Thirsting for Water

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In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Breakdown.”

Over the years, I’ve broken many habits. That 3:00 p.m. Snickers bar springs to mind. Eating one every day. Every. Day.

But overindulgence in delicious caramel and peanuts aside, the habit that most concerns me isn’t one I’d like to break, rather it’s one I need to develop: writing.

Sounds silly that a writer wouldn’t have a habit of writing already. I maintain a blog, I’ve published a novel, a few of my short stories are on my website. New ideas for novels form in my mind all the time, and I take notes about my characters and the research I’ll need to conduct. I even make progress on novel #2. But I don’t have a habit of writing.

And I know why. Although I wrote my first story when I was 10, my life has followed a path that didn’t lead directly to a writing career. Now, as a mother, a wife, and a full-time employee, my self is pulled in many different directions, with the one task that matters to me alone—writing—always taking a back seat. Because it isn’t my “job” or something that others I care about need from me, it’s never my priority. I have felt selfish for disappearing into my writing world because it seemed, dare I say, “time theft” from those I love.

But a plant deprived of water does shrivel, and the raindrops that have fallen on the parched soil of my writing life have kept my roots barely alive. Looking ahead to the rest of 2015 and beyond, I intend to break the habit of not having a habit. I am going to make writing a habit. I’m going to work on my fiction. I’m going to use the writing I accomplish during my day job to complement the other half of my creative life. And I’m going to blog about it all.

Who I am, beginning with my 10-year-old self, was forged in ink on paper (or now pixels on screen). It’s time to water that life, watch it bloom, and make a habit of feeding it regularly.

Photo Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg: Antonio Litterio derivative work: InverseHypercube (Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Everyday Moments

Stories are full of little details designed to bring the scene to life for readers. A distant sound. The hint of smoke in the air. The sensation of silk on skin. These touches resonate because we’ve all experienced them and if the writing is good enough, we feel them as the characters do, we inhabit their minds for a moment.

I don’t want my writing to be thinly-veiled autobiography, so I try hard not to build characters around who I am and what I’ve experienced. I view it more as acting, taking on the role of a person I’ve invented, making sure that they don’t follow the same path as I have. But for these little details to work, they have to come from what I’ve heard, smelled, or felt.

The other night as I got ready for bed, I paused for a moment by the open window. A car drove by and as the sound faded, another took its place. Crickets in my urban backyard. Crickets like those I’d heard, long ago, in a place far more rural. In the dark, I sat and listened. Another car came and went, but the crickets remained.

I thought of my characters. Which one sits in the evening by an open window? Which one walks through the twilight woods? Who hears these crickets and what does it mean? This one moment will become part of a larger story wholly unconnected with me. The character will take what I heard and make it her own.

These are the parts of my life I want to share with my characters. I don’t want them to be me, but if something beautiful happens—or sad or unexpected—I preserve it by writing it in and using it. So that one character, who lingers on a forest path to listen to crickets hidden in the tall grass, meets another character. An unexpected encounter that makes all the difference.

Psst…wanna read my journal?

In the grand scheme of things, blogging is like asking a complete stranger to read your journal. I feel as though I’m standing in in an alleyway, in a trench coat, clutching a leather-bound notebook filled with thoughts written down in ink from a fountain pen. I try to catch the eyes of passers-by, hoping that someone—anyone—will stop and flip through its pages.

That might be preferable to actual blogging. The product is the same: I write down what I’m thinking about, try to make sense of the ideas that I have. But instead of keeping it to myself, I send it out into the ‘verse, into the domain of the nameless, faceless hordes, hoping that I can connect with someone who will get something from what I write.

The more I think about it, blogging is also like putting training wheels on your writing machine. For 300 words, I’m trying to capture a reader’s attention. Regularly. Some days, lots of people visit. Others, I hear only crickets. I get used to that inconsistency. I cease to think that it is because my prose sucks. I begin to realize that it’s because I am standing in an alleyway, instead of the middle of the street. I wonder how this new knowledge will help me with the most important part of my writing machine, the one that gets the stories out of my head and onto paper, the one that leads to books.

As a storyteller, I’ve struggled with the decision to spend time writing anything but my fiction. But blogging has taught me how to write in bursts about something important. Sure, it might take time away from that pesky second novel. Maybe, hopefully, one of the virtual passers-by will stop, take my journal out of my virtual hands, and flip through its pages.

The Power of Memory, Part 1

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Perhaps I’m a writer because I remember the past as scenes, short—or sometimes long—memories filled with details and emotions. When I work on a story, I create similar vignettes in words from images I construct in my mind, similar to my own remembrances. I often wonder why I remember the past as I do; why do I hold on to these bits of history so tightly, why tap into the emotion they represent so much later in life? Why am I wired this way?

On vacation earlier this month, I visited friends in Colorado who have a cabin on the edge of the Arapaho National Forest. Just steps from their back door, a steep hillside rises to a path that treks through the wilderness, where delicate columbines flower and deer graze. One morning searching for something to put my coffee in, I came across a brown mug in a cabinet. It wasn’t just brown: it was a certain kind of brown, with raised markings on it and a wide bottom that narrowed at the lip.

Memory. In an instant, I’m seven years old. I’m sitting at a long dining room table—the one with the secret compartment underneath. I hear the hum of a stainless steel milk dispenser in a room off the kitchen, purchased to feed my six cousins, all boys. My uncle fills a brown pitcher, a larger version of the mug I now hold in my hands, with milk and brings it to the table. The cousin my age shows me the compartment, which he swings out and back in. I think of the gray stuffed dog I brought with me, remember pulling up in front of the house in our ’64 Chevy, wondering at the time if I was getting too old for stuffed toys.

In the present, I run my hand over the raised markings on the mug. I think about my uncle’s house, long sold in a town I no longer visit. I remember the gray stuffed dog, tucked away in my basement, somewhere. I start to think about the stories I am working on, wondering where I can place a memory, where a character can reach for an object and find a brown mug.

The Harvest

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Process. It’s that thing we think about as writers, all the time. When we are starting out, we turn to the professionals, wordsmiths who have seen some success and written about that as well – but as The Process, as though their way is The Way. Many, many, many of them say: write every day. You’ll never be a writer unless you write every day.

As a newbie writer, you absorb this advice, you force yourself to put words on a page even if it doesn’t feel right. I tried that, but it was never…well, it was never True. Now that I am on the verge of publishing my first novel and in the depths of editing the second, I realize that my process is not their process. I don’t write every day. I can’t write every day, and not just because it isn’t true. Life gets in the way.

But I think about my stories every day. They play through my mind like movies. I freeze frame and re-position characters, jump ahead in the story to figure out what their motivations should be. I channel their voices in my head, sometimes I start walking like they do. I write down scenes or even lines on scraps of paper and file them away. I research and build the world they will inhabit.

And then, always in the autumn, I start writing. The words flow from me onto paper with an ease not possible during the remainder of the year. Words form sentences, sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs flow into pages and chapters and on and on until that movie I’ve been playing in my head becomes real, something I can share.

This is My Process. I plant seeds and they grow. Then I harvest them.

Maybe It’s Just a Number, or, How Life Gets in the Way

Sometimes despite my best intentions, blogging needs to take a backseat to the Day Job (more on that in a future post), parenting, or incipient illness. When my life became a perfect storm of all three over the last two weeks, I was tempted to put the writing on the backburner and let things settle down. But then the most amazing thing happened: My book got a number.

I took a big step forward in my journey toward publishing Damaged Goods recently when I began the setup process for publication through the CreateSpace website. Step one, set up account: check! Step two, enter title: check! Step three, ISBN… ISBN? Wait, my book will have a number?

For the uninitiated, ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. Every book commercially available for purchase has one, even ebooks. In fact, once Damaged Goods is published, it will have TWO ISBNs—one for the print edition and one for the electronic version. You find ISBNs on the copyright page, right below all that legal language, just before the story begins. When I was younger, I loved reading that page. Where was the book published? What year? Is it in the Library of Congress? What does this long number mean? That page, with its digits and copyright symbol made a book real to me. It held power. It gave the writer the authority to call herself a writer.

With the aforementioned perfect storm, I wondered if maybe my excitement about an ISBN didn’t warrant a blog post. I mean, maybe it’s just a number. Shouldn’t I be doing dishes or helping the boy with his homework or lying on the couch drinking ginger tea in a vain attempt to ward off that stomach bug? I could think of a hundred reasons not to blog. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I have an ISBN. My book is real.

1496198026. That’s my number. I’ve added it to the copyright page. I’ve uploaded the novel to CreateSpace. I’m designing the jacket cover. Slowly—maybe a little too slowly—that idea I had about a little boy’s secret is taking form. I’m not finished yet, but I’m close. And I have the number to prove it.

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My Writing Bionicle helpfully points out my ISBN.

 

Making Sense of NaNoWriMo

One of the greatest boosts to my second novel, tentatively titled “Pilgrim Soul,” was National Novel Writing Month, known to writers as NaNoWriMo. Each November, participants pledge to complete the first draft of a novel by writing at least 50,000 words. Thanks to the organizers of this annual challenge who created a web platform to track your progress and send inspirational emails to keep everyone motivated—and to the friends who helped me stay honest as I posted my progress on Facebook—I managed to get to November 30 with 50,000 words, two years in a row.

Writing during NaNoWriMo is an interesting experience. My process normally involves thinking about characters, plot, and motivation until a movie of the story begins playing on a virtual projector in my mind. Once the movie is running, I write down what happens. Editing is a matter of tightening language and noting gaps in the plot that require shooting another scene. But during those two Novembers, my process became a stream of consciousness, putting words on the page by plowing through writer’s block or problems with characters to reach the daily targets I’d set for myself. I wrote linearly and along the basic structure of the novel, but without consideration for the place these new scenes would take in it. I wrote and wrote and wrote. No problem, I thought. I’ll take care of that in the editing process.

Now I have 100,000 words. 100,000. That’s a lot of words, and about 15,000 too many for the story I want to tell. No problem, I thought. I’ll solve that in the editing process. I had directed the movie of Chapter 1 in my head many years ago, so finalizing the text was a breeze at the start. Hey, this is easy! But then I turned to Chapter 2. Uh oh. Chapter 2 is a mess.

ImageYikes! This isn’t going to be as easy as I thought!

Editing wasn’t a matter of tweaking the basic narrative. It became the hard slog of reviewing all the content, determining what belonged in the chapter and what was merely backstory. As I tried to prune words I began to wonder why I’d written them in the first place. Placeholders appeared out of nowhere, with directions to research road-building on Long Island in the 1920s or the status of Native American tribes of New York. Before I knew it, I was stalled, pen over paper, wondering if I needed to slash and burn the entire text and start again.

Instead, I put my pen down and walked away. I thought about the story, the characters, the narrative. I realized that I had crammed too much into Chapter 2, and the funny thing is, I remember doing it. I remember that stream of consciousness where I let the narrator, Sophie, take over. Sophie had a lot to say and it felt like she knew that NaNoWriMo was her one opportunity. In a way, she told me her life story. It’s now my job, as her biographer, to weave a coherent tale of her adventures from Long Island to Paris and beyond.

Once I’m done with “Pilgrim Soul,” I’ll be interested to compare the experience with what I remember from revising my first novel, Damaged Goods. I wonder which method will stand out as the most valuable. Perhaps I’ll find that editing varies from book to book—who knows, maybe I’ll invent a whole new technique for Book 3! But for now, I’m picking up my pen again and returning to Chapter 2. I’ve got a lot of work to do.

Vacation Inspiration

Travel is good for the soul and especially for the writer’s soul, in my opinion. After all, my first novel, Damaged Goods, came to me after a visit to a Scottish castle. But to be honest, I didn’t expect my trip to the Bahamas to be anything more than an escape from New England snowstorms.

Not to say that the Bahamas aren’t inspiring. As we flew over the first islands, the color of the water transfixed me—I didn’t just see that aqua blue ubiquitous from postcards, but also thin lines of iridescence outlining the land. Plus the warm wind, multicolored flowers, and white sand erased the memory of winter. Condos on Paradise Island? Hmm, worth thinking about?

For me the writer, the geography and history of Nassau, while fascinating, didn’t feed any of the stories in progress rumbling around in my head. It isn’t like I’m writing a book with a pirate as a central character. Or one about a religious refugee sailing south for a new home. Or even one about a sailor paid by Spaniards to find gold. But on a visit to a historic plantation site, I learned something new, a detail that is perfect for my third planned novel.

Bahamas Clifton Heritage National Park sits at the far west of New Providence, a collection of ruined cabins and a manor house that speaks to the island’s slave-holding past. When those religious refugees settled on the many islands of the Bahamas, including New Providence, they brought their slaves with them. But at the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, the British Crown rewarded many of its Loyalists with acres of land, and as these farmers settled there with their “property,” the population of slaves ballooned. At least one of those plantation owners came from Georgia. And that got me thinking.

Part of my third planned novel takes place in Georgia in the late 1700s, where the main character lives for a while as a slave. I hadn’t yet considered the politics of the time and the fact that post-war, many Loyalists would have left from all parts of the colonies, including Georgia. What if, as they fled, the plantation I’m writing about grew? What happened to the land these British subjects left behind? Did they sell it? Did it go to the US government? Did the owners that remained simply annex the land? Food for thought.

Clearly, I need to do some research on the history of land acquisition in the American south after the Revolution. It might be a small detail, maybe only a paragraph or two, but it’s something that fleshes out the life of the people I am writing about. It’s something I had not considered, and I hope that my readers, eventually, will find it interesting. Perhaps my Bahamian vacation gave me inspiration after all.

ImageThe beach at the edge of Bahamas Clifton Heritage National Park. A nice view for a Loyalist plantation owner from Georgia. However, Bahamian topsoil is practically nonexistent, making farming difficult – no matter how many slaves he owned to till the fields.  

A Chair of One’s Own

As a writer, the phrase A Room of One’s Own resonates with me and has done so for my whole writing life. Finding the right space, or not finding the right space, has influenced my ability to write effectively, or even at all.

Perhaps this is the case with all writers, but for me, bedrooms have played a key role in my attempts to find that one perfect writing space. As a child working on my first stories (which alert readers of my blog will recall involved Bigfoot and the Bay City Rollers), I set up shop with my parents’ old portable manual typewriter on a tiny desk next to my bedroom door. As a teenager, I perched on a foldable bed placed by the bedroom window, where I wrote in the dark, my page illuminated by a single streetlamp. Often distracted, I placed my pen down and stared at that light, watching rain in summer and snow in winter pass through its glow.

Even as an adult, I couldn’t escape the bedroom. Living in a series of roommate situations found me spread out on my bed surrounded by scraps of paper from which I attempted to create a coherent narrative. When I finally lived in a place with a spare room I claimed as my own, it was still a bedroom, with a bed that bumped up against my desk. Even today, my writing desk is tucked between the bedroom closet and a clothing armoire I share with my husband—and both their doors slam into the sides of my desk, leaving gash marks.

One day this past fall, I came down the stairs to find my husband in his recliner and my soon-to-be-teenaged son sprawled completely across the couch, the only pieces of furniture in the living room. As I surveyed the scene, I caught my husband’s eye: “I need a chair,” I said.

I was serious about my chair. It had to fit by the window. It had to be big and soft enough for me to curl up and write in, but firm enough to allow me to sit up and work on a laptop if I needed to. It needed to be small enough to allow a special bookcase-side table to fit next it, where I could store my work in progress, my reads in progress, and the pens and ink I need for editing. The husband and I went to a mega-furniture store and he, ever patient, waited as I sat in every, single, armchair. Waited even more patiently as I created a shortlist of chairs and revisited each one in turn. Obligingly took out his tape measure to ensure its fit in our living room. Until I found it. The chair and a half with the spare pillow and armrests that are high enough to snuggle against and low enough to sling legs over. And only 11 weeks from order to delivery(!). So much for instant gratification.

Arrive my chair did, one November day. It fit perfectly in the space. It held me perfectly. When my son sprawls across it I can say, “That’s my chair, you get the couch.” And now when I write, I feel like I’ve finally found my space. My “chair of one’s own.” 

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Sasquatch Rejects the Beauty Contest

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Those who know me well know that Sasquatch inspired me to become a writer. Or, rather, an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man did. Maybe you remember it: Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive, is kidnapped by Bigfoot, who turns out to be a robot controlled by aliens desperate to save their underground city AND the entire West Coast. High drama.

Or at least it was for me. So taken by the idea of Bigfoot living in my backyard, I wrote my first short story about him kidnapping my best friend and me, only to discover our own alien colony and the Bay City Rollers. We drank milkshakes together.

Suffice to say, for years I have really, truly, identified with Sasquatch. Shy, hiding in the woods, only ever seen when too busy to bother concealing himself (or herself). When noticed, REALLY makes sure to be noticed. Can’t help it, really. After all, he IS nine feet tall.Over time, I continued writing, though less in the fan fiction category.

Some of it good, some horrible, but finally I found a voice and finished a novel. I started a second one. And a third, and sketched out ideas for more. Where, you may ask, are they?

Silly me, I thought I would ask someone to publish that precious first novel. Researched how to draft a query letter, studied the publishing business, followed agents on Twitter. Ran into a stumbling block: I work full time, I’m married, and I’m a mother. My first novel, like Sasquatch, is a little mysterious, and I found it hard to pitch it without saying, “I know it SOUNDS like the novel is about this, but REALLY it’s about that.” It is a full time job figuring out whom to pitch, how to pitch, and when to move on, and in the precious spare time I have, I want to be finishing novel number 2. And then I realized something: this is reminding me of a beauty contest.

In order to find an agent, I have to squeeze myself into a dress that doesn’t suit me, slap makeup on, and spritz my hair with enough Aqua Net to burn another hole in the ozone layer. I have to smile smile smile and profess opinions I have discovered they would prefer. I have to figure out how to make them like me, even if they end up liking a fake me. But, hey, by then I’ll have my foot in the door, yes?

But I’m not a beauty queen. I’m a Sasquatch. I’m happy wandering through the woods and pulling down a few branches to mark my way. Maybe a person will see my trail, maybe another Sasquatch will. Doesn’t really matter, because that’s my mark out there.

I received some wonderful advice from a friend—my husband, as it happens—who said, “Just get it out there.” And he’s right. All I care about is getting my novel, my words, out there. Maybe some people will like it. Maybe some won’t. Guess I’ll have to wait and see. But book number 1 will be out there and I can finish book number 2, and 3, and that trilogy I’ve been thinking about. Hmm, maybe a graphic novel? Sure, why not! I don’t have to please anybody but that little girl who imagined Bigfoot lived behind her house.

My inner Sasquatch roars with approval.
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