The Spider Season

The first one was waiting in the kitchen, pre-dawn. The cats ran down the hall ahead of me, their wriggly, wiry little bodies ever-joyful to start a new day. Little Kitty and Petey dropped to their bellies and began batting the thing back and forth, like some feline version of air hockey. Without my glasses, the creature was a blur, but I managed to scoop her up in an empty Bonne Maman jam jar and escort her to the safety of a patio lavender plant.

I’m afraid I wasn’t as benevolent a few days later when I came upon another lounging in relative ease behind a sofa throw pillow. The vacuum hose was already in hand, the motor drowning out the “Fuck Me” I let loose in startled horror. I emptied the canister, full of cat hair and sand, into the compost. I’m sure she’s fine.

And then the next day, I turned around in the shower to wait out the requisite one minute of conditioner soak-in and encountered one the size of a small island nation nestled in a fold of the shower curtain. Cue Psycho‘s mad violins. I couldn’t be bothered to rinse or even turn off the faucet. I stepped dripping into the hallway, saying in my most calm, stern, General-at-Battle voice, “Andrew. I need you to come here immediately.” I disavow all knowledge of what happened next. Really, I’m trying to put the entire horror show behind me.

Yes. It’s Spider Season. You may have noticed how the light has changed in recent days, deepening into its late summer denim blue and burnished gold. Summer delivered her hottest days over the weekend, but early mornings hold a freshness that has me reaching for my favorite, stretched-out-beyond-hope cardi-hoodie.

Another season is passing into the next. When I look back at my journal of two seasons ago, mid-March, I read with wistful melancholy my assumption that by late June, summer, this would be behind us. This is now nearly nine months old, if I count back to that January day when I was asked at the clinic’s reception if I’d traveled to China in the past two weeks.

 

I’m taking a precious few days off, the first day job PTO in over a year.

I’m not going anywhere. Oh, believe me. I’d love to. I haven’t been more than 50 miles from home since last fall. I dream of road trips, of numbing flights. I dream of Ireland, Iceland, Iberia. But now is not the time, not for me. I will remain close, tend to my garden. To my sweetheart.

Last June I rented an AirBnB and hid away, alone, to accrue some serious word mileage on my novel. I thought by the same time next year, I’d have a polished draft in to my agent.

Just like I thought all of this would be behind us by now.

Didn’t happen.

But I do have a novel in revision. And days of peace to do the work.

Why yes. That is a glass of rosé in a jam jar, on my desk.

Yesterday, after three 10-hour butt-in-chair days, I finished Draft 4, Revision 3 of The Deep Coil (as a point of reference, by the time my novels reach the bookstore shelf, they’ve been through upwards of 30 revisions. Not sure why I think any of this is anything other than complete madness.)

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I’m not much of an outliner or plotter — completely counter to my Virgo tendencies in most other aspects of life. I write from character and trust the plot will catch up. This current revision was to bring those two elements into alignment, a structural revision to weave the heart (the internal journey, my protagonist’s arc) and the head (the external conflicts, aka, the plot) together into the web of story.

Art is fire plus algebra – Jorge Luis Borges

Although I’m a pantser, I’m a big believer that we’re hard-wired for story, that, as Lisa Cron states in her fantastic 2012 book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence: “there is an implicit framework that must underlie a story in order for that passion, that fire, to ignite the reader’s brain. Stories without it go unread, stories with it are capable of knocking the socks off someone who’s barefoot.”

In the revision just completed, I searched for that implicit framework, the inevitability of my protagonist’s actions and reactions based on who she is, how her past has shaped her belief systems, and what she believes she wants at the point we meet her, and how that, and she, change through the course of the story.

Even though the revision revealed structural weaknesses, ankle-snapping plot holes, and myriad scenes to be written, the story’s foundation is there, solid and sound and ready to be built upon.

I woke to the sound of rain this morning, blessed, cool, healing rain. On this autumnal teaser of a day I set aside triumph at the completion of another revision and turn to Page One, Chapter One, to begin Draft 5, Revision 4.

