Room With a View!

portludlow.jpgHow goes my impulsive and self-imposed writer’s retreat, you ask?

Just what my head doctor ordered! (Not that I have a head doctor.)

I’m up on the Puget Sound at an out-of-season resort area called Port Ludlow. There’s nothing to do here but watch for sea otters playing on the wharf. To the west, the snow-capped Olympics change color throughout the day, and the sun shines from behind a light coastal cloud layer.

As shown in the photo, I rearrange the furniture to suit my writing needs. I also don’t let the cleaning crew in to witness my writer-ly mess.

Am I writing more pages than usual? Today I will. Yesterday was “only” a five-page day because I needed a long nap. I usually go limp within my first 24-hours out of town: major decompression.

What I am doing is the much necessary thinking, pondering, daydreaming; sometimes I need to leave home to give myself room to imagine. New locales inspire me, and at the moment I’m transitioning my head from winding-up the first draft to winding-down the first draft. For me, these are unique mindsets, and I must take care now because I could lose myself in a middle-of-the-novel murky place.

I’m at about 250 pages, so I hope I’m angling toward resolutions by now!

The literary dinner I mentioned on Friday’s post was great fun — more to say on that later.

Back to writing! 

Growing Pains

After regrouping, analyzing, editing, and brainstorming my first 120 pages, I come to four possible conclusions:

1. My story sucks, and I don’t know what I’m doing.

2. I’ve mastered just enough fiction craft to be my own worst enemy.

3. I’m not trusting the process.

4. I’ve got it going on, no worries.

Even I know point one is too negative. At the other end of the spectrum, point four isn’t realistic either. That leaves points two and three, both of which have merit.

Point two: I’ve mastered just enough fiction craft and technique to be my own worst enemy.

I used to muscle my way through what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft” in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instuctions on Writing and Life. Here’s what she says on page 22:

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and you can shape it later.

Somewhere along the line, however, I grew out of this 100% organic writing method. As my writing group would gladly confirm, when I let the prose flow too well I end up with 500 pages and too many plotlines and a big mess.

These days, I’d rather end up with, say, a teenager’s draft — or, a semi-mature story. I’d like to avoid revising for years. To this end, these days, I have enough craft under my belt to consider many things at once while I’m writing — things such as subplots and set-up and pacing.

The downside is that all this awareness gets me thinking TOO much. (A nasty little habit of mine as my family would gladly confirm.) Let’s label point two in terms my ex-therapist would understand: analysis paralysis.

Point three: I’m not trusting the process.

I’ve heard many writers over the years advise us younger writers to “trust the process.” I’m a big fan of trusting the process. However, how do I trust that which I’m still trying to nail down? I’ve grown out of muscling through first drafts with only my right brain (the dreamy side versus the analytical side on the left). Unfortunately, I haven’t discovered my own best process yet. I’m still experimenting.

Some writers advocate outlining the whole novel up front, which is the opposite of Lamott’s strategy. But outlining isn’t for me either. I think you need to be a naturally organized person to write outlines. I’m somewhere in the murky middle place, and since I don’t have a tried-and-true process (yet) I’m currently having trust issues.


So, my final conclusion? In the world of fiction, I’m not yet a mature writer; I’m more like a teenager experiencing massive growing pains. Thankfully, I survived my actual adolescence somewhat intact; I’m sure I’ll survive this first draft, too.

Meanwhile, am I too old to throw a hissy-fit, slam the bedroom door, and turn my head-banger music up too loud? 

On a Crabby Monday

I may work from home, set my own schedule, and do I what I love, but Mondays are still Mondays. Especially after a fun weekend that included seeing a play (“The Underpants,” adapted by Steve Martin), dining at two excellent restaurants (Kobe beef: yum! Lobster risotto: yum! Girly drinks: giddy!), celebrating a good friend’s birthday, shopping, art-walking through the Mt. Tabor neighborhood, and hanging out at a friend’s house with hot-buttered rums.

In fact, last night I told R- of the hot-buttered rums — and later a brandy Alexander — that I needed to get home at a decent hour because Sundays are school nights. (Didn’t happen.) It’s not effortless, this writing gig. I don’t get up every day panting like a puppy dog to get to the computer. I’m just like anyone else at the start of a work week: a bit grumpy and longing for one more day of weekend. But, I know that once I get started, I’m content (most of the time; I have my moments; this is one of them). It’s the getting started that’s tough.

Or, like now, at 2:00 p.m., it’s the stick-to-it-iveness that’s tough. Sometimes the work goes so slowly, and I get antsy. Last week, I didn’t finish my regrouping work (Idea Basket post) so I feel like I’m behind. Behind what though?

It’s at times like these that I remember an essay that novelist Elizabeth George wrote called “The Halcyon Days” in which she described the pleasures of writing without publishing deadlines, scheduled appearances, and all the other time-consuming obligations that working novelists face. Right now, I can write as slowly and luxuriously as I want. I have to remind myself that this is a good thing. To quote Ms. George:

…I find myself frequently looking at my students and wanting to tell them to enjoy the halcyon days while they have them. Like everything else, they’ll come to an end.

I try to remember to enjoy where I’m at; sometimes it’s hard, especially on a crabby Monday.

Quaking Aspen

Right now, it’s raining so hard the roof gutter is overflowing. There’s a waterfall outside my window. The quaking aspen are extra wispy and droopy. Last week a wind storm defrocked them of their leaves. One gust blew dozens of leaves into my living room when I opened the sliding glass door. The leaves are still there, sad to say.

I suppose I should vacuum them. Right now might be perfect. And then maybe the rest of my apartment while I’m at it. Then a shower, then populate the fridge with groceries, then write a couple of condolence cards, then hunt down that recipe I’ll need for Thanksgiving…

Idea Basket

I’m about 120 pages into my first draft, and this week I felt the need to regroup. So, I read, revised and cut what I could so far, wrote scene ideas down on index cards, and generally got a grip on where I am and what comes next.

ideabasket1.jpgAs I was reading and marking my pages, I got to thinking that I’m in the midst of my own creative process, and I don’t know where my ideas come from most of the time. The imagination is a beautiful thing.

However, that said, sometimes the old imagination needs a boost. That’s why I have an idea basket.

I bought a basket because I’m not organized enough to maintain an organizer. I jot tidbits that grab my interest onto the closest paper scraps (napkins, envelopes, and so on) and drop the scraps into the basket. Ta-da, instant filing system for the organizationally impaired.

Its presence is as reassuring as my favorite pillow, and it has come to my rescue once so far. Last summer I wrote a short story for a collection that will receive national attention when it’s eventually published. I thought my story was pretty damned good if I did say so myself. Only, it wasn’t.

Talk about feeling deflated and desperate. I had to start fresh with deadline looming. But what the hell was I supposed to write now? I’d blown my imaginative wad for the moment. Soooo, to the idea basket I turned.

In it, I re-discovered a gruesome little fact that I’d copied from a book a few years previously. It was perfect, and I knew it was perfect because my brain opened up again — synapses firing away. I felt them.

My basket is a keeper, but it’s for emergencies only. For the most part, regrouping as I did this week is enough to replenish my imagination-battery.

Nasty Little Beast, Part Two

On Monday’s Nasty Little Beast post, I mentioned my snarky bout of professional envy (“PE” for short) relating to Chelsea Cain’s success. I went to her talk wondering if the ten-buck nonmember fee would be worth it.

After Ms. Cain’s talk about her ten surefire tips for writing a thriller, my friend M– and I strolled down 10th Avenue with a chill wind at our backs. I admitted to my petty bout of PE. However, I also realized that I no longer felt the PE. Instead I was thinking, Good for Ms. Cain for writing where the writing led. Sometimes it takes guts to do what we want.

M– and I wondered aloud whether we could write a cheesy thriller such as Ms. Cain described. I’m not so sure for myself. In part because some of the tips felt depressingly formulaic. End each chapter on a cliffhanger, for example (tip #2). (Think The DaVinci Code.)

The tip that resonated the most with me was her last of the evening: Value your writing (tip #18!). I told M– that I probably didn’t value my writing enough, and he said, You’re right; you don’t.

Here’s the entirety of Ms. Cain’s last tip: Value your writing; it’s worth millions. With that in mind, the next morning I woke up ready to write that day’s new chapter. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to enter the scene. What the hell, I decided, I’ll make use of one of Ms. Cain’s tips. So, I opened the chapter with a physical action (tip #4), all the while reminding myself of tip #10: Put it in; you can always take it out later.

Does this make me a fledgling thriller writer? Nah, but my character’s hand signal toward her soon-to-be amore’s dog got me off and running for the day’s writing. Thanks, Ms. Cain, the ten-buck nonmember fee was worth it.

Nasty Little Beast

Last week I pondered novelist Chelsea Cain because:

1. She’s a local. Portland’s latest “it” novelist who made it to the New York Times bestseller list after sealing a mega-three-book deal. In other words, she wrote a commercial blockbuster.

2. She’s got quite the online presence, which of course interested me as a fledgling novelist blogger. Check her out: website, uTube videos, a Facebook page, a MySpace page. More power to her.

3. I was ready to not like her when I went to last week’s Willamette Writers meeting to hear her talk about the 10 surefire tips for writing a thriller. It didn’t help that I had to pay a ten-buck nonmember fee.Heartsick Cover

Points one and two are self-evident. Point three, not so much. It goes like this: Ms. Cain interested me in part because of my reaction to her success — that nasty little beast called professional envy. “PE” for short. My reaction was silly enough that I had to check her out even though I don’t write thrillers.

I know a woman who is acquainted with Ms. Cain. She’d told me about Ms. Cain’s novel, Heartsick, with something akin to bemused skepticism in her voice. Come to find out that Ms. Cain had always been a literary rather than commercial type of writer. Ooh, I couldn’t help thinking at the time, she purposely plotted herself a big paycheck. The so-called “selling out.”

I went to the Willamette Writers meeting still carrying that nasty-little-beast of a thought in my head. Only, Ms. Cain appeared on stage, and I liked the looks of her with her sculpted features and pleasantly eclectic wardrobe sense. She called her novel a “gory thriller” and a “cheesy thriller.” She admitted that at first she felt sheepish writing such a novel. She said she cried for two days when her previous book publisher, a literary house, rejected its option to buy the new novel. She was down-to-earth, funny, and had a disarming way of tilting her head back at a cockeyed angle while widening her eyes.

Most of all, she used the word “f*cking” three times and as casually as I might say “that damned cat.” AWEsome. I decided she wasn’t so bad, after all, even if she did win the publishing jackpot. Like I wrote above: More power to her.

And besides, why envy? Isn’t there enough to go around? Silly me.

Testing: Am I Live?

I should be writing today’s allotment of novel pages by now, but I’ve decided to test this blog, my fledgling effort. In truth, I’m procrastinating, which is silly because I know exactly what needs to happen in the current scene.

The scene takes place in a fictional village in County Clare, Ireland. It will be a scene of conflict, but since fiction is all about conflict, that statement says nothing. I love writing about internal conflicts, characters who are wounded and flawed and trying to get by. However, the scene I’m about to write is a good old-fashioned verbal confrontation between two strong-willed men. That one of these men is dying and the other not telling the whole truth should make the scene fun to write. So why am I procrastinating?

(Because I can, I suppose. I have all day to get my five daily pages out of my head and into the computer.)

I live in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment. The master bedroom is my office because it faces south, not that that matters this morning. It’s misty outside, kind of romantic like I remember from my childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area. The quaking aspen aren’t quaking, but their branches loaded with gold leaves shiver as squirrels go about their autumnal business. The leaves are waiting for a good breeze to set them flurrying all at once. It’s quiet out there with everyone at work.

I look out the window a lot, but then I’ve been doing that since I was kid. I sometimes wonder if dreaminess is one of the prerequisites to being a writer, and a novelist in particular.

It may be quiet on my street, but it’s growing increasingly loud in my head. The confrontation wants to get written.

Welcome to my blog. I might use it as a procrastination device all too often.