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

Six



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.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Enough


Today begins the Olympics. I am the only one in my family who really cares about this, especially in winter, so I began my campaign for their enthusiasm (or, frankly, just a bit of tolerance for my own enthusiasm) by using our family movie night to introduce the kids to the movie Cool Runnings. They didn't remember what a bobled race was, or know who the Jamaican bobsled team was, and with both in the news recently, I figured it would be a fun and sneaky way to get them interested.

It worked. At least a little. They laughed. They oohed and ahh-ed and asked a lot of questions as they watched the real footage of the bobsleds hurtling down the tube of ice. We went on the internet and found out more about the original team, and about the team going this year. We looked up the bobsled schedule. They are intrigued.

But while the movie is funny and informative and inspiring, my favorite scene is a quiet one, the night before the big race, where the main character, a young man desperate for a win, confronts his coach who he just discovered had once been disgraced by cheating. "Why?" he asks. "You already had two gold medals." And the coach answers:

"I had to win. You see, I'd made winning my whole life. And when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning... A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without one, you'll never be enough with one."

That's resonated with me since the first time I watched the movie so many year ago. Not because I've been after gold medals or hoped for the Olympics or anything quite so literal, but because it's really a message for life - for anything we strive for.

Lately I've had a lot of people asking me what I'm working on now or when I'm going to be done with my current novel. A couple of times, when I've answered that I'm working on the same novel I went into my MFA with three years ago, they say, gaped mouth, "Still?" Yes. Still.

Let me be clear: I love these people. I absolutely love that they are asking. I know they are asking because they want to read my next book, because they liked my last one, because they want me to be successful. All of these things in their heart are good.

But I... I can't help but cringe when I hear them, when I have to say, "Yes, I am still writing the same book I was writing three years ago." Because saying that makes me feel like I've failed along the way. I can't deny it. I am a slow writer. I have rewritten this book over nine times because I want to get it just right, and I haven't felt good about that until now. I am distracted by my family, who will always take first place in my time. I have less time now that I am tutoring most days, all day. Even with my best intentions, sometimes at night when I carve a bit of time to work on it, my brain is mush and I just want to watch 30 minutes of TV and go to bed.

And in that late hour, when I stare at the screen, either pouring words onto it or struggling to find the words, I wonder, "Am I enough without this?"

Do I have to keep publishing, keep finishing books, win awards, to be enough?

And while there are times, especially when I am having to say, "Yes, the same book..." that I feel like I am not, most of the time, I am. Because being a writer doesn't make me worthwhile. Having a publishing credit, heck, even having a Pushcart Prize, wouldn't make me more than what I am right now. They are wonderful things, to be sure, but they are not my worth. I don't want to someday say:

"You see, I'd made publishing my whole life. And when you make publishing your whole life, you have to keep on publishing... Having your book published is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

Fill that in with whatever it is that drives you each day.

I'll finish this book. I'll probably write another. And another, I hope. I don't know if anything I write will ever be published, but I'll keep writing, because I love it, because I want to, but not because it gives me any worth.
 
When I watch the Olympics, it is not the gold medals that most draw me. It's the stories. It's the people, their lives, what they've overcome to get there that grab my heart. It is often the underdogs I root for. And sometimes, the fact that the competitors even make it down the track or the hill in one piece, manage to finish a routine even if they fall, makes me tear up. I want each one of them to feel in awe that they are even there.

Sometimes when I'm writing, I feel like that. Without the publishing, without the awards, I'm just writing, and I feel pretty lucky to be doing it.