Weave On, Writers. Attention aux Araignées.

Category Seventeen: (Not Writer’s Block)

The Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Poets & Writers contains an excellent essay by playwright and poet Sarah Ruhl on many of the reasons why writers aren’t writing when they could or should be. In Writer’s Block: Variations on a Superstition, Ruhl describes sixteen categories of writer’s avoidance. Instances from the basic general sloth and distracted by the modern world to the searing abandoning a piece of writing that is not meant to be written. I saw myself in nearly every one of Ruhl’s categories, taking comfort in the universality of my reasons excuses.

After finishing the first complete draft in THE DEEP COIL just before Thanksgiving, I’d intended to let it sit for a few weeks before digging into revisions. I almost couldn’t wait. In early December I had two brainpicking sessions that made my fingers twitch with excitement to return to the page. Over beers at the Pourhouse, I talked big league crime in small town America with a writing buddy and a former county sheriff. Then came a long phone conversation with a former Seattle homicide detective. This retired detective volunteers to solve local cold cases along with a few other former law enforcement officials who just can’t let the job go. I shared my premise with these good men, and they shared many of their experiences with me, steered me toward some agencies I needed to research, suggested awesome plot points, and generally made me feel my crime story, protagonist, and sub-plots were not only plausible, they were authentic and full of potential. Writer’s Gold.

And then stuff happened.

My sweetie’s back-of-envelope landscaping plans.

Of course, stuff is always happening to distract us from our work. Some writers fear the blank page; others, like me, stand at the bottom of the Mountain of Revision, dreading the Sisyphean task ahead. At the end of my walking away from the canvas — as Sarah Ruhl terms the period when we break from a work that we are too close to — I made an offer on a house. This is a joyful thing, as I was certain that being a single woman in her 50s, broke in that postmodern feminist way of being broke after an amicable divorce, working at an arts non-profit in a community where the median home price is well north of $400k, home ownership was right up there with new car smell: things I would never experience again. Joyful, but terribly distracting, as it suddenly introduced concepts of permanence and commitment to community, job, relationship. It meant stability but also responsibility. 

Just as that process entered the phase where nothing can be done but wait (for the holidays to be over so everyone is available to sign endless documents, for agreed-upon repairs to be completed, for the appraisal, for the lender to put urgency behind the oars as it navigates the shipping lanes of bureaucracy), the pain started. 

January saw me in Urgent Care twice, visits with specialists and twice to my PCP.  Multiple prescriptions and lab tests, an ultrasound, and painful examinations, but very few answers. One of the specialists sat across from me, after mansplaining my reproductive system, and asked, “What is it you want me to do for you?” To which I can reply in all certainty, “Absolutely nothing” as I will not be darkening his door again.

The weeks passed, the pain eased, the fog of worry lifted, and I decided to change THE DEEP COIL from past to present tense. This became my way into revisions, as every single sentence needs to be touched, examined, possibly changed. And yet the humming anxiety remained. I managed only coffee-fueled bursts of editing here and there in the wee hours.

A CT-scan the day before Valentine’s brought only more questions. Wide awake at 3 a.m. questions. I picked out paint colors for my new writing studio. Tried to steer my racing brain from thoughts of “unspecified masses” on my liver and spleen and kidneys to the flower beds I would plant and the pantry I would organize. 

Last Monday, I signed a ream of papers and picked up the key. I walked through the empty bowels of a house, my house, my and my sweet man’s home, feeling the same sense of possibility and impossibility as I do when I open a blank page to begin a new story. 

The next morning I took a deep breath and squeezed my eyes shut as the technician tucked a blanket around me and slid my prone body into tube of an MRI. I inhaled and exhaled when the disembodied voice told me to and tried to compose a symphony from the mechanical beeps and clangs, whirrs and groans. I tried to love my body even as it seemed to be failing me. 

Two days later the test results landed in my in-box with a message from my physician, “Hi Julie, I’m happy to report…”

This morning I am sore and exhausted. My lower back feels like hardened, cracked rubber. My fingers are stiff, my hamstrings ping, even my toes feel used. A weekend of scrubbing, wiping, wringing, bending, stretching, my nose stuffed with odors of fresh paint and Lysol, white vinegar and black coffee. And we haven’t even started packing. 

Yesterday I stood in the empty shell of what will be the Room of My Own, arranging in my mind’s eye my desk, sofa, bookshelves, imagining how the view out the window will change as trees are planted and flowers bloom, and I knew that even as my writing sits in Category Seventeen- (i.e. too much life happening- did I mention the promotion/new job?), it won’t stay there forever. It’s okay to let hope and joy blossom of their own accord, and trust the words will follow. 

If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention. – Ben Marcus

Tender Is The First Draft

Tender Is The First Draft

Eighty-four thousand six-hundred and fifty-seven words. A premise that came fully-formed during a walk through the forest on a late afternoon in May of 2018. It seemed so simple, that bright and shiny idea, just a filling in of details and I’d have it. Nearly eighteen months later, after those stolen pre-dawn moments and weekend afternoons in a café, the Julys and Augusts where I didn’t write at all, a new writer’s group that filled me with inspiration before it fizzled out from life’s demands, a five-day DIY writer’s retreat that likely saved this entire endeavor from the DELETE key, and at last, there is a first draft. 

I typed THE END late Sunday afternoon, the sun falling down behind the bony, stripped trees in our backyard, distant sounds of a football game in the living room breaking through when the classical music on the bedroom Bose paused for a breath. My goal had been to finish this draft by Christmas but as the words began to flow this autumn — I wrote nearly forty percent of the draft in the two months between late September and Sunday — I closed in on Thanksgiving as a target date. And here I am with .pdfs of Thanksgiving dinner recipes and 303 pages of THE DEEP COIL to send to the unsuspecting printer.

During the journey of this draft I spent a lot of time trying to escape from writing, until at last it became something I was able to emerge into. This was the second “from-scratch” novel I’d attempted since my marriage fell apart in the spring of 2016 when I was promoting the debut of IN ANOTHER LIFE, editing THE CROWS OF BEARA to prep for its fall 2017 publication, and revising UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL. From November of 2017 to May of 2018 I worked half-heartedly on a YA fantasy novel inspired by the research on the Cathars I’d done for IAL (I love it, actually; just not the right work at the right time). I’d underestimated the time and space I needed to do all heavy lifting of my messy life – new jobs, new relationships, moving, grieving, celebrating, gathering all the pieces and reassembling them into something that resembled a fresh start. I was hard, so very hard, on myself youshouldbewritingyourenotawriterwhyarentyouwriting until I finally gave in and accepted that when it was time, when I at last felt safe,  I would write.

This draft is, well, it’s a Shitty First Draft, as first drafts tend to be. I got it in my head that because this is a genre novel — crime fiction — not to mention the start of a series, I ought to come up with a solid outline. That never happened- it’s not the writer I am. I write by feel. I write to find out where I’m going.

“Stories are agile things. So the containers they go in should be pliable. You should have a grand vision, of course, an eventual endpoint, or at least the dreams of an endpoint, but you must be prepared to swerve, chop and change direction at the same time. The best journeys are those where we don’t exactly know what road we will take: we have a destination in mind, but the manner of getting there should be open to flux. … the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.”                                                                                                                                                             — Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

Last spring I realized that this first draft would be my outline. So here it is, an 84,657 word outline. There’s a beginning, a couple of them, really. A bunch of words stuffed in the middle, and some possible endings. There are subplots and backstory, landscapes and dialogues. There are great characters whom I can’t wait for you to meet, shadows of beings who may stay or may go, others I’ve lost track of along the way. There are scenes that even now I know I need to write. I have a number of law enforcement officials to interview regarding who does what in a territory that covers two small cities, two large counties, and a vast national park in between. Several hikes to take, a shooting range to step into, and a gun expert friend to run key scenes by. 

Revision. Where all that gorgeous raw material is shaped into a story. 

But today I hold the story that will be in tender respect. The magical first draft, with all its promise and potential, is complete. 

“How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?”
― Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety