Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What's in the Middle

It's not what you think. My lovely friend Larramie at Seize a Daisy, chose me to complete this meme. I was literally working from 7:30 this morning until after midnight when I found out that I’d been tagged and I thank her for the diversion!

As an update to my last post, I’m happy to report that so far, so good. My 500 word per day goal has been working out very well, no matter how busy I get. It’s reasonable enough that no matter how tired or busy I am, I can make time to do it.

OK, here are the rules:

1. You have to post these rules before you give the facts.
2. Players, you must list one fact that is somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your middle name. If you don't have a middle name, just make one up...or use the one you would have liked to have had.
3. When you are tagged you need to write your own blog-post containing your own middle name game facts.
4. At the end of your blog-post, you need to choose one person for each letter of your middle name to tag. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

J – Justice, demonstrated by the degree to which we deal with the world with honesty and fairness, as individuals and as a culture may well be the thing I feel the most passionate about. It is certainly the one thing that can draw me into a heated discussion where very little else can.

E – I’ve always been very Empathic. There was a great discussion on empathy here not long ago and I naturally had to research more deeply into empathy. I feel genuine joy at the good fortune of others and I feel real pain for complete strangers. I don’t consider it a virtue. I believe it’s just the way I’m wired. It mystifies me that I am normally very level headed and rational, but I am easily brought to tears over things that happen on the other side of the country or the world. Commercials and music videos can do it to me. I have determined there is a big visual component to how emotional my reaction and it extends to the printed word.

A – Animals are a great love of mine. I have a rescue dog and cat and I don’t recall ever meeting an animal I couldn’t feel affection for. Even the animals that I have irrational fears of – like snakes – I admire, just from afar.

N – Novels. I am obsessed with reading them, I love to watch my friends making progress on theirs and nearly all of my free time is spent working or thinking about mine.

N – Although I’ve been away for the better part of my life since I was 19, New England will always be a part of me. All of my nostalgia, reaches back to that small cluster of states.

E – I consider Education to be a lifelong, joyful pursuit and the greatest gift I can receive as long as I am always open. It comes in all forms – all of my connections with friends, co-workers, writers, children, animals, strangers, books, magazines, newspapers – there are new things to learn everywhere I look and there are few things I find boring.

Middle names are always interesting. Let’s find out what they are for:

Kristin at From Here to There and Back

Kristi at Yoga Gumbo

Moonratty at Editorial Ass

Shauna at For Love of Words

Karen at Beyond Understanding

Carleen at The Pajama Gardener

Next up – My TBR stack has become so completely unmanageable that I think I’ll post a selection of books I want to read and ask you to recommend one. It will be interesting to see what you recommend.

I’ve gotten into a pattern lately where I try to alternate a hard book with an easier read, a long book with a shorter one.

I’ve also been reading books written by people I know. For a while, I was thinking that just buying the book was a good show of support and if a friend published a book that I might not normally read, I didn’t. I’ve been pondering the question more deeply and wondering how I’d feel if people I knew and liked didn’t read my book and I decided that I think I’d prefer it if someone took my book out of the library, read it and told me what they thought about it than if they bought it and it sat unread. It’s ambitious, I know, but little by little, I think I can work those books into my ambitious list.

So far this past year, I’ve read fabulous books by Patry Francis, Judy Merrill Larsen, William Haywood Henderson, Therese Fowler, Carleen Brice, Kim Reid, John Elder Robison, Nick Arvin, Chris Ransick, and Shari Caudron and just last week I read a fabulous short story by Bernita Harris in a recently published collection.

Books in the stack of people I know (or sort of know via blogging or because they are part of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop faculty) are by Karen Degroot Carter, Patricia Wood, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jennifer McMahon, Tish Cohen, C.S. Harris, Charles Gramlich and Timothy Hallinan.

I am certain there are books around here that belong on one of these lists, but at the moment, I can’t place what I’m missing so I apologize to the author(s) in advance and will update this list if I remember more.

So whether published or not – which would you prefer? Would you rather know that a friend bought your book or that they read it?

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Blank Page Fears Me

Well, I copied Kristen at From Here to There and Back and changed my blog template to be cleaner, like she did. Sure, I'm a copycat, but I'm kind of liking it.

Second, I found a great new accompaniment to writing. Pandora Radio has been around a while and I've always liked it, but they finally added classical to their list of available music. If you haven't checked it out, you'll want to. It's one of those genome projects where you choose a song or an artist that you like and you can create radio stations where they'll select songs that they think you'll also like. Fantastic.

I'm in the middle of reading Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris and one of the characters in this story is an aspiring novelist. He's got a piece of paper with the words, "The Blank Page Fears Me" taped onto the wall of his office. Pretty funny. I like it.

One of the toughest things I’ve had to do in my writing is to prioritize my time. After my last post, where I confessed my current state of mind and my focus on putting the analysis to the side so I could finish a first draft, things have really turned around for me.

I've never made myself write every day. If I had a lot of day job work, some heavy reading to do, if I felt too tired and decided I’d rather read blogs and write posts, I’d let myself.

No more.

I do have some experience with setting unattainable goals, so I decided that shifting gears and committing to a daily writing practice was not going to end well if I gave myself an unrealistic word count.

A lot of people aim for 1,000 words a day, but I decided to set my goal at 500. Most days that means I can exceed my goal. Timothy Hallinan pointed out at his blog that by writing 500 words a day, you can have 25,000 words or roughly 25% of a fair sized novel in less than two months.

I’m pretty lax about how I track my progress. I look at the word count when I start and I know roughly what number I need to meet or exceed and I’m happy. There are a million different ways people track their progress, edits and changes. I just re-save my document with the date that I worked on it every time I do anything and that seems to be working fine.

Working every day does have the benefit of keeping the story right at the forefront of my mind. I always know what my characters were doing when I left them, so I’m always thinking about what they’ll do next and what other horrible things might befall them. It does seem easier to open up a document daily, rather than to let it sit and then have to get back into it several days later.

Since I am still in a writing work shop, I've also found that the writing exercises I get in class have sometimes yielded some pretty OK stuff that I can use in my work in progress. I've got a great book, filled with writing exercises that I've decided to use the first time I sit down to write and I'm having a hard time getting started.

I’m not the most disciplined writer in the world by a long shot and I’ve only been working this way for a very short time. I will say that less than a week ago I was at 16K+ words and today I’m at 21K+.

There’s a very good possibility that some, most, or all of what I’m doing will be cut out later. It’s impossible to say. What I can say is that the story is moving forward and the characters are continuing to develop and for now, that’s exactly what I need.

Have you tried something new in your creative process recently?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Where My Head is Tonight

About a year or so before I started this blog, I began a mission. I wanted to write a novel.

Like everything else I’ve ever dedicated myself to, I went crazy tackling every angle in order to learn as much as possible, to write the best book I'm capable of producing. I’d been reading books on writing for a while, but I kept ordering and reading more. I picked up the pace on my reading and began consuming as many great works of fiction as I could. I started to read writing websites and blogs and then I started my own blog. I found a great writing school, joined it and signed up for a week-long retreat. Then I signed up for a novel writing workshop and then another. I signed up for an experimental fiction class, with required reading. Everything helped. I had epiphanies daily. The blog has been helpful in more ways than I can count. Somehow, the decision to share my writing experiences has cemented my resolve and the people I have met and the things that I have learned from them have enriched my life in ways that go far beyond the writing.

And then --

I burned out.

Sometime in 2005 I started writing a story. I was on and off with it, but I worked on it for close to a year. I was 32,055 words into it (I just checked), so I’d invested a fair amount of myself and my time.

Then, after all of my reading and research and just before I went to the retreat in July, I had serious doubts about everything I’d written. The characters were too much like people I knew and although I actually did have a vision for the end of the story, I felt like I could do better. I felt like I’d gone into battle unarmed and it was better to surrender than to withdraw and retool.

I thought about a different story, and then another story. I wrote a couple of short stories.

Just before I went to the retreat in July, I had a story notion I was excited about and I started over again. I’ve been working on it ever since and I’ve been taking excerpts to workshop and I've been getting lots of feedback.

Then I hit a wall. I had a lot of work to do with my day job. The workshop forum was teaching me a lot, especially about editing. All of the sessions, classes, blog posts, craft books and DVDs (I have two on writing) had a lot to offer. The books I was reading inspired me, yet they also made me feel inadequate.

I lost confidence.

After I started the workshop process, I found myself endlessly revising and editing what I’d already written. New writing was coming slowly, if at all. I was self-conscious and worried so much about turning in pages that I couldn’t produce any more.

I went on vacation for a week and didn’t write.

When I came home, I opened up the manuscript I’d set aside and I read it, expecting it to be horrendous.

It really wasn’t all that bad. In fact, what I found was that the first manuscript sounded more like me. It’s rough, but it’s my voice. The characters felt more authentic. While I was working hard at the second story, I was editing my voice and my life experiences out of existence. I wanted my characters to be new and unique and different from me, but I’d subconsciously placed too much distance between myself and them.

Here’s a revelation that came to me. I read too many books that have been written by people who are completely unlike me. Most of the authors I love are people who have studied writing extensively, gotten MFAs and PhDs and teach writing. They tend to write stories with characters in them who are sort of like them. Not all of them, I suppose, but I’ve read (and loved) more books that take place in and around preparatory schools and colleges than you can shake a thesaurus at.

The truth is that there are very few college graduates in my family. I come from working class people. There are some exceptions, but not many. I was enlisted in the military for many years, which makes my background very different from most people and in particular it makes it different from most writers. Things that have touched my life and my family over the years include alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, suicide attempts, violence, sexual abuse, illness, death, poverty, neglect, closeted homosexuality, infidelity, divorce, crime and imprisonment – you name it.

For some reason, I think I believed that since I don’t read a lot about working class people and people with all of those messy problems, that I didn't want to write about characters shaped by those things. I thought I wanted to write stories about the people I liked to read about. The problem isn’t writing about them. The problem is that I can get into the heads of the more screwed up characters so much more easily.

That’s probably the reason that when I think about my favorite writers and books I’ve loved, I always get back to Ernie Hebert, the Dartmouth College professor who came from immigrant, working class roots and writes about working class people in New Hampshire. There is a copy of a speech he gave at an awards ceremony that brings me to tears every time I read it. The Dogs of March remains one of my favorite books of all time.

I’ve thought a lot since I got back from Mexico and I had a long conversation on the phone with a good friend (another blogger) just this week. Not all of our challenges are the same, but we are both struggling with that inner editor. We’ve both had trouble moving forward because we can’t seem to stop questioning what we’ve done so far and whether or not what we plan to do will be any good. We came to the same simultaneous conclusion.

We just have to tune everything out and finish that first shitty draft.

It sounds so simple, but it was so hard to see for such a long time.

A novelist is someone who finishes a novel. I am a person who could be stalled forever if I don’t stop analyzing, questioning, reading and tinkering.

Today, I gave myself permission to write crap. And I sat down and I wrote and before I knew it, I had pages. I don’t know if they’re any good or if they’ll ultimately stay or go and it doesn’t matter. I’m giving myself permission to write whatever comes out, every day until I get to the end.

I’ve learned enough to know that the most important thing for me to figure out is my process. I don’t know what that will be yet, but for now, it’s just to keep going and to finish.

Sphinx Ink linked to a great post by the writer, Timothy Hallinan and it has turned things around for me. Maybe it's even saved me. Of the many things I’ve read about writing, his points about finishing have hit home unlike anything else. He’s got some great stuff here that really resonates with me. He is the author of more than a dozen books and his most recent is the thriller, A Nail Through the Heart

I know that a lot of the people who stop by here are published and have finished one or more manuscript and then some are like me and haven’t done either. I’d love to hear thoughts from you all on the concept of getting to “The End”.

Friday, November 9, 2007

That novel that you're working on?

The Lighthouse Writers posted this to their blog and I couldn't resist. OK, now seriously, I have to go back to work!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Taking Care of Business

Hola! Scott and I had one of the best vacations ever in Baja. We went to the beach and swam in the Gulf of California and relaxed in the sun. We spent time in a great community called Todos Santos, populated by a surprising number of ex-pats and filled with art galleries. We stayed in a little boutique hotel in Cabo San Lucas, called The Bungalows and got to know the wonderful family who owns and operates it very well. We learned all about Dia de los Muertos, which was very cool. For the first time in seven years, I spent a vacation with absolutely no access to the internet or work emails. I read four books. We ate and slept when we felt like it and came back feeling refreshed.

The timing was good.

There are times when work becomes so all-encompassing that there’s no time left for much of anything else and I am in the midst of one of those times. I miss the blogosphere. I miss reading the posts and comments and I miss writing my own. Popping in after an extended absence feels a little like what I imagine it must be like to disappear from a regular A.A. meeting for a month and then suddenly reappear. People wonder. Is something terribly wrong?

The dog days of summer and the early autumn were slower and I got to immerse myself in writing and workshops and reading blogs and comments and it was wonderful. Activities related to my job in sales are tied tightly to the calendar and every year at about this time, we gear up to close as much business as we possibly can before the end of December. Within the company, we enter into the sparring match that constitutes establishing quotas and compensation plans for the upcoming year. The workday extends ‘round the clock at this point.

There was a time when this kind of interruption would leave me heartbroken and discouraged that so little time is left for writing, but this year, I accept it. Although it’s not my dream job as a published author, it’s the means to an end and it keeps me in toner cartridges and bond paper. It’s demanding, but the truth is that it’s been good to me in many ways.

I’m still writing and I’m still part of a weekly workshop, but I’ve come to the realization that I have to cut my blogging back until we get closer to the New Year. I’ll still be lurking often, although not commenting quite as much, but I’ll be back. I’ll miss being here every day. Since so many of you are my friends, please drop me an email when especially exciting things happen – as they so often do.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf