Monday, August 4, 2014

In which I drone on about my own writing... but by special request

Quite a while ago, my friend Leigh Rourks, a fabulous writer I met at Pacific, asked me to participate in a blog tour: a fun and easy way to share your work and the work of others. The idea is to ‘hop on,’ answer some questions about your current projects, and then ‘hop off,’ passing the torch to a couple of new writers the next week.

Of course, I went dark on the blog for a while, a mix of kids-home-for-summer, a new job at work, and using every scrap of free time to try to finish my novel. Also, vacation. The blog suffered. This is not unusual these days.

Also, the questions are so short and simple in appearance, but are deceptively difficult for me to answer well.

But a promise is a promise, so here I am finally.

1) What am I working on?

A novel called LIES WE'VE TOLD. I began this under a different name several years ago, finished it up, put it away after I began school, and have come back to rewrite it the past two years.

It began as a story I needed to tell, but every draft felt flat and lifeless, and while I was compelled to write and finish it (several times), I didn't love the book. Now, in this almost completely new form, with new plots and new characters and an entirely new beginning and end, I am in love with it. Passionately, unfathomably in love with it.  

The story is told from the point of view of Kat, an abused girl who shoots her father and then flees the state, and Jackson, a teen whose parents die in a car crash and who is taken in by Kat's family. When Kat learns her mother is sick, she returns home to mend broken bonds. Before she can do that, her mother is killed, leaving Kat the main suspect in the murder and the only guardian of a brother she barely knows. It is up to Kat to find out what secrets her mom had been keeping that led to her death, even as she is falling in love with Jackson, who might hold the key to what she really doesn't want to know.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Although there is a murder and an investigation, this book is not primarily a mystery. I'd shelve it with literary fiction, the emphasis really on the internal journey of the two main narrators, the crime and its fallout merely a way to propel that journey. In that way, I suppose, it is the crime and mystery that sets this book in particular apart from other literary fiction. 

This was true of my previous novel as well. Some Kind of Normal was not a medical or science fiction, but it involved a lot of science and medicine. I like this blending of genres, this incorporating elements of other genres into what essentially is still just the journey of a character trying to figure out life. It also allows me to indulge in great amounts of research, which I find entirely fun.

3) Why do I write what I do?

 One of the things I learned at school that has really stuck with me is that we write to tell what it means to be human. I think this really is behind everything I write.I definitely don't write escapist fiction, or stories you wish you could be in the middle of. They aren't full of romance, and they don't often have happily-ever-after endings. But they are about about people I hope you can relate to on some level, people who are in situations you might never be in, but who still feel real.

There is a piece of me in everything I write. It isn't always the most obvious thing in a story, but it's a thought, an emotion, something that gnawed at me, a seed of something in my own life that grew into something entirely different but whose heart is still there.

4) How does my writing process work?   

Messily. And slowly.

Everything I've every written has had its own unique process of developing. I've tried fitting it all into some neat process, but my stories don't work that way. 

Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I start with a character that I have no idea what he's going to do. Sometimes I start with a plot idea. Sometimes I write to discover what the story is, and then have to do a million revisions to hone it to what I finally figure out it is about. 

I always write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. 

I write when I can. Most often late at night, but sometimes in the morning, if I don't have students to tutor. Sometimes in the afternoon when my kids are doing homework. Sometimes at the counter as I'm making dinner, lysoling the laptop as needed, just because the words are there, dinnertime or no. 

Sometimes, I have to stop writing and just mull it all over. The middle of a scene will grind to a halt, or be heading in the wrong direction, and I'll just shut the computer for a few days and turn the ideas around in my head, trying things out until eventually (and usually around 1am), it all clicks. Then it becomes a race to get it all down.  

I am passing this blog tour on specifically to Hannah Bissell, another great writer (and poet extraordinaire) . BUT... if YOU want to do it, consider yourself tagged and please blog hop!! I'd love to see what you have to say, too! Let us know in the comments you're going to do it so I can make sure I swing by and read it. :)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Last Three or Four Pieces

Anyone that's been following this blog (or knows me) knows that I've been working on a single novel for a long while. Oh - I've done other things in between, of course. Went back to school, wrote short stories, wrote some flash and some memoir, even published it. I'm currently working on another article requested by an online magazine. But the novel.... it is the novel that will not end.

I've lost count how many revisions I've done on this story. Nine total and complete rewrites, beginning to end, I think, besides the smaller chapter revision. I've changed characters, I've changed plots, I've changed the title. I thought I was finished two years ago and then decided I wasn't really happy with it. It was okay. But it was not great. I started over, from scratch.

It got messy. Not in a bad way. Maybe not messy so much as complicated. I tend to be a simple writer. Tell a story beginning to end, one narrator. This story is different. I have two narrators who each know a separate set of truths and facts. There is a gun that gets lost, then found, then stolen, then used, and someone knows why and by whom, but not the narrators. There is a key to a bank box, but no one knows what is in it except the woman who is killed. There is a cryptic letter. There's an alibi that makes no sense. There are lots of people who know things they aren't telling.

There are, in short, pieces of puzzle that look nothing like a complete picture. I've spent the better part of a year spreading out these pieces, like clues that don't seem to have an answer.

But I've now gotten to the end of the book, and I'm putting those pieces together.

It is glorious.

I admit I was a bit panicky for a while, not sure how it would all fit together.  But now I can see the entire picture, and it's that same feeling you get putting together one of those 5,000 piece puzzles and seeing what it looks like and having in your hands just the last three or four pieces that will make it whole. That. 

I'm still not done, but I'm closer than I've ever been. Closer than I was when I had it "finished" the eight times before, because this time I know it's right. This time, I let it get messy and complicated and it is so, so much better for it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Life is Not a Sticker Chart

A week ago I found this quote. I'm not sure it resonated with me so much as it hung around, clanking about in my head. It seemed right, mostly, I think, because it confirmed what I've most feared: I am no longer a writer.

From 2007 until 2010, I wrote nearly every day. I didn't make much money on it, and working strictly as a novelist, I spent far more time writing than I did submitting my writing. But I viewed it as my job, to work each day creating stories I'd hoped would one day launch a career. I called myself a writer.

For two years after that, I was a student, but still, writing every day. It felt more like work than writing ever had before. I had deadlines and revisions and people to please.

In the year since, life's been more a roller coaster, as I've added a "real" job - one with scheduled hours and a regular paycheck. I poked around a couple different projects, trying my hand at some non-fiction and flash between the novel I was working on. I submitted a few stories. But it's been sporadic... weeks of obsessive writing, then days, even weeks, without.

I felt guilty about this. The mantra among published writers is that you find time to write, no matter what. If you have a job, you get up a 4am to write. If you have kids, you stay up until 1am to write. You find time. And for years, this is what I've done. (Well, not the getting up at 4am. That is just crazy talk.)

The past few weeks have been exhausting, though, and not just work-wise and family-wise, but just emotionally. By the time I shut the work computer, carted my kids around, cheered them on, cooked dinner, tucked them into bed, I sat with my novel open and stared at it, then chose instead to read. Or watch TV. For years I barely watched any TV, but these days, the hours between 9:30 and 11:00, it's about all I can manage. And then, I've actually be going to bed rather than stay up another two hours to write.

The last few weeks, as I've struggled through a single chapter that has proved to be a bit difficult to wrangle, I've not been writing much.

The words of my husband last year kept reverberating in my brain: If you don't get paid for it, isn't it really more a hobby than a job?

Then I read this: "You are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer."

I let that sludge around my heart, every time I turned on the TV, every time I chose to read rather than write. I knew every time that I was making a conscious choice not to write, making a conscious choice to be a person who dreamed about being a writer but not really being one. This is, after all, the thing that is what writers pride themselves on - sacrificing personal time to persevere as though this were a second job.

Then I thought of my friends who love to scrapbook. They don't do it every day. Sometimes not at all for a month or two at a time. But they are scrapbookers. And my friends who knit, even if they only do it for stretches at a time, they are knitters. And the bikers, even if they only ride in warm months, are bikers.

Who is to tell us how to label ourselves, or tell us what name we are worthy of?  Is there some star chart I don't know of where we get to put stickers on each day we write, and you only get to be a writer if there are a certain number of stickers per week? Seriously, peeps, is this the kind of regulation and guilt we need heaped into our lives?

So while I might not answer the question, "What do you do for a living?" with the answer, "I'm a writer," I am most definitely a writer. Even if tonight I choose to turn on the TV.

Monday, March 31, 2014

What I Would Have Written if I Could Have

Last week I spent an unexpected 8 days sailing the Caribbean on a catamaran. With barely time enough to get flights and pack, my husband and I left our kids and the winter that would not end for a week in the sun with friends. It was crazy, spontaneous, glorious... and a world away.

With no phone, no internet, no connection to anything on land, I discovered that the constant buzzing in my head began to still, and for the first time in a very, very long time, I found quiet.

Still - 8 days without social media left a few things unsaid, so here they are - the statuses I would have put on facebook had I had facebook on the boat... my vacation in a nutshell.


Thursday 3:30am: Momentarily I wonder, as my alarm goes off, if anywhere is worth going at this time of morning.

Thursday 7:30am: In Miami. I'm down to short sleeves. I decide getting up in the middle of the night was totally worth it.

Thursday Noon:  We literally walk out of the Charlotte Amalie airport, across the street, onto a beach, and into a boat. Best commute ever.

No Internet. Don't send help.

Dolphins off the bow! I'm told this is a good omen. As if the 84 degree weather, turquoise water, Asian shrimp, fresh mangoes, and rum punch waiting upon arrival weren't enough.

First Sunset. Not too shabby.

Daily routine established: Wake up. Snorkel. Breakfast. Snorkel. Sail. Snorkel. Lunch. Sail. Anchor. Sunset cocktails. Dinner.

It's been three days since I've had a pair of shoes on my feet or seen a clock. I'm strangely okay with this.

First time setting foot on land. Off to see the petraglyphs, which, as it turns out, are writings on stone. Who coulda guessed? Also, this stone wall reminds me of Robert Frost... good fences make good neighbors. Wondering who, two hundred years ago, needed a wall between them and a neighbor.

As seen on a school near the dock. Obviously schools in the Caribbean keep their standards reasonable.

Holy Mother of Honey!! That is a bee's nest!!

My favorite fish so far is a Sergeant Major, but I can never remember the name so I just call him Captain Morgan.

Hunting for shells in the Conch Graveyard.

Not a surprising discovery: I am as ungraceful on water as I am on land.

Serenity Now!!

Whales!!! We've gone all Ahab on them and are on the chase!

Drinking mojitos, watching the sunset, dancing around the deck to "Happy."

Dock Rock: Looking drunk without the alcohol.

Dingy Damp... this is a thing.

I've decided I could live in an aquarium. Not the building. The actual aquarium.

Bay-to-bay in a dingy in the black of night - never have there been so many stars!

Pelicans off the starboard side! If you want to live, jump in my mouth...

Turns out I can't read my Nook with sunglasses, and I can't see without sunglasses. Good thing the boat is FULL of hardback books!! I've been buried for two days in The Climb... a book about Everest. Because nothing says enjoying the Caribbean like people dying of frostbite.

I never ever ever get tired of this.

 Or this:

Our last day.. .we've anchored for the night.  I've finished The Climb and traded it for Lost at Sea by Patrick Dillon. It's a book about two boats that went missing in the 80s when they sunk. I've been told now is a safe time to read it.

Sitting in the bay with the chatter of the radio like white noise and suddenly we hear an SOS. A literal SOS. And a Coast Guard report that a sailboat is sinking not far from us, and help is needed. Must be time to head home.

Heading home. Goodbye beautiful water.

Monday, March 17, 2014


A little over three years ago, I finished writing what we'll call my second novel. We'll call it that because I've written other novels, but I don't care to number them because they were not that good. They were my practice novels.

Anyhoo, I finished this one that I thought was pretty okay. And I queried it, fell flat, went to grad school, and now am rewriting it.

It's been a long time since I first finished it... a lot has happened since then. I mean, I still have the same husband and the same three kids, and I still live in the same house, so maybe nothing quite life-altering, but I did go to grad school, and that was pretty significant. And my kids turned into teenagers, which is a little like not having the same three kids. Also, I got a job that didn't involve my own children, laundry, or making up scenarios in which I need to google things like interrogation techniques and the genetic susceptibility of certain diseases. And I've written about 800 other pages. It seems like a long three years, anyway.

Last year, I started this novel from scratch, a new blank document, new plot twists, new scene development. I've pecked on it for the last eight months or so, going full-throttle at times but mostly fitting it in between my other obligations. There has been this sense of failure hanging over it, I think, that's made it feel like I am more finishing it for myself, to say I've done it well, than with the thought that anyone would want it. After all, I did query it once.

But today I was wondering about all those queries. I couldn't really remember anything about the responses except for two of them, and one of those I remember specifically responding to the material. So I went back to find that email, to find out what she didn't like about it, wondering, I suppose, whether or not I'd fixed that element.

The folder contains all the lit mag submissions from last year, so I was flying past them, and suddenly I was back in 2009 and my Some Kind of Normal queries, and I though, Wait a minute! Where are all the queries for this book?? It turns out there were only six. SIX! I only queried six agents. And then... I gave up?

It's funny how time has changed my memory of all that. I remember the querying as a colossal failure, when in reality, I knew the book wasn't as good as I wanted it to be, and I took the six rejections to be confirmation of that.

But as I look back - three years past - I'm encouraged. Three of the six said outright they were very impressed by my writing... writing which I hope is so, so much stronger now. One gave a very detailed explanation of why she was passing, which mostly went to the motivation of the main character coming back to her hometown, ending with this: "You really write so well, and I hope you will revise."

This is all good news on several fronts. First, it means possibly I don't stink as a writer. Secondly, it means possibly this book doesn't stink. Thirdly, it means I have not already saturated the agency world with a past manuscript of this same basic story.

Which over all adds up to the fact that it might be worth finishing this, not just for me, but to see if there is hope out there for it. And there is the tiniest part of that makes me feel like a writer again, and not just a person who writes.

I know a lot of you are in this same boat... wrangling a book that feels like it will not come under submission - is either not finished or you feel is just "pretty okay" but not great - or fighting your way out from under "submission/query hell."

Do not let doubt steal your motivation.

Do not let the lack of time dictate whether or not you will finish.

Do not let the rejections of part of the world keep you from stampeding the other part of the world.

Do not let yourself be your own worst enemy to success.

And when you feel like giving up, remind yourself that there is someone out there saying, "You really write so well..." Let that be the voice you listen to.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Touch It Every Day"

If there's anything an MFA student likes more than a glass full of alcohol, it's a lecture full of double entendres. This little gem was doled out in my second year, when I was in the throws of learning short stories and panicking over my thesis. The admonition, of course, was that we needed to be in our work at least a little every day. But this was school; there wasn't a minute I didn't feel like I wasn't "touching it."

Fast forward to this past year, when I've taken on a new job, gone full-throttle into a new direction that has left much less time for writing than my glorious past years. I plow through the novel; I put it down. I tinker with some shorts; I put them down. I go through long droughts where I am tutoring long hours of the day and running my kids around the other waking hours, and I never even open my word processor.

The problem with this is more insidious than just not getting words on the page every day. The problem is I lose interest in my story. I feel far away from it, and the farther I feel, the harder it is to pick it up. I stop thinking about it when I'm not working on it, which means that when I do pick it up, I don't know where I'm going and I spend more time staring at the computer rather than actually writing.

Characters in a book are not that different than real people in your life. The less time you spend with them, the less you know them.

So the past few weeks I've made a vow to "touch it every day." Even if that means just opening it to see what I did yesterday. To read one section that's been bugging me. To add a scene, or just a few words of description. To change a line of dialogue. To cut a few words out.

When I'm tired and worn out and brain dead, I remind myself I don't have to engage in a full-on relationship with the manuscript. I just have to touch it.

And it works.

Now, when I'm not writing, I'm thinking more about it. I'm finding that when I open the manuscript up, I have more to say. I know the characters a little more intimately. I know what is missing, what they'd say in a situation. I've been thinking about the scenes, about what is missing, about where to go.

I know some of you are writing machines, but others are in the same boat as I am... floating a little between the full-on writer life and writing as we can between the other pressing things in life.

Here's my encouragement to you who are floating... touch it. Just a little. Every day. It works.