been was abandoned and her world fell apart and didn’t begin again until I accepted the loss of my own children and let go the hope of being a mother. I knew these as facts—I had relayed them to my new friend two days before—but I hadn’t felt the facts as emotions until that moment, in the 16° wind chill and determined sunlight. I had to stop running. I was laughing and crying so hard, I couldn’t breathe.

Dear Sugar,

I'm ETAing to let you know that one of my brothers called me a few days after I posted this review to my blog. He said he'd learned more about me from reading my review than he'd ever known. But isn't that why you published this collection? To learn about yourself? Good on you. I reckon it worked.

Yours,

Going for Silver

View all my reviews

Mind the Gap

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient. ~Hilary Mantel  

True Confession: I'm a tad obsessive when it comes to my running mileage. If I set out to run seven miles, by God, I'm going to run seven. If the Maritime Center—my ending point—is fast approaching and my Garmin reads 6.43 miles, I'll take a left at Taylor and track and up and down each block until I close in on the magic number. Do I run past my mileage goal? Heh Heh Heh.

 

And so it is with my daily word count. Each writer defines their own good "butt in chair" day; I find a word count goal keeps me focused and motivated.

 

When I embarked upon the Novel #2 journey two weeks ago, I established the weekly goal of 10,000 words. Factor in a day for editing and research, another to work on other writing projects, and (here come my mad math skillz, look out!) that's 2000 words each day I work on the Novel. I try to crank out 3k on Sundays—the start of my writing week—to build in wiggle room for the unexpected during the week, such as last week's weird 24-hour flu bug. So far, I'm holding steady.

 

Sunday. Today. The start of my work week. I'd left myself notes for a new scene, had already visualized the setting, the conversation, the emotions. I planned a 3000 word day—easy-peasy. I couldn't wait to get started.

 

Then, I couldn't get started.

 

Five hours in and only a thousand words, some of those written last week and left hanging in an earlier scene. My brain, mushy after two poor nights' sleep and still throwing off that flu bug, just couldn't muster the words.

 

If I feel the stall during a run, I force myself to keep on. Ignoring exhaustion, soreness, boredom, I focus on the next half mile and get through it. Endorphins take over and finish the job for me.

 

But every so often, I'll get a couple of miles in and know today is not my day. I might take a walk break and resume the run, but if the mojo truly is gone, I reset the Garmin and find a shortcut home. As a morning runner, I can always salvage the day with an afternoon hike.

 

If my writing focus fades, I keep the fingers on the keyboard, give myself permission to write crap and keep moving. The story takes over, suddenly it's hours later and I'm telling myself, "You must stop at 4:00. You promised to go for walk/make soup/see a movie. Good job, Little Buddy!"

 

Today I couldn't pull it together.

 

Stop. Reset the Garmin. Find a shortcut home.

 

Word Count be damned. Open the gap. Create the space.

 

Today, I stopped scowling at the problem. I bundled up and headed out, Bach in my ears and trail shoes on my feet. I breathed.

 

Saturday, I set out to run 8 miles. I went to 9 because it all felt so good.

 

If you'd told me two weeks ago, when I typed "Chapter One," that I'd be 21,337 words into a new novel in fourteen days, well. Dude.

 

Find the Gap.

Getting some perspective. Admiralty Bay, Port Townsend 2/02/14 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

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 Kindest Cut

This is what three weeks of revising and editing get you. A laundry basket full of shreds. I have another three hundred pages—a draft's worth—to add, but the shredder cried "Uncle!" and I was forced into a time-out.IMG_1460

Three weeks ago—after taking a day to celebrate writing the final scene of The Novel and to buy a new shredder—I put together a revision plan. Then I printed off a fresh copy of The Novel, clicked my red pen and started reading. Three revisions later, I come back to The Plan to see how I'm doing.

Holy Shit, this is a lot of work.

Here's the thing. At the end of October, I wrote this here blog post Pitchin' and Moanin. Filled with determination, I set out not only to  finish my first full draft by the end of the year, but to have it in good enough shape that I could hit the "Send" button with manuscripts attached, confident I was sending something I could be proud of.

