View From the Writer’s Desk

I didn't stare out the window too much today.

Getting out of the house helped today. I’ve been moldering within the first 50 pages of a revision for a few weeks now.

Let me clear: This isn’t a revision of the genteel sort. This is a massive overhaul. This is a rewrite, a restructuring, an upheaval.

Just now I cleared my way through the first 50, and through the next ten pages. I realized that I was stuck-ish (I never admit to writer’s block) because I’d softened my protagonist too much. We’re irrational creatures, we humans, with contradictory impulses and emotions that coexist especially in times of stress and grief. Anger and sadness, resentment and guilt. Inner conflict, need I say more?

Over on Murderati, Stephen Jay Schwartz discussed writing tight. Because, officially, the manuscript isn’t a first draft, I’ve been caught up in writing as lean as possible. Oddly enough, his post got me thinking that I need to liberate the manuscript, which is to say, treat it as a first draft all over again. The truth is that I still don’t feel sure enough about the upheaval to spend the extra time it takes to write tight.

I’ll write in all my wordy and expansive glory, and revise tight later.

View From the Writer’s Desk

Kale: stir fry with ginger, soy, and garlic?

View: a little on the “meh” side this week.

I spent so much time staring out the window that I rearranged the physical view in hopes that my mental view would change. All week long I faced my laptop, but nothing much happened. I’m not sure why. No excuses here, but it got me wondering why it is that some weeks my output flows, and then others it fizzles to a barely discernable trickle.

It’s the weirdest thing. Nothing changed this week. No stressors. Ah, but perhaps that’s it. No stressors! Through last week I was gung-ho to finish a revision for an agent. I was PUMPED. The revision was a beautiful thing, and I knew to the core of my physical being that I was improving the manuscript. It just felt good, you know what I mean? I sent it off one week ago.

Then, this week — fizzle-city. I re-read where I’d left off on another revision, and after the headiness of my previous effort, this revision felt flat. Good news: I think I figured out what’s not right about it, thus far, which is a huge part of the battle. And I did get words down on paper — I did. Just not so much is all.

But, okay, in a fit of frustration I did buy the decorative kale you see in the image, and I did set piggy beside that sickly lily, poor thing. I kept pondering how to cook up kale, however. I like kale okay, but, come on now, not that much.

As a friend wrote in an email message this morning about her own window-staring: Taking a break, it seems.

Apparently, the brain wants what it wants at times, and no amount of striving and self-flaggelation on my part is going to change its stubborn mind. Hey, Brain, vacation’s over come Monday! Uhm, okay, pretty please?

Started the New Novel!

Current mood: content
Current mood: content

And it wasn’t as traumatic as all that. In fact, it felt natural, and as soon as I began writing, my anxiety drained away. Finished the first scene, and I’m okay with it for now. Gets me started.

However, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever be able to write “fast.” As in fast-paced…One of the things I’m doing differently this time is concentrating on suspense. As in, I’m going to write a suspense novel. I’m going to focus on pacing and plot. I’m going to have fun with it.

So, what do I do? Write a first scene that’s kinda quiet. I couldn’t write one of those wham-bam novels if I tried. And I am trying…I re-read the scene several times, feeling the usual self-doubt, but still overall, pleased at having started.

One thing I know about myself: I think symbolically, so without realizing it or particularly trying, I’ll have described something in the setting — for example, Christmas lights — and I’ll have described these lights in a way that illustrates my character’s mood, and then maybe a string flickers out, furthering the mood, inciting the character to reflect (but not for too long) on something…

Does that sound fast-paced to you?

Definitely not wham-bam, but, on the other hand, did I accomplish my first-scene goals? Grab quickly? Introduce an intriguing main character in conflict? End on an open-ended note? Introduce elements that will echo later?

I think so — I hope so. I guess we’ll see!

Lesson of the day: Accept my writing style while improving on my weaknesses.

What I Did on My Lunch Hour

Can out Luna begging for a little sandwich
Check out Luna begging for a little sandwich

Today — at noon, no less — I made the break. I wrenched myself away from my deadlines, put on semi-decent clothes plus a groovy necklace (which is really dressing up) and sped away from my home-office. With windows rolled down, I let the spring breeze mess up my already disheveled curls, which reminded me that I’m about two months overdue for a haircut.

But, no matter, because at least my hair was clean for a change, and the sun was out. Luna the Dog stared up at me, expecting and about to receive a desultory walk in the park, in which I chatted with other dogwalkers while she tried to avoid all dog-contact. She’s like that.

Then, off to a cafe with its outdoor seating back in place after a long winter. Happy day! Brie panini (a splurge, admittedly), latte, and laptop. I munched the sandwich as I munged words, achieving my hour’s worth of fiction for the day. Still not the best, still itchy that I can’t spend all day…But a step in the right direction, right?

Truth is, I could have worked another little while on the novel, but I decided to finish up my lunch hour with a little spring-cleaning. My home is a wreck, but now my balcony is habitable.

Alas, I must return to the training manual I’m editing, which means that the dog and the cat get to enjoy the balcony. Ah well, that was a mighty fine three-hour lunch hour!

Luna amidst the new geraniums and daisies
Luna amidst the new geraniums and daisies
Trio on the new "anti-gravity" deck chair
Trio on the new "anti-gravity" deck chair

OMG, Is That a Spreadsheet?

Wasn’t I just talking about becoming more organized and that my revision outline was a good start?

Not easy to decipher. Took a picture of my monitor.
Not easy to decipher. Took a picture of my monitor.

After Monday’s post, I began revising per said outline. Unfortunately, yesterday I experienced a mini-mental blowout when I arrived at this question: Move Chapter 14 back so that right before Chapter 17?

Because I’m not organized enough to have a chapter-by-chapter spreadsheet–the global view, you might say–I began flipping through the hard copy, ever more distracted by the marginalia (Wait, did I fix that comment? Really?) not to mention befuddled.

Lo, after an hour of this, a revelation came upon me like a bossy pointing finger and voice descending from the clouds. Thou shalt use an Excel spreadsheet. Thou shalt list each chapter in organized fashion. 

Oh man.

But. Remember I mentioned that I received a spreadsheet from my day-job boss? Hmm…And I may or may not have mentioned novelist DeAnna Cameron’s discussion about spreadsheets just last month. (I left a comment or two on her blog because I was fascinated by her organizational prowess.) Hmm…

So, using the spiffy spreadsheet on hand and stealing DeAnna’s column headers, I came up with what you see here. Cool—and colorful too! It’s my miracle for the week. And, guess what? Laid out tidy like that, it’s too obvious that, of course, Chapter 14 must be moved back two chapters. Duh.

I like spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are good.

What-Ifs and Creative Naps

Last weekend I had an epiphany about the scene that will usher in my story’s resolution. I worked all afternoon for that darned epiphany. And thank goodness, because I’d been writing in fits and starts for a good three weeks, stymied by a lack of vision.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. I reluctantly employed the what-if brainstorming strategy. I say “reluctantly” because I first witnessed this technique at a writers workshop, and it struck me as lame. It didn’t help that the workshop facilitators were snide and sometimes just plain mean — a schtick meant to be funny but that left me cold. Until last weekend, I had obstinately refused to play the what-if game.

I jotted every cockamamie idea that popped into my head and forced myself to what-if my way past random nonsense. “Okay, back to the what-ifs. What if…?” After awhile, a deceptively simple thought arose: a surprise action from an unlikely character. Seemed so obvious I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.

So, good, but I still wasn’t THAT clear. I needed a visual. All I had was a maddened man floating in space. About then, I decided that a wee creative nap was in order.

I set myself to drifting in a conscious way. (Not that I didn’t fall asleep also — delicious!) Low and behold, a strange thing happened; the perfect scenic image drifted into my head.

I’m not a big believer in waiting for inspiration. Sometimes it arrives on its own, true, but more often it needs a little push by way of mind games that get me out of my own way.


I’m Bleary Today

Last night V– and I went to one of her favorite watering spots, an Italian restaurant called Gino’s, where we bellied up to the bar and ordered our dinner.  (Gino’s does a mean Caesar salad — just the right amount of anchovy…) This was our holiday outing, and we drank too much. In part, I blame the good-looking bartender because he gifted us an after-dinner port. This, after much wine and a Spanish coffee. We had fun.

But today, being bleary, I’m also highly distractable. My eyes itch because I didn’t sleep well. I’m just glad that Mysterious Mr. M once again got me out of the house for a writing session at the Fireside Coffee Lodge. I bet I’d be back in bed right this second if not.

Just now, my distractability called out for me to write a quick blog entry to get a whiny something out of my system. After this post, I promise I’ll get back to the new scene I’m writing. It goes like this: Mr. M brought me a book he thought I might get a kick out of reading. I flipped this novel’s pages to check the publisher, the acknowledgments, and the author bio. The novelist looks all of 25 years old. Also, looks like this might be her first novel.

This novel is a chick-lit (think: wry and trendy-like youthful female voice) succubus murder mystery. Succubus! Meaning: lots of sex. Mr. M said this was a trashy novel. This got me thinking about Chelsea Cain’s cheesy thriller, Heartsick, with its sexy female serial murderer.

Here’s the whine: Must I write a chick-lit succubus murder mystery to get a novel published? Or a sexy female serial murderer thriller? Do I have to stretch the genres in that particular way? Do I have to follow the latest literary trends? Do I have to have sex scenes, which in my opinion are the most boring things to read?

Do I have-ta?

Okay, done whining. Now I can concentrate on the current scene, which I’m enjoying, actually. No sex, but there’s a death in the backstory and currently a teenager who only ever wanted to meet his biological mother. I like this youth. His name is Toby. So now I write.

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.