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
Impressions of dawn

History is Not the Past

It pains me to admit it now, but I dreaded the rewrite of Refuge of Doves. Setting aside the first draft of a novel that had poured forth so naturally from mid-January to early April, I opened the drawer on a novel that was already eighteen months old. And still in need of So. Much. Work. But that kernel of there’s something there, keep going had burrowed deep, fertilized by my inherent mulishness. Finish what you started, Johnson. Take this as far as you can. 

And so I dug in.

The very week I began the rewrite, Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed Bart Ehrman, a UNC-Chapel Hill historian and professor of religious studies, about his new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from GalileeI will forever remember that Eureka moment, walking through the woods just east of the Chinese Gardens at Fort Worden, when Professor Ehrman said “.. there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer. What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. History is what we can show to have happened in the past. One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that’s miraculous …” I did a little dance right there on that forest trail. Probably scared the bejesus out of any onlooking deer.

 

Serendipity, Baby. 

 

My protagonist is a historian faced with accepting past miracles made manifest in the present. The very suspension of disbelief she faces is the same that any religion asks of its followers. It’s the same that writers ask of their readers when the story leaves the realm of historical fact and plunges into the hinterlands of “what if?” I had been been flirting with this theme from the very first word, but finally I understood how to take the story deeper, to tie the narrative set in the present with that set in the 13th century. To depart from known history and delve instead into the nebulous past. 

 

The story became something different. Not hugely, but significantly.

 

The first change was immediate, drastic, even: I switched the protagonist’s POV from first person to third. Writing this character in first person allowed me to understand her completely, but the story is greater than her character alone. Intimacy and immediacy are richer in first person POV, but third is a better fit for the style of the story. We’ll see how I feel after this week’s read-through …

A minor character was shredded, his scenes folded into others. One major character has gone through three name changes in six weeks, bless his heart. A handful of new scenes written, and one dredged up from a long-ago draft. It’s one those darlings I hated to kill, and there it sat, waiting patiently to find its place. In the end, I excised 10,000 words. And more will go, I’m sure, as I sit down with a paper copy and red pen.

Plot holes opened and scenes were reengineered. The ending changed from happy to hopeful. Love scenes went from blush-making to black-fading or dropped altogether. Dialogue tightened, personalities sharpened but characters became more ambiguous. Hopefully, you’re not entirely certain whose side you’re on. Because few things in life are black and white. Especially the truth.

In two weeks, this happy mess is off to a real, live, professional editor. It will be time. I have a couple of passes to make, an out-loud read-through to get through, but I feel it in my belly. The story is becoming what it should be—its own. Now I am ready for someone to tear it apart and work with me to rebuild. I believe in it in a way I haven’t before. I feel a smidgen of giddy. this could be something.

2014-05-22 07.04.30-2
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon. Romeo and Juliet Act 2; Scene 2

 

 

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

Arriving Where I Started

I felt it burbling away in my belly last week, a little rush in the blood, a tugging smile. The End was moving up to meet me. I worked late Wednesday night, the words pouring out in a rare torrent (I am the slowest damn writer, let me tell you). I stopped before the final scene. I wanted to complete it in the daylight, when I could rush out of the house and tell someone—anyone—that I had finished my novel, at last.

Late Thursday afternoon, I wrote that scene and typed THE END. Then I burst into tears.

Eighteen months. I started in early July 2012 (The First 10,000 Words chronicled). I wrote through a miscarriage, two surgeries, three weeks hiking in Ireland. I wrote as I sensed my husband’s professional world coming apart, I wrote as the betrayal sent us into a tailspin of anger and bewilderment. I wrote while we picked up the pieces and moved to a sweeter life, in a place so rich with beauty and peace it makes my heart hurt. I wrote through a half marathon and a four-month sidelining injury. I wrote through one job I quit, another that collapsed. I wrote through the most glorious summer I’ve had since I was five and through a descent into depression that caused me to doubt my worth on this planet. I wrote through the guilt of not bringing in a paycheck. I wrote even though I was writing crap. I wrote through the lead softball of doubt that grew in my gut like a tumor and despite the snickering demon on my shoulder. I wrote through rejection and criticism. I wrote because I didn’t know what else to do. I wrote to finish. I wrote because the most important thing isn’t to see the novel published. I wrote because my heart was bursting with a story and the most important thing was to get it out.

These past months—since I got into a plot pickle in July and decided to begin the revision process—have been about weaving together the strands until I got to The End. It took longer than I thought, for I had to untangle so many knots. I came within days of chucking it in, but I powered on out of sheer spite. I WOULD FINISH. Even if every page ended up in the shredder or shoved into a box in the closet, I WOULD FINISH. I learned doggedness from running so many races in ridiculous pain. It’s the only way I know what really matters to me—if I keep after something, no matter how much it hurts, I’ll look back with gratitude at lessons learned.

In late October, I fell in love again. I switched my protagonist’s point of view and found her voice. She, at the eleventh hour, told the story she’d wanted to tell all along. Suddenly, things flowed. Flowed inexorably to The End.

And there it is. If I tally the words that have lived in this story since July 2012 (never discard ANYTHING), I get 167,264. Actual finished first draft: 105,047.

Now what? Well, here’s the thing. Now the real work begins. I have weeks, possibly months, of revision and rewriting ahead of me. I have to decide if I’ll pursue traditional publication—seek an agent, try to land the novel with a publishing company—or dive into the world of self-publishing. I need to power through a substantive series of story, copy and line edits in the next two weeks to deliver a complete manuscript to the publisher and agent I pitched to in October, fulfilling a delivery promise by the end of the year. After that, I need to walk away for a few weeks. Start something new. Refresh. I need to find a handful of beta readers I trust to give me honest, respectful, constructive feedback (any volunteers? Seriously). Then I need to begin the revisions all over again.

I took a day off writing to enjoy a day of play with my husband. Today I regrouped. I drafted my revision plan. I’ll share it in my next post. It’d be great if you shared yours.

But for just this moment, let me feel the glow I felt typing these six letters: THE END.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot

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The Scum Also Rises. Or, How Writing is like Vodka

I dig distillation. I dig that a mad farmer-artist-scientist can take a bushel of rye, wheat, potatoes, corn, grapes, sugar cane–what have you–ferment it to potent alcohol and pass it through a still to create a liquid that will straighten the tangle of your intestines with searing, rich, and lusty fire.

Without getting all spirit-ual on you, the purpose of distillation is to separate the impurities found in the heads and the tails–the first and last parts of the distillation process–from the heart–the desirable middle portion. Less heads and tails in the heart, the purer the spirit.

I’m a Cognac, Armagnac, Scotch whisky, and Bourbon girl, myself. I like my brouillis bold and my congeners cocky. Give me smoky peat and sour mash–I want booze with grit. Water-white, über-distilled, neutral vodka has never done much for me. Until now.

Oh, don’t worry. I’m not pounding the Absolut in my pursuit of the writing life. Tazo Green Ginger tea is my potion of motion while huddled over the laptop. It’s just that I’ve spent the past six weeks distilling The Novel with more effort than a custom-made Christian Carl pot still with multiple rectification columns.

IMG_0908Since my foray into full-time writing began in mid-July, I’ve been editing. I started at the beginning of The Novel and I’m working my way, scene by scene, to the end. I’m filling in plot holes, finessing the details of setting and history, and adding dimension to my characters. Revising. Rewriting. Amending. Emending. Butchering. Compiling. Tightening. Refining. I nearly entitled this blog post “Revising is like Vodka” because it feels as though I haven’t done much writingBut it’s all writing, isn’t it? It might not be the curl-up-on-the-sofa-at-4-am-with-Pilot-Fine-Point-and-Moleskine that got me the meat of a novel, but it’s the work that will get me to the heart of all I’ve written.

I entered a couple of “Opening Chapters” contests–these are where you send the first pages of your novel and hope you make it far enough in the process to have your work seen by an agent and/or an editor. It took me over two weeks of mind-numbing revision to prepare forty double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point pages. I changed a major plot point, rearranged a ton of scenes, and sheared off 6,000 words. SIX THOUSAND WORDS. Five percent of my work, gone. The Novel went on a crash diet. I distilled those opening pages over and over again until my inner refractive index said “Enough.”

I sent off my entries and walked away from The Novel. A few days later I sat down to reread my forty pages of marvelously redacted prose.

AAIIGGHH!!!!

AAIIGGHH!!!!

Three pages in and I was running for the red pen. Heads and Tails all over the place. Does the distillation never end?

Author Ann Hood told a packed crowd at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference in early July that she had revised her novel The Knitting Circle thirty-five times. Thirty-five times BEFORE sending the manuscript to her editor, even before letting her first reader–her husband–have a peek. Thirty-five trips to Kinkos to pick up a boxed copy of the current draft.

Ann left us with a laundry list of outstanding editing practices, which I may share with you when I muster up the courage to face the list again. Each of her suggestions could be a full-draft edit exercise; since I wrote down twenty parts to the process, I reckon I’ve got at least twenty full edits ahead of me.

Distillation: the process by which aromas, flavors, and alcohol are concentrated and negative compounds removed.

I’ll drink to that. But my title simile has its descriptive limitations. Let’s not forget that impurity is another name for character. You can have your vodka martini. Pour me a Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old. Neat.