Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I was going to write a post last night with a picture of Sarah Palin's house and the title, "I can see the end from my house."

Corny, I know, but I kept thinking, for the past week, I could see the end of this book. Not the 12,000 word original ending that I cut, but the new end. The one with the new timeline and the better conclusion and the tied up relationships that will leave the reader satisfied.

Well, a better ending anyway. One that felt like an end.

I knew what I wanted it to be. It was all written in my head. Getting the words on the page, though, was an entirely different matter. I struggled to make it just right.

But tonight I finished. I typed the last words and I knew: they were the perfect last words.

It isn't the end, of course. It's never the end until the book is in print; there will be one more good polishing run through and the critiques of my fabulous writing group to take into account. This will be the first submission I make to my MFA program, which means there will be revisions from that as well.

But I'm done with the good draft. The one that works. The holes are filled, the character's journey's complete. It feels... right.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Writing As A Luxury

 "Art, in a way, is a deceptive luxury. To create, you have to allow the time." ~ Albert Carmus

"The great Haitian novel would be about hunger, but if one is hungry, you can't write a novel." ~ Danny Laferriere

I heard these quotes together in an interview my father sent me yesterday about a Haitian writer. They really struck me, that writing is a luxury of time and comfort and space. If one has no home, no shelter from the rain, no food to eat, is struggling to just survive, these people do not write, even if they have the great story to tell.

Perhaps that's why