I made and didn't make my goal. The agent received the first 100 pages and a synopsis last week, in the final hours of 2013. I was saved from the hell of the standard query letter by the grace of my pitch. She asked that I simply cut and paste the content of my pitch as my query; she'd remember the rest. Ditto the publisher. Query hell postponed by two.

Two days later, the novel critique group I recently joined provided feedback for Chapters 1 and 2. Incredibly helpful, just, funny, awesome feedback that made me wish I hadn't hit "Send" quite so soon. But let's be honest: though the changes are significant on the small scale of two chapters, they aren't anything that would cause an on-the-fence-agent to say "Oh, now THAT makes me want to represent you!"

My patient, tireless and outrageously supportive spouse is providing much-needed line edits—ferreting out typos that my eyes no longer register—and getting as excited about "what happens next" in the story as I am for him to discover it.

I'm on track to deliver the full manuscript to the publisher by the end of the week (keep in mind, this is an arbitrary deadline, set by me. No one is actually waiting to read The Novel). I took another hard look at the publisher's submission guidelines over the weekend and fully registered this bullet point: DETAILED synopsis. My tight four-pager ain't gonna cut it. Thank Pete for Scrivener—the heavy lifting of a chapter outline is done, I just need to make it pretty and comprehensible. And this week, it's one more read through before I hit "Send" and put this baby to bed for a few weeks.

The Revision Plan? I haven't followed it to the letter, but it's what I've been doing every day—no holidays, no weekends—for three weeks. And in a few weeks' time, I'll take it out and start all over again. When I've recovered from killing six thousand of my darlings.

"I've found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” ― Don Roff

Revision Plan

MACRO: Story Arc, Character Development

  • Conflict Arc: Identify Inciting Incident, Conflict within the GAP, Moments of Increased Risk, Mid-Point, Black Moment, Point of No Return, Crisis, Climax.
  • Within the Crisis & the Climax: Identify Dilemma, Static Moment, Insight Moment, Choice, Reversal
  • Character Arc: edit just one character at a time. Follow him/her in each scene he/she appears. Check micro-details and macro-development & POV issues (consistency within scenes)
  • Scene Endings does each scene end with a resonant line or image and/or is there a call to action? Will it make the reader late for work or keep them up past their bedtime?
  • Internal (emotional struggle) & External (plot) Conflicts: Are they present on every page? Identify scene by scene.
  • Setting: does every scene have one?
  • Dialogue: does each conversation do at least two of these: create setting; develop character; create tension; foreshadow; escalate conflict; move internal conflict; move plot; give information.
  • FLOW & RHYTHM: variation of sentence length
  • DOES THE STORY BEGIN AT THE TRUE BEGINNING & END AT THE TRUE ENDING?

MICROGrammar ~ Punctuation ~ Spelling

  • SEARCH & REPLACE:
*TO BE verbs. Replace with active verbs.
*-ING verbs
*Change meaningless action words: look, smile, nod, frown, wink, laugh-all opportunities for an action that can develop character
*"TURN” “REACH” Eliminate and just DO THE ACTION
*“KNEW/KNOW” 
*Eliminate “weed” words: that, still, just, very, so
*“FELT” Replace with emotion or action
*ADVERBS  Replace with active, transitive verbs
*ADJECTIVE Replace with lean (specific) nouns
*Check semicolons, exclamation points, ellipses
  • Find Beta Readers. Steel Yourself for Heartbreak. 
  • WALK AWAY. WALK AWAY. WALK AWAY. Find something new to dream about. Write short stories. Read phenomenal books. Plan Novel Two.

Recognition for my Revision Plan to Wendy Call, Chuckanut Writer’s Conference 2012; Ann Hood, Port Townsend Writer’s Conference 2013; Anna DiStefano and Sabrina York, Emerald City Writer's Conference 2013

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

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

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

 

Except.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Deçue.

 

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

 

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

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

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

Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing

 

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

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand