Thursday, May 29, 2008

Overlooked Books Friday: The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert

Almost a year ago, I did a post on the novel, The Dogs of March and I’m going to recycle quite a bit of that post here in observance of Patti Abott’s brainchild, Overlooked Books Friday.

Have you ever loved a book or a movie so much, you’ve insisted that a good friend borrow it, hoping they’ll love it as much as you do? Back in the early 80’s I read a book called The Dogs of March. Although the original copy I had was loaned out and never returned, I’ve since bought two or three copies so I could give it away and always be able to read it again any time I had the urge. I’ve probably read this book a half dozen times. It’s an old friend.

Ernest Hebert teaches writing at Dartmouth College. In 1979 he published The Dogs of March, the first in a series of six novels that take place in the fictional town of Darby, New Hampshire. In 2007 I read Spoonwood, the final book in the Darby series. The Old American, published in 2000 was a departure from the contemporary setting of his previous works and takes place during the French and Indian Wars. Kirkus Reviews called it “a brilliant work, destined to be one of the great American historical novels.”

Reviewers have noted that in Darby, Ernest Hebert has created New Hampshire’s own version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Howard Elman, the main character in The Dogs of March, and a recurring character in the series is a working man, ignorant in many ways through his near illiteracy. He becomes unemployed early in the story when the factory he’s worked in all his life is sold and the jobs and machinery are moved south. He finds himself in a battle against change and in conflict with the new people moving into the area who have “college degrees and big bank accounts.”

“While Howard watched the Cutter house over the sights of a rifle, Zoe Cutter watched the Elman house through her new sliding glass doors.

Elman was firing his gun. She couldn’t see him, but the shots rang out clear and horrible, like the sound frogs make when you run over them on an August night. She imagined him crouched in the snow for his gunnery practice, the hulks of appliances and automobiles in his yard for targets, grim and angular under their caps of snow. Elman, she decided, was one of those male animals that ought to be castrated for its own good and for the good of other creatures. Cats that dragged themselves home half dead after meaningless territorial encounters; pigs that ate the young they had sired; men who murdered animals in drooling ecstasy – all manifestations of the male ego, that small-dictator part of the brain that was wired directly to the genitals.”

Hebert was probably the first, and may remain the only author to masterfully, elegantly and genuinely write about Granite State natives who are working class people, as complete characters and not just as caricatures of the stereotypical New England Yankee.

I have a special place in my heart for the Darby series. I was born and raised primarily in and around Boston, but I lived in the area of New Hampshire where the story takes place for a brief time and visited my father there for the last 25 or more years of his life.

And also, My Uncle Denis and Aunt Nancy's dog, Rocky was the model for the book cover. Okay, not really, but what a likeness, huh?

When I think about why The Dogs of March has endured for nearly 30 years, why it remains in print and why I find it as true and relevant now as I did when I first read it, I believe it’s because beneath the well drawn characters, the intimate sense of place, and the taut, compelling plot, flowing throughout the story and elevating it to literature is a theme about insiders and outsiders. What has often been called regional fiction isn’t regional at all. This is a universal story.

Ernest Hebert’s website is a wealth of fascinating insight into his writing process and tells the story of how he came to be a fiction writer. One of my favorite pieces is an essay called “How John Gardner Kicked My Ass and Saved My Soul”.

Hebert has been honored with numerous writing awards. United Press International honored him with three journalism awards when he was a reporter for The Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire. The Dogs of March, was cited for excellence by the Hemingway Foundation. The New Hampshire Writers Project named Mad Boys the best novel by a New Hampshire author in 1993 and the same honor went to The Old American in 2001. In 2002, he received the Sarah Josepha Hale Award for lifetime achievement by a New England author. Spoonwood was the IPPY award winner for Regional fiction in the Northeast in 2005. In September of 2006 The New England Booksellers Association named Hebert their Fiction Author of the Year.

Ernest Hebert is not as widely known as some authors, but he is one of my favorites and may turn out to be one of the best writers you’ve never heard of.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Lolita Effect at Random Acts of Unkindness

On Wednesday, May 28th, 2008, Dr. Gigi Durham, the author of a new groundbreaking book entitled The Lolita Effect, The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What we can Do About It, will be at Ello's blog for a Q&A session to talk about her new book. Please make sure to stop and interact with Dr. Durham on a very important issue.

I don’t have daughters, but I have a seven year old grand-daughter. Half the time I don’t answer when I hear the word, “Grandma” because obviously, that can’t be me. I don’t bake, I have a bad habit of swearing (I’m trying to get over it, really), I eat popcorn for dinner if I feel like it and in my head I’m still 30. But apparently the Grandma gene is in me somewhere and I’m on the hunt every Christmas for practical things, like boots, jackets, hats, pajamas and school clothes. It never ceases to amaze me that the clothes for tiny little girls look like miniature versions of something you’d see on a pole dancer.

I’m not sure where the discussion with Dr. Durham will go with regard to the media’s culpability, but I do know that product is marketed and sold to buyers and if people weren’t buying tiny stripper outfits, makeup, nail polish and cell phones for children, nobody would be selling them.

There are two problems I have with the way little girls appear to be marketed and sold to, and this trend isn’t altogether new.

The first is the sexualization of children. Enough said about that. Clearly, it’s hard enough to be a child without the confusion of being in an adult’s costume.

The second is simply the superficiality and the consumerism of raising girls to believe that they have to be pretty and skinny, above all else. When I shop for toys for my granddaughter, I have to sift through all of the dolls, toys and games that are plastered with photos of Hannah Montana and High School Musical. I am the relative who (naturally) stocks the kids with books, but little girls don’t want to read about little girls. They want to read about big girls.

Why isn’t there a role model who is smart, who cares about the environment, who cares about other people and who cares about animals? Isn’t there a character who is trying to find a cure for cancer, solve world hunger or spread peace on earth?

The good news is that I know that not all little girls are like this. I read about kids (mostly here) who want to save the tigers and who recycle and who are kind to other children and it makes me glad that I know all of you. Thanks to those of you who take such care to raise your sons and daughters to have a real sense of who they are of their true worth.

Now don’t forget to stop at Ello’s tomorrow…

Monday, May 26, 2008

First Impressions

“Did you learn nothing from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing?”

This question, came from a trusted critique partner on chapter one of my WIP. I winced and slammed my forehead onto the table. Among the many sins committed in the first draft, I began the entire story with a weather report. Not only was it one of Leonard’s “10 Rules”, but “Never open a book with weather” was Rule #1. In such a hurry to get the story down, I didn’t give much thought to how I’d begin.

I forgive myself this rookie blunder because there are plenty of reasons to scrap that first chapter and I had to start somewhere to figure out where I was going. When I began thinking about first lines, I recalled a post called, Once Upon a Time on Electric Epiphytes and Electrophoretic Epigrams, by the enigmatic and fabulous Electric Orchid Hunter. The post is a list of memorable first lines.

Most book selections I make are based on recommendations and reviews, so I don’t pay too much attention to first lines and I never make book buying decisions based on reading the start of a book. But I do realize that first lines are crucial, so I’m sitting up and taking notice.

I wondered about the first lines of books I’d especially enjoyed. Rather than cherry pick to find especially good ones, I decided I’d see what the first lines were for a list of books I posted last week. I’ve adopted The Electric Orchid Hunter’s rules and included the second and third sentences, if I think they’re needed to complete a thought. In the case of the Nabokov, I confess, I just wanted to keep going.

1. “The baloney weighed the raven down, and the shopkeeper almost caught him as he whisked out the delicatessen door.”

A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle

2. “Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces – the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye – but he wasn’t very successful.”

The Tortilla Curtain, by T. Coraghessan Boyle

3. “Sometimes when you work in advertising you’ll get a product that’s really garbage and you have to make it seem fantastic, something that is essential to the continued quality of life.”
Dry, by Augusten Burroughs

4. “Teeth, straight teeth. The thought surfaced, but he pushed it back into the depths, for this was early morning, when the mind could do such things.”

The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert

5. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

6. “Tonight, I find myself here in a guest house in the city of Salisbury.”
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

7. “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

8. “The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”
Atonement, by Ian McEwan

9. “Do not set foot in my office. That’s Dad’s rule. But the phone’d run twenty-five times.”
Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

10. “His first idol was Andrew Jackson. He knew the vertical dart between the brows, the jutting chin, the narrow mouth; he knew the windblown coif that perched atop the great man’s forehead like a bird’s nest on a lonesome crag.”
How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet

11. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

12. “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.”
The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx

13. “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

14. “The sweat was lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jist sitting thair, focusing oan the telly, tryin no tae notice the cunt. He wis bringing me doon. Ah tried tae keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video.”
Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh

15. “Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election.”
Old School, by Tobias Wolff

This wasn’t supposed to be a contest, but my top three favorites on this list are #11, #13 and #5. Of the books listed you haven't read, do any in particular make you want to keep reading?

John Irving wins the best use of punctuation prize for incorporating both em-dashes and a semi-colon. Lydia Millet also wins a prize for using the semi-colon. Rumors of its demise are apparently premature, but if you are unsure about the uses of the semi-colon, please see this excellent post by Shauna Roberts.

“Call me Ishmael” is the only first line that I can ever remember. I don’t seem to recall any others. Do you? How important are first lines to you as a reader? As writers, we all know they’re a make or break if we’re interested in publication. Is your first line as good as you’d like it to be?

Extra points to anyone who cares to share the first line of a WIP in comments!

One last thought: I ran across an ingenious note on a blog this weekend and I’m afraid I can’t find it again to credit the blogger. The note says something like “if you’ve stopped in and don’t have a comment to leave, leave a stone (o) in the comments section so I know you were here.”

I thought that was a lovely thought, so if you’ve stopped in and don’t have anything you really want to add, please leave a stone – like this: (o) – in the comments so I know you stopped in.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Does a Rising Tide Really Lift All Boats?


On Friday, I attended my nephew’s high school graduation.

There were twenty-two valedictorians in the class of 500. Clearly, I am old and curmudgeonly because it seems I can remember only one valedictorian in my high school class, and he or she was the only student to give a speech. Throughout this ceremony, groups of four to six valedictorians would line up at the podium and each contributed small sound bites to the proceedings. When I saw all of the names listed in the program as valedictorians, my reaction was to feel sorry for the one student who was actually #1. There was no way to tell who that might have been. It seems to me that there really isn’t much point in recognizing twenty-two valedictorians. Sure, I suppose they all get to list the moniker on their college applications, but with twenty-two of them, the significance was so watered down that none of them was individually introduced and nothing notable was said.

One side note: If I heard one more kid mention closing one chapter and moving on to a new chapter, (one of many repeated clich├ęs) I would have strangled myself.

The idea of all these valedictorians lost in the shuffle had me thinking about an excellent post that Moonrat did at Editorial Ass the other day. It had me thinking about the sense I have that the publishing world must be nearing a breaking point. Editors are tasked with working on multiple books and can’t possibly dedicate the time and attention to every book that would ensure it’s the best that it can be, or even very good. Editors are motivated to publish as many books as possible. Authors are expected to hire publicists and promote their own books because with the exception of a handful of titles, publishers dedicate few resources to marketing and selling each book. It’s a rare day that I don’t read one or more posts about readers disappointed with the quality of the books they read. As difficult as it is to write a good manuscript, secure representation and sell it, there are only a small number of books, relative to the total that are successful. Very few authors can support themselves through the sale of books alone.

As a reader, I’m overwhelmed by the number of titles released. I’m reminded of that period in the 90’s when I realized there was suddenly more music being released than I had the capacity to keep up with. I want to read the finest books that are available, but the sheer numbers make weeding through what’s out there and finding the books that delight me nearly impossible. The deluge of new titles makes me feel like I’m missing out on a lot, now that I have such a huge choice.

It may seem counter-intuitive for me to say this as a writer, but I wish it would slow down. I wish the publishers would stop releasing so many books, be more selective about the titles they choose and nurture the work and the authors so that the books are as polished as they can be. I wish publishers would give authors the time they need to finish and polish, rather than rushing second and third books out and ensuring they'll be sub-par as a result. I wish each book would be publicized so that authors would be able to focus on writing and not on setting up Facebook accounts, learning how to make YouTube videos, guest blogging, running contests and criss-crossing the country to talk to book clubs. (Exception: If an author LIKES doing these things, that's one thing, but it appears that many don't want to do it, but feel they must).

As a writer, this would make my already tiny chances of publication even more remote. But I don’t think I care.

I read somewhere recently that the average number of copies of a debut novel s0ld is 500, although I have no idea how accurate that figure is.

When I think about the years of hard work and sacrifice it takes to bring a novel to publication, it hardly seems worth it. Becoming a best-selling novelist isn’t a part of my fantasy, but having people read my book is. All writers who seek publication want their words to be read. To work so hard, only to have a ninety day window for a book to be successful and then to see it go out of print makes the whole exercise seem pointless. I believe I'd rather remain unpublished and keep trying, than to become emotionally invested in publishing a book where in the end, I'm only marginally better off -- and maybe worse off -- than if I'd never done it.

Neither eventuality changes my resolve to write, but I’d rather that the industry became more selective and published fewer titles, even if it makes my job harder.

I’d rather be the one valedictorian in the class than to be one face among many of them.

I recommend you read Moonrat’s post , if you haven’t already and think about it.

What do you think?

Would you rather that it was easier to have a book published, even though the odds of your book being successful were lower, or would you rather the industry changed so that each book published had a much higher likelihood of success?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

When Readers Read My Novels...

A couple of weeks ago, I broke out the white board, easel paper, index cards, and every plotting prop I could think of, and started flipping through some of my (too) many books on craft.

I picked up one of the more popular ones, Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell and I started reading from the very beginning. There’s a very nice review of this book here. I’m quite sure when I bought this book, I raced through the whole thing as fast as I could, but this time, I took my time.

He’s got some interesting exercises in the very beginning of the book that I was far too impatient to try when I first read the book and it's likely they wouldn’t have helped me much then. The very first exercise in the book is this one:

“Set aside ten minutes of undisturbed writing time. For those ten minutes, write a free-form response to the following: When readers read my novels, I want them to feel _________________________________at the end. That’s because to me, novels are __________________________________________.” pg. 20.

The purpose of this exercise is to analyze the mini-essay and gain some insight into the type of plotter you are. I found the question startling because I’ve never thought about what I'm doing in terms of how I want it to impact the reader and I've never meditated on what novels are to me.

Without giving it much thought, this is the gist of what I wrote:

When readers read my novels, I want them to feel introspective at the end. I want them to consider that a life is the aggregation of millions of decisions, some tiny and some enormous. I want to explore the notion that every human being constantly navigates choices and is presented with scores of opportunities to choose action over inaction, sacrifice over self-interest, generosity over greed, and freedom over security. Some decisions, many of them seemingly insignificant, are crucial and the consequences can ricochet in all directions, impacting and altering other lives. Do I choose to close my eyes to the neighbor I suspect is being beaten by her husband, or do I intercede? Do I cling to safety, marry the first person I love, stay with the first company to offer me a job and never leave my hometown? Do I react and adapt to what life sends my way, or do I take risks? Do I walk away from the known, the safe, and the secure and become an artist? An entrepreneur? A heroin addict? A parent? I want readers to enter the world of my characters and to see through their eyes, even when those characters are quite different from them. That’s because to me, novels are a reflection of the series of the often random causes and effects life presents to everyone.

It's not my ultimate writer’s statement, but it’s a starting point and something I can continue to ponder and come back to.

I thought another of Bell's exercises might lead me closer to nailing this down. The idea is to pull some of your favorite novels off the shelf and then analyze them by asking a series of questions. I thought that I might find some common threads that would lead me to a better understanding of the kind of writer I want to be.

These were the titles I wrote down as I scanned the shelves:

A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle
The Tortilla Curtain, by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Dry, by Augusten Burroughs
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh
Old School, by Tobias Wolff
The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert

The questions about each book are: "What is it about the lead character that captures you? What is it the lead is trying to get away from? When did the story kick into “high gear”? What was the main opposition to the lead’s objective? How did the ending make you feel? Why did it work?" pg. 21.

I am much too lazy to go through the series of questions for each book, but I did think about them. In many of the books, there's not a whole lot of external "action", but the characters do change significantly from the beginning of each story to the end. In some of my selections, several characters within the same book experience profound change.

Both of these exercises were useful to me because it’s easy to get caught up in the flow of the WIP and not stop now and then, re-vector, and continue to ask these very basic questions.

How would you fill in the blanks on the first exercise, or either part of it? The first blank isn’t that hard to fill in. The second one is a little harder. What are novels, to you?

And/Or

Off the top of your head, what are a few of your favorite novels?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Aromatherapy


Most of us try to incorporate descriptions of the five senses into our writing, but it’s not easy. Visual description tends to come the most naturally, followed by sound and touch. Taste and smell usually fall somewhere quite a bit further behind.

The olfactory sense is the one most closely linked with memory and it’s the only sense with direct access to the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. With that in mind, the descriptive use of smell in fiction can be a powerful tool to further deepen our portrayal of a character. What can be even more interesting is an association of one object or person with a scent or odor that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to all characters.

Maybe the smell of cherry pipe tobacco reminds one character of a kindly grandfather, or perhaps one not so kind. Freshly cut grass, lilacs, roses, the smell of the ocean, freshly baked cookies, baby shampoo, bubble gum, freshly cut pine boughs, vanilla, almond, citrus and specific perfumes generally have positive associations for most people, but not necessarily all.

In a workshop I took last year, one of the writers described a character as smelling like nail polish and cookie dough and that description has stayed with me since I read it. I find the most interesting descriptions are those that associate the smell of one object with another that wouldn't seem to have any association. I know someone who swears Fritos smell like feet.

Just before I joined the Air Force, my friend, Teresa and I rented rooms in a house that belonged to a foreign family. We were so worldly (not) that we had no idea where they were from, but it was a very large middle-eastern family and whatever it was they cooked all the time was pungent and the odor was not recognizable or pleasant to us. We had nothing we could compare the cooking smell to, but we would regularly ask each other, "do I smell like the house?"

I’m not sure what you have to eat to get it, but when someone describes puppy breath, I know exactly what they mean. Corn Nuts, I think.

Any smell can conjure up a negative association or trigger a memory. Whiskey breath, cigarettes, spoiled meat, burnt popcorn, decaying flesh, a certain aftershave, bicycle tires, brakes burning, mildew, ammonia, bleach, vomit, musk, horses, leather, sweat, hot asphalt, a sweaty penny...

Smelling Listerine or cinnamon gum may be torturous for a character that was attacked by someone with it on his breath. The smell of burning leaves in the fall may remind one person of Thanksgiving and another of a terrible house fire.

I will recognize the scent of the Jean Nate bath splash that my grandmother always used (and that we always gave her for Christmas) for the rest of my life, although I probably haven’t smelled it in over 30 years. My mother wore Chanel No. 5 and that will always be her smell. A wood burning stove makes me think of my cousin, Ruthie’s house, Noxzema reminds me of my Aunt Nancy, and the smell of old dog reminds me of the carpet in my grandparents' house. The smell of tequila reminds me that after swearing off it forever, I really mean it now. Patchouli makes me think of my friend Denise and of a guy I used to work with who clearly had no sense of smell because I could track everywhere he’d walked that day by following the smell.

Do you consciously try to use the sense of smell in your fiction? Care to share any examples? What smells trigger strong emotional reactions in you?

And now, for your auditory and possible olfactory amusement…

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dennis Cass Is...Hysterical!

I'll be posting about Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain, by Dennis Cass when I do my monthly What I Read This Month Instead of Writing or Doing Laundry post, but I just ran across this post and video on his paperback book launch and it is hysterical. Make two minutes and go watch Dennis.

It's always good to learn from the pros!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Forgotten Book Friday: A Fine and Private Place

The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace

- Andrew Marvell.
"To His Coy Mistress"

I didn’t want to miss another Forgotten Books Friday and I’m not sure if this book has ever been forgotten, but I do think it warrants rediscovery.

A Fine and Private Place was the debut novel of Peter S. Beagle. It was published in 1960 when he was nineteen.

It came to me circa 1973 when I was about twelve. My uncle’s first wife had just started teaching high school English. I worshipped her because she was young and hip -- much cooler than my other older relatives. I loved her even more because she identified with my love of books and she fed it.

I haven’t read the book in a long time, but I have no doubt it stands the test of time. If I’m not mistaken, it hasn’t been out of print since it was published.

Jonathan Rebeck walked into a New York City cemetery nearly twenty years ago and has been living there in a mausoleum ever since. A potty-mouthed raven steals food and brings it to him, along with other trinkets he finds. It’s not that the raven is especially fond of Rebeck; that’s just what ravens do. Rebeck sees and communicates with the dead, acts as a mentor to them and like them, he can’t leave the cemetery.

Michael and Laura are ghosts who meet and fall in love after death. The dead don’t disappear until their interest in the living fades along with their memories and interest in hanging around.

Enter Mrs. Klapper, a Jewish widow who visits the grave of her husband every day until a chance encounter with Rebeck. Then she begins to go to the cemetery to visit him.

That’s as far into the story as I think I should go.

Since I first read this book, I’ve never been without a copy. It’s fantasy, it’s romance, it’s all the things I say I don’t read and I love it. This story has stayed with me for more than thirty years.

100+ Pages Into The Foundling Wheel

There may be some who’ve been following The Foundling Wheel who think I’ve run out of gas and abandoned it and there may be some readers who hope that’s the case. I assure you, it’s not.

Tim Hallinan gave me the greatest writing boost I’ve ever had by tempting me to take the Dickens Challenge. Writers crazy enough to take him up on his challenge would each start a brand new novel and post a chapter a week. The concept was to use the deadline and the seat of the pants approach to get down the first draft of an entire novel.

Before the Dickens Challenge, I was an obsessive fiddler and I’d never finished an entire first draft. My two prior novel attempts were definitely much more defined in my mind when I started them, but they felt overwritten and contrived to me.

Two days before the other writers planned to post their first chapters, the germ of an idea came to me. This seed got me through the first eleven chapters of the story, but once I exhausted my initial idea, I realized that I couldn’t keep flying by the seat of my pants.

Things I’ve learned from the Dickens Challenge:

- The deadlines boosted my productivity. By looking at the WIP in terms of weekly chapter sized bites, the idea of writing an entire novel felt much less intimidating and I could see real progress quickly.

- It forced me to write more and faster. This helped me to tap into my unconscious much more easily. It kept me from over-thinking, over-describing and over-writing.

- Posting a chapter a week made me much more focused on leaving a hook at the end of each chapter.

- People seem to be in agreement that I hit my stride around the fourth chapter. I think that’s a direct result of writing a lot without stopping to tinker.

- Now that I’ve re-read the work to date, I hate my first chapter and I’m not crazy about the second one. But I have something to revise, so I don’t mind a bit.

- Some of the chapters feel choppy. I’ve got multiple short scenes within a couple of them and I realize I did this in order to keep the chapters under 3,000 words, knowing that was pushing it for blog posts. When I revise, I’ll expand on some things and write better transitions to smooth out the choppiness.

- The earlier chapters need a lot of revision. Since the characters and the story developed over time, it only makes sense that the first couple of chapters probably need to be completely rewritten.

- Pantsing has been a much more creative process for me than writing to an outline. In previous WIPs, when I tried figuring the story out ahead of time, my creativity was stifled because I kept trying to stick to the plan. I’ve got much more confidence now in my ability to “what if” myself to a better and better story.

- Timeline is one of my biggest problems. I introduced the story in the present. Chapters 2-11 take place more than 20 years earlier with a couple of brief stops back in the present. People have referred to that part as being told in flashback, but I’m not too sure that’s what it ought to be. It's too long and too big a part of the story. I’m wondering now if the inciting incident in chapter 1 really belongs in a prologue so that the story can naturally begin in the past and proceed in linear fashion.

Issues I need to figure out before I can go on:

- What is my premise? What does Tracy want or not want, what conflict or challenge is interfering with that desire and where will she end up at the end of her journey? I had some vague concepts at the beginning, but now I need to nail them down. The good news is that I think I’ve got this.

- Plotting is a huge challenge. The problem is not a lack of ideas, it’s too many. There are an infinite number of possibilities I can explore in order to move Tracy forward and there are all kinds of possible sub-plots involving my secondary characters. Which to choose? How will they serve my premise? The more I think about it, the more cool ideas I think of.

- How should the story end? I have several possibilities and they all tie back to how I choose to move the plot forward.

Things I've found helpful:

- Time. With enough solitary time, I can nail this down. Driving, walking, and solitary tasks all open up the floodgates. My challenge is that I am not accustomed to making this time and pushing all the other demands away. Work has been unbelievably busy, which means that even when I’m not actively working, it’s hard to stop thinking about it. I believe the solution is to put walking time on my calendar and just walk even when I’m too busy. I’m not sure it’s going to work during the day, but I’m going to give it a try.

- Going back to the basics. I have a lot of craft books. I read most of them when I got them, but the trouble with books on writing is that you don’t always read the right book at the right time. I spent a few hours this past weekend with a book on plotting and structure. It forced me to go back to the very questions I’m working to answer now.

When will chapter 12 be done?

I don’t know. I do know that once I have answered the questions I’m working on now, I’ll be able to pick up at chapter 12 and keep writing until “The End”. I hope that those of you who have been following the story will still want to come back by then.

A big motivator:

A very good friend of mine emailed me at 11:23 MST this morning to tell me she’d just typed “The End” on the first draft of her first novel. She set a goal, she stuck to it and she did it. Tonight I read it and I really loved it. Naturally, she has some work ahead of her in order to polish it to a high shine, but she did it. Her characters are strong, her writing is elegant and clean, her descriptions are wonderful, her story is compelling and when I got to the end of the story, there was a lump in my throat.

I am very proud of her. She makes me believe I can do it too.


All comments and suggestions are welcome -- particularly with regard to the time line.


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Six Things About Meme

My friend Karen tagged me for a meme. Here are the rules:

Link the person who tagged you.
Mention the rules in your blog.
Tell about 6 unspectacular quirks of yours.
Tag 6 bloggers by linking them.
Leave a comment on each of the tagged blogger's blogs letting them know they've been tagged.

Here are six of my MANY quirks:

1. I’ve never been able to accept anything on faith. I can’t recall ever believing in Santa Claus, although I remember pretending to for quite a while. I was baptized, went to Sunday school and was confirmed, but I never believed in any of it, despite my best efforts. In junior high school, I wrote a term paper called “Psychology and the Belief in a Supreme Being” where I theorized that religion is a historical invention of the people in charge to control the rest of the people with fear of invisible entities. I’m pretty sure my seventh grade English teacher wasn’t quite sure what to do with me.

2. The sound of someone chewing or breathing loudly is so disturbing to me that when I hear it, I have to find something to focus on to block out the sound or I might even find an excuse to leave the room for a few minutes to get away from it. When I was a kid and my sister Leslie and I shared a room, the sound of her making mouth noises after she fell asleep was so aggravating to me that I would actually get up out of my twin bed, walk across to hers and punch her to wake her up and make her stop. Sorry Leslie!

3. I feel very strongly about the proper way to hang a roll of toilet paper, which is obviously where the paper spools over the top of the roll as opposed to coming from underneath. I am so obsessed with this “right” way that I routinely “fix” incorrectly installed rolls of toilet paper when I encounter them. I will do it in other people’s homes and now and then I’ll do it in a restaurant or other public bathroom.

4. I have a terrible fear of poverty and unemployment. I got my first job working in a D’Angelo’s sub shop in Rockland, MA when I was fifteen (I lied and said I was sixteen), and I have never gone a day without a job since. At times I’ve worked two jobs at once and for a few months once I had three jobs. I’ve been a bank teller, Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman, factory worker, short order cook, military member, civil servant, government contractor and technical sales person. Due to my fear of financial insecurity, I stay in jobs much longer than I should. I often wish I might have taken some time off between jobs, rather than finishing one on a Friday and starting the next one on Monday morning. In August, I’ll have been working in my current job for eight years.

5. I have a semi-pathological need for neatness and organization, but the paradox is that I am often messy and disorganized. Consequently, when everything is in its place and I have my schedule straight and my endless to-do lists all written out, I can get an enormous amount accomplished. The other 50% of the time, I am mentally scattered and feel like I can’t get anything done.

6. I believe I have an unusually strong connection with animals and spend an inordinate amount of time in staring contests with my cat and my dog. I am convinced that they know things about me that human beings don’t and I frequently imagine that they’re frustrated at their inability to speak English so they can tell me exactly what they’re thinking.

I know that a number of people have been tagged for this and some people aren’t into the memes, so this is completely voluntary – do it if you want to, or not. I tag: Patti, Ello, Charles, Lana, Shauna, and Larramie.

Next up: What I am figuring out about The Foundling Wheel or lessons learned on why you should never get over 100 pages into a WIP without a premise, or it’s all about plotting stupid, or structure -- don’t leave home without it, or pantsing is cool up until the point where you lose your way (see quirk #5 for further insight).

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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