The Fast and The Furious: First Drafts

I have never written anything in one draft, not even a grocery list, although I have heard from friends that this is actually possible.—Connie Willis

 

You guys. Guess what? I finished the first draft of my second novel last week. Wait, what? A second novel?

I know, right?

On January 13, I began sketching out characters. On April 2, I typed THE END at, well, the end of a 105,368 word manuscript.

How did that happen? How did this writer go from taking eighteen months to bash her way through a first manuscript—one that split its seams at 167,000 words before it came to a stop at 99,000—to a ten-week blitz of a pretty clean first draft?

Crikey! Can I do it again?

Well, let’s not worry about that now.

Let’s think about what went right.

I had no idea what this story would be about when I sat down in January with a blank notebook and a blue Pilot fine point. I knew the setting: southwest Ireland. That was it. Once I had the characters and their internal conflicts roughed out, the external conflicts and themes gradually took shape. I cobbled together a very general outline that provided guideposts along the way. It’s an outline I’ll redraft in far greater detail when I begin Draft Two.

Conversely, with Refuge of Doves, I had a story idea—an image in my mind of a woman standing before the ruins of a Cathar citadel in Languedoc, France—and a “what-if?” of history, around which I built the plot. But I had no idea where it would take me. I didn’t know my characters all that well. In a couple of cases, I still don’t. And it shows.

Blossoming  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Blossoming ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Really, I had no idea what I was doing the first time out. I just needed to start writing. I knew if I got bogged down in research or plotting, I’d never start the story. I had to develop the habit of writing every day and trust that the rest would sort itself out in time. And so I did. And so the story did, too. Over the course of months, a narrative began to take shape and I fell in love not just with the process, but with my people.

But I did not write sequential scenes. Primarily because I had a beginning and a vague idea of the end, but not much notion of what would happen in between. I just wrote a bunch of stuff.

So, a year after typing the opening words to Refuge, I had to lay out the scenes—and I mean literally: the living room floor was a giant grid of 8 1/2 ” x 11″ pages, with my prone body on top, sobbing—and try to put them in some sort of order. I spent the next five months cleaning it up and straightening it out, simply to get to The End. Of a first-ish draft.

What happened last week (let’s give it a name, shall we? Working Title: The Crows of Beara) was the product of a writer determined not to repeat the past. I set a weekly goal of 10,000 words and butt stayed in chair until that happened. I wrote scenes in order. I shut down the inner editor (repeatedly, daily, hourly, by the minute) and just wrote.

I’d planned to reserve one day a week for editing, but I abandoned that notion early on. Editing mired me down in minutiae and side-tracked me from simply letting the story pour forth. I jotted notes where I knew I needed more character development or technical research or where theme threads dropped or things got backstory heavy, but I left the writing alone.

I wrote fast. I wrote furious. It was a joyful experience. So much so that it’s all I want to do. I just want to write first drafts, you know? First Drafts Are Art, Baby. Unfettered by the rules of craft, playing loose with grammar, throwing ideas and not bothering to see what sticks and what drops to the floor like limp spaghetti.

Alas. The First Draft Fantasy. First drafts are like those early, googly-eyed days of a relationship. No matter how besotted you are by the First Draft, at some point there will be morning breath and the electric bill and someone’s red shirt in the washer with your white socks. At some point, there will be a revisions. Many. Revisions.

Refuge of Doves, which I finished in December, sits on my desk—set aside, but not forgotten. I’d been dreading the inevitable rewrite(s), but as I think about what went right this second time out of the gate, I know I can sort it.

One of the greatest unintended consequences of burning through the first draft of The Crows of Beara has been the building of eagerness to apply what I’ve learned about myself as a writer—and the shoring up of my weaknesses—on the massive project that awaits me.

And more than ever, I realize that the eighteen months I spent writing Refuge of Doves were eighteen months spent learning how to write a First Draft. Now I’m ready to turn it into a novel.

 

Worth Checking Out:

Why Your First Draft Isn’t Crap by Bryan Hutchinson for Positive Writer

Get Messy with Your First Draft by Elizabeth Sims for Writers Digest

Getting Over It, Getting It Out: On Embracing A Bad First Draft by Jon Gingerich for Lit Reactor

The Elephant in the Room: Are you ignoring your story revision instincts? by Alythia Brown for Wordplay: The Writing Life of K.M. Weiland

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of LoveThe Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel opens quietly, as if the writer were a doctor, cautiously revealing a wound, warning the reader to look, but don’t touch; as if she were a psychiatrist, probing delicately at the mind, but who avoids coming too close to the main issues, for fear of doing her patient greater harm.

The wounds in Aminatta Forna’s devastating and beautiful novel The Memory of Love (why am I certain the author had another title in mind, but was convinced by her publisher to go with the banal to encourage mainstream readers? Sadly, this is the second novel entitled The Memory of Love I’ve read in the past four months and both deserve better titles. No offense to Elton John.) aren’t inflicted on just one person; they are the wounds of a nation brutalized by war.

The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone was relegated to Page Five international sections in this country, overshadowed—if one paid attention to the many tangled messes abroad—by the War in the Gulf, then the Balkans, Rwanda and even Sierra Leone’s southern neighbor, Liberia. This beautiful West African nation was first a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, then became an important symbol of resistance. Its capital, Freetown, was so named by repatriated slaves at the end of the 18th century. Its modern history is at least as complex: a land rich in natural resources, with an infrastructure and population that attained stability and productivity, reduced to horrific footnotes of “blood diamonds,” boy soldiers, hacked-off limbs and a generation of children born of rape.

But all politics is personal. And The Memory of Love wraps the war around multiple characters and two eras to show the progression from hope and happy times to defeat and resignation.

The central characters in this story are men: Elias Cole, a mid-grade professor of history and his charismatic alter ego Julius, married to the woman on whom Elias develops a obsessive crush; Adrian Lockheart, a British psychotherapist fleeing a loveless marriage in the UK to treat PTSD sufferers in a Freetown hospital; and Kai Mansaray, an orthopedic surgeon whose work schedule seems to be self-inflicted retribution for having survived the war when tens of thousands of his fellow citizens did not.

The story opens just before the 1969 Apollo moon landing, when Freetown bustled with progress. Elias Cole, a young professor at the time, relates his story in first person to Dr. Lockheart, who comes to Sierra Leone thirty years later, after the civil war ends in 2001, to a crumbled city beset by poverty, crime and disease.

Women are central to the narrative, though we never hear their voices directly: the enigmatic Saffia, Julius’s wife; Ileana, the chain-smoking Romanian doctor who navigates crazy, sad Freetown with wry dexterity; Kai’s former lover, Nenebeh and Adrian’s new lover, Mamakay. And there is Agnes, a Sierra Leonean psychiatric patient suffering from a rare “fugue” state where she wanders off for days, lost in a world of memories. There are prostitutes and slutty foreign aid workers, cuckolded wives and neglected daughters. Women bear the greatest injustices and losses in this novel but their experiences are interpreted by their lovers, husbands and physicians.

Aminatta Forna explores betrayal on an epic, political scope and an intimate, every-day relationship level. The Memory of Love is many individual but linked strands of characters doing whatever they can to survive, even if it means survival of the body but decimation of the soul. Friendship is one of the central themes—how easily we find and create connections and how it takes just a moment, a misunderstanding, a cruel coincidence, to tear them apart.

This complicated and intelligent novel demands careful, slow reading to keep track of the multiplicity of characters, the frequent changes of points-of-view, time and place. Aminatta Forna’s writing is evocative, deliberate and authentic. She infects the narrative with tragedy and anger, then lances the wounds with sweetness, affection and hope. There are competing feelings of pent-up illness and catharsis that are partially, but not fully, resolved by the end. Not an easy read, but an important one.

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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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Of all the gin joints in all the towns…

Two years ago, I wrote a story based on someone who slipped in and out of my life in a matter of weeks, set in a place where my heart swelled, then shattered. The short story was published earlier this year and I was so pleased. But it’s an unfinished work. It is the foundation of an idea I’d considered developing into a novel, before I settled upon the tale I’m writing now. The characters knock around in my head, waiting. When the time is right I know they’ll still be there, ready to tell me what’s been happening since we last met.

 

Round about the same time my short story found its way to print, a slim and elegiac novel landed on bookshelves. It came to my attention over the summer and a few weeks ago I read it. I hadn’t heard of the author, but the novel had solid recommendations. The high praise is merited. It is an introspective, fragile story written in quiet but lyrical prose. It’s a book I’m glad to have read.

 

Except.

 

There is a French word which combines disappointment with a feeling of having been set up, somehow: déçu. I read this lovely novel and I said, “Je suis déçue.”

 

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

 

The similarities between the novel and my short story are striking. All the more so because the similarities are completely coincidental.

 

Which writer hasn’t heard the maxim, “There are only seven basic plots, but thousands of variations”? But I’m not just talking plot here. We each wrote a story with the same evocative setting, about a woman struggling in isolation who meets a vulnerable soul in need of rescue. The same kind of rescue, through the same means and bureaucracies and from the same sort of community. And in the distance stands another character, eager to help, if she’d only drop her defenses and let him in.

 

There’s a certain beautiful karma to the thought that perhaps we worked on our stories at the same time, that there are ideas, a place and themes big enough to carry us both in similar directions but which allow us to explore different emotions, interactions and outcomes.

 

But there’s a part of me that says,”Well, shit. Now what do I do?” Change the setting? No way, José. It’s as integral a part of the story as any of my characters. It is a character. And if I changed the story, well, that doesn’t work for obvious reasons. I feel deflated. Flattened.

 

Deçue.

 

And yet. The story I have written, the one that rattles around in my heart saying “Write more of me” is still mine to tell. As much as the other author owns the story that appears in the novel. Our stories may not be unique, but our voices are. I’ll admit, I’m relieved my short story was published before the novel appeared, so there can be no question that any similarities are coincidental should I ever take my plot and characters further. But I believe once I begin writing it again, something very different will emerge. I will, as Melissa Donovan advises (paraphrasing),“Forge ahead and believe in the story I want to tell.” 

 

Here are a couple of posts from great writers/writing coaches which help me keep perspective.

Melissa Donovan, Writing Forward: Are There Any Original Writing Ideas Left? (this is the post where I pulled the paraphrased quote above).

And because every writer keen on storycraft should read Chuck’s rockin’ blog

Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing

 

And thanks to Casablanca for having the best quotes at the right time.

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand
Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

Book Club Redeemed: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

DocDoc by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you follow me Goodreads, you’ll know I’ve disliked, vigorously, most of the titles our book club has selected in recent months. My reading philosophy forbids wasting time on books that don’t capture me in their opening chapters, but I’ve had to bend my rules to honor book club commitments. Number Five—a memoir—fared better, but only by a thread. Number Six was my pick. I loved it. I feel sheepish because it was my selection, but after months of insufferable duds, I went after an author I adore.

Enter Lucky Number Seven. Last month one of our club members selected Doc by Mary Doria Russell for our November read. Cue inner cheer and moan. Russell has been on my “must-read” list for eons. Okay, truth. She felt like one of those writers I should read. But the spark hadn’t lit. A book club obligation seemed like a good way to tick the Mary Doria Russell author box. But, God, a WESTERN? Do I have to read a book about Doc Holliday? Seriously? Sigh.

O vos pusillae fide

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

And from this sentence on, I was spellbound. I have a new writer crush (sorry Jess Walter, you’ve been displaced. Love ya,babe).

Doc is based on a very brave conceit. Russell takes an element of our collective cultural imagination—the sepia-toned Wild West—and gambles that we’ll embrace her rendering of its most iconic figures and places. Or that we’ll even care about one more depiction of the Earp boys and world-weary, hack-a-lung Doc Holliday. What Ms. Russell needs to know is that she touched this reader, who had to go out of her way to pick up a novel set in the American west, with some of the most sublime storytelling I’ve read.

John Henry Holliday became a dental surgeon at twenty-one and was stricken with tuberculosis that same year. He boarded a train for the West, in search of drier climes. By twenty-two he was a heavy drinker and gambler. By twenty-six he was a frontier legend with a permanent limp from a gunshot wound and a multi-lingual Hungarian aristocrat-turned-prostitute on his arm. And he hadn’t yet set foot in Dodge City, Kansas.

But follow Mary Doria Russell there, as she takes Doc to his single season of happiness. She will prove to be a cracker-jack guide—nimble, sophic, soulful. Doc is a character study, with its title protagonist the sun around which a host of personalities spin. Russell sinks the reader into the skin of her characters-and there are heaps, as evidenced by The Players section that prefaces the narrative. But it’s Doc as the sun, Kate Harony, his companion, as the moon, and Wyatt Earp as the grounded Earth who make this universe breathtaking and epic.

Russell creates a world that will consume each of your senses until you are wiping the Kansas grit from your skin, gasping at the sweet-sour burn of bourbon, pausing to wonder at the beauty of a prairie sunrise, cringing at the wet iron scent of fresh blood, and hearing the crack of gunshot and drumming of hooves as Texas boys pound into town for a night of cards and whores. The details of time and place are artfully offered without ever being cliché. We know this world—we grew up with these legends—yet Russell brings freshness to the American frontier. It’s not retread. It’s raw and unaffected worldbuilding.

The narrative is a slice of Doc’s life. Outside the brief chapters chronicling his early years and an even shorter Epilogue, Doc takes between April 1878 and April 1879. It’s the year Doc spent in Dodge City, Kansas, endearing himself to Wyatt, Morgan and James Earp, an Austrian priest, an Irish entertainer, a Chinese entrepreneur, not a few prostitutes (though Kate was his only lover) and making enemies with just about everyone else. Russell weaves a subplot into the narrative—the suspicious death of a young faro dealer of black and Indian heritage. The investigation of the boy’s death becomes the linchpin of the story, allowing us to witness the players and politics at work in Dodge City.

This is as fine a work of historical fiction as I any I have read. I’m not well-versed in literature of the American west, but I have taken John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich and Cormac McCarthy out for a spin. Doc slips easily into the tremendous canon of these writers.

The moment I turned the final pages of the Author’s Note I hopped lickety-split to Mary Doria Russell’s website, where she had announced the same day a sequel to Doc, entitled Epitaph, will be released early 2015: Epitaph update: bad news, good news And she’s committed to writing a novel about Edgar Allen Poe. Oh, we lucky readers!

Doc makes up in spades for the months of dreary book club reads which preceded it.

Mary Doria Russell, you are my huckleberry.

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If I wanted your opinion, I’d…Oh, wait…

It’s been a wobbly week here in Paradise. I received, in two separate batches, the first sets of anonymous critiques of my opening chapter.

And that’s my post. Thanks for stopping by.

No, seriously. When the critique bundles landed in my e-mail, I scanned for disaster, then perused them without breathing (maybe that’s why I nearly passed out). I set them aside and eliminated 5,000 words from Chapter One. As a start.

A few days on. I reread the critiques. And I smiled. Eight writers saw my work. Eight published authors had criticisms and suggestions–some delivered far more gracefully than others–to make my story cleaner, snappier. Richer.

But I have to admit, I’ve put myself in a bit of a sticky place. I submitted these pages to a group of writers planted within a specific genre of fiction. More than that: a sub-genre of genre fiction. I picked a thematic element of my novel and tossed it to authors who write solely within this genre. The challenge is to extrapolate from a limited definition of story construction–according to a tried-and-true formula and for a specific group of readers–to the larger world of satisfying, engaging reads. And with some exceptions, I think the feedback was spot on. In the days since receiving these critiques, I’ve made enormous changes to my manuscript–not because I accepted everything offered as Gospel, but because I recognized the patterns. There were consistencies between the criticisms. And nothing my gut hadn’t already warned me about.

This morning, while my coffee was hot and my mind was clear, I read the feedback and read it again. Honest. Encouraging. All of it useful advice, even if I choose not to follow it. Here are a few comments I grabbed:

The setting, the writing, the premise, the history, the – everything. I loved it.  

[[none of this is needed. I’m not trying to be harsh. This is publication ready writing. But this scene, while perfectly fine, is NOT moving the story forward.]] 

Your writing is lyrical and highly polished. I recommend that you spend a little more time on the main character’s scene before moving to a different historical time.

…That was a bit confusing. Otherwise, the writing is brilliant.  

…The writing is beautiful, but the distant viewpoint leaves me emotionally distanced from the characters. Good luck—you’ve got lots of talent.

Whenever I’m doing anything related to art (writing, acting, painting, cooking) I think of Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Structure first. What is the main character’s goal, motivation and conflict. Establish those first and then decorate to best underscore the story elements. I believe this story will be fantastic.

In a sweet twist of serendipity, I read William Kenower’s book of essays for writers, Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion, the day before I received the first set of these critiques. He has this to say about facing rejection and criticism:

The world does not want you to fail. The world is forever supplying you with the information needed to do exactly what you want. Whether you accept this information is up to you. But do not fear the information. The only thing to fear is your judgment of that information. When those letters come back, look with friendly eyes upon what the world wishes you to know, and be grateful that you are one letter wiser.

I have so much to learn about storycraft. So much work to do before this novel is ready for a real editor to shred to bits. Mired in my isolation, I’ve had no idea until this week whether what I’ve been working on for the past fifteen months is viable, publishable work. I still don’t know that, but I feel more confident I’m on the right path. I believe the world does not want me to fail.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
—E.L. Doctorow

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The Sun Also Rises. Every Single Day.

Related Posts from wise writers~astute bloggers:

Five Reasons You Should Embrace Rejection Linda Formichelli for copyblogger

Doubt, Fear, False Alarms, and “Giving Birth” To Our Dreams Kristen Lamb

When Writers Face a Constant Climb

Twenty Words

As I grind through The Novel, with thousands of words behind me and just a few thousand more ahead, I am aching to write short fiction again. There is such challenge and satisfaction in crafting a complete story, with fully formed characters facing obstacles and arriving at some sort of resolution, in fewer than 10,000 or 5,000 or 1,000 words. Excuse the running metaphor, but short fiction is a speed workout that leaves you trembling with endorphins, legs wobbly from those fast-twitch muscle fibers that fired you through quarter-mile repeats instead of the measured slog of a long-distance run.

The fast-twitch fibers in my brain were reawakened during the workshop I attended yesterday during the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference: Flash nonfiction: Writing Memoir in 750 words or less led by the delightful Sayantani Dasgupta, a writer and a professor in the Department of English at the University of Idaho (Side Note for Grammar Geeks Fewer vs. Less – I’m straddling the fence here. Since we’re discussing word count, I’m sticking with fewer than, but I’m open to being persuaded in the direction of less if you can make a compelling “bulk” case. Oh my goodness, I heart Grammar!).

I am preparing myself for the emptiness I will feel when The Novel is complete. Not finished, mind you – months of revisions and multiple drafts undulate like an ocean before me; I’m already a little queasy at the thought – but the characters will have done their work and will either walk away forever or lie down to rest until their time comes ’round again. I’m braced for the “Now, what do I do?” feeling that will hit about the time the year turns away from autumn and hunches its head to the oncoming winter. So, I let my mind wander away from the Languedoc just a bit and feel around for new ideas. I return to jotting down those snippets of my life or overheard bits of others’ that become fodder for new tales to tell. My autumn/winter goal, to break up the tedium of editing editing editing, will be to complete several pieces – from flash to shorts and whatever is between.

In short fiction, each word carries great significance. This is true of all writing, of course, but there is the luxury of development and backstory in long form prose. Flash fiction in particular is a kissing cousin to poetry. Each word pops, stings, zings, shocks, compels, evokes, hearkens. There is a rhythm – a poetic flow – but also a tightness to the structure that makes it a complete art form, distinct, difficult and powerful.

To get us thinking about the power of words, Ms. Desgupta presented this writing prompt during yesterday’s workshop:

What if you were only allowed to use twenty words for the rest of your life? List these twenty words. How will you write a story of your life so far and of your vision of the future by weaving in and out of these twenty words?

In my tendency to overanalyze even the simplest of exercises, I wanted to make certain my words could convey multiple feelings, needs, desires, and experiences. These four came immediately to mind:

  • earth
  • fire
  • water
  • air

Then I thought of the things I do that make up the who I am:

  • write
  • run
  • read
  • wander

What I value most spilled out:

  • marriage
  • health
  • peace
  • present

Random things I cannot live without:

  • coffee
  • wine
  • vision (another one of those multiple meaning words, but suffice to say I’m epically near-sighted)
  • home

Words I would not want to give up, even though I could convey their meaning by pointing my finger:

  • I
  • You

And it struck me that I included these two words:

  • Fear
  • Fuck (this one appeared on several lists; I think we all need one good curse in our arsenal. This covers so much ground in four letters: perfection)

But I didn’t include Love. I reckon love is implicit in words 1 -18. 19 & 20, too, really.

Can I write the story of my life using only twenty words? I think I just did.

Which twenty words would tell the story of your life?

How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine
How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine

My Character (‘s) Flaw

Several days ago we stood on a beach, looking out across the Salish Sea, our shoulders hunched against the briny wind. Brendan turned to me and said, “Our lives are changing.”

Freighter on the Salish Sea

Not so many years ago, this sentence would have been “We are changing our lives.” Hard-wired for motion, we grew restless every two or three years. We switched jobs, home loans, states, cities, countries with ease – not seeking anything better, not out of dissatisfaction for where we were or what we had – but out of a spirited curiosity, a determination to embrace adventure. And like magic, the opportunities appeared. A better-paying job offer materialized after I submitted a letter of resignation to my current employer; buyers snapped up our house before it went the market; Permanent Residency was granted when we’d hoped only for six-month work permits. It seemed that each time we decided to leap without a net, the Universe said “Go on! I got this.”

But then we landed here, in this green and gray city of whey-faced, over-caffeinated hipsters and North Face puffy-coated soccer moms and we fell in love. We fell in love with the city’s sparkling waters and downy peaks, its bookstores and beer, its endearing neighborhoods of Arts and Crafts bungalows and small-batch gourmet cupcake joints. We found fulfilling work, a cheap rental in a great neighborhood, created a community of friends and thought, “Right. We’re home, let’s set down stakes and dig in.” And dig in we did. Five years in one city is a record for our nearly-21 year union. And it felt right. Mostly. Maybe. Sort of. Not really.

Here’s my Solstice blog post. I’m all “It’s been a pretty rough year, but now the light is shining again” Zen-like reflective, thinking the year had closed and I could move on, right? I can’t reread it. I’m afraid I might cry and not get through the rest of what I want to write tonight. The thing is, in the final hours of the year that was, our settled little life shattered.

I am easily disappointed by people. Classic introvert that I am, it’s a major character flaw. But I don’t want to be that person, so I work to pull my heart out, open it and offer up bits to strangers and loved ones alike. Then something happens and all my demons snigger and shout “See? See! Just like we’ve said all along. People Suck!”

Maybe that’s why I read fiction. Make-believe characters are far more satisfying than the real things. And if they aren’t, I can toss the book aside and move on to the next. Or, if I make my way to the end, I can pound out a review, holding the author entirely responsible for the flaws in his characters.

And it’s very likely why I write fiction. But this isn’t to suggest that the fiction writer is a puppeteer stringing her characters along. When you are fully engaged in your story, writing from a place of authenticity, your characters lead you. I’ve spent six months getting to know my protagonist and just this morning did she finally tell me what she wanted. I’ve asked her since day one, knowing as any good student of writing does that all characters want something and it’s the writer’s job to put obstacles in the way of those desires – that’s what makes a plot. But there sat my protagonist with a phone cradled to her ear, listening to a friend sharing news that will allow her to make choices, and changes, to her life, to live where and  – after a fashion –  how she wants. Suddenly she’s faced with deciding what that really is. And telling me, the writer, in the process. I just had to have the patience to let her tell her story and to remain silent so I wouldn’t muck it up.

Last Saturday I participated in an extraordinary workshop, “Salon at SAM”, co-sponsored by the Seattle Art Museum and Hedgebrook, a retreat for writers on Whidbey Island. We selected a work of art from the SAM exhibit Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, created a character based on that work and wrote a monologue in his or her voice.

I selected a short, continuously looped black and white film. The artist filmed herself on a beach, rotating a hula hoop around her hips. You couldn’t see her head, only her naked, beautiful body. And the hula hoop wasn’t what you tossed around your waist in the 4th grade. This hula hoop was made of barbed wire. It punctured and bruised the artist’s skin. The film was horrifying and brutal – a political protest that touched me in a very personal way. And it gave me a story.

We shared the experience of writing from a work of art with the large group. Then we returned in small groups to the art we’d chosen and read our monologues aloud. I wrote the dance with a hula hoop made of barbed wire as a dream my character was having, a dream that made her realize she was in a situation she wanted out of, but wasn’t able to admit the truth. In my story, my character was speaking to her husband. As my small group discussed my monologue, one woman turned to me and said “I don’t think your character is talking to her husband. I think she is talking to another woman.” I felt a rush of relief  and gratitude when I heard this. “I knew it,” I replied. “Thank you. I knew the husband part was wrong.” I hadn’t been able to think of the “what next” until my fellow writer made me realize I was directing my character, instead of allowing her to move me.

And isn’t that just what happens in life? We get so wrapped up – so busy and noisy – pushing our lives the way we think they should be going, because it’s the logical thing, it’s the expected thing, it’s what we think others will value, that we blow right past the simple truths, the clear path of “what next.”

I won’t go into what happened. Not here. Not now. It’s a story of such insanity that it would take more than a blog post to sort through. And besides, it’s far too rich for nonfiction. I’m collecting the details even as I live through the nightmare, because someday this is going to make a fucking great read. But know that our health is fine, we are loved, we have each other and for the most part, our senses of humor remain intact. With all of this, we can get through anything.

But our lives are changing. And since the Universe is watching and listening, I just want to add: We are changing our lives.

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can think of few novels as aptly titled as The Sense Of An Ending. For that’s all the ending of this particular novel is- just a notion, a nuance, a perception. Or perhaps Barnes had another idea in mind: perhaps he is questioning the sense, logic, purpose to the idea of endings. For indeed there are no endings, only discrete moments in time that exist in our perception; as soon as a moment occurs, it become a memory, shifting in tone, color and meaning according to our unique perspective.

The delicious irony of Barnes’s conceit is that the ending isn’t the point. It is merely the point at which Barnes put down his pen and declared this story finished on the page. His timing is astute, to be sure. There is a natural climax that leads the central character to a philosophical perigee of universal truths, but it’s hardly an end to the story of the characters’ lives.

So, don’t be in a rush to solve the mystery of the £500 legacy or discover the whereabouts of Adrian’s diary or discern the reasons for Veronica’s inscrutability. You have only 163 pages to read- you’ll get to the ending soon enough. Savor the shrewd in-between, the paragraphs you must reread to understand, the pages you mark with Post-It notes to be reminded that you are not alone in thinking weird thoughts:

I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbors, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless and the ones to be careful of.

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation

…when we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

Barnes may be the anti-Thich Nhat Hanh; reading this book forces a certain despair for one’s present – which is predicated on delusions of the past – and hopelessness for the future – which will be wasted on nostalgia, since the past didn’t unfold the way we think.

Acerbic and strange, tight and disturbing, with brilliantly-paced, crisp writing, this is an unforgettable read.

One passage made a particular impression on me: Margaret used to say that women often made the mistake of keeping their hair in the style they adopted when they were at their most attractive. They hung on long after it became inappropriate, all because they were afraid of the big cut..

The day after I finished reading The Sense Of An Ending, I had 8″ cut from my hair. At least I think that’s what happened. My reflection tells me so. But perhaps that’s only my imperfect interpretation of my dubious reality…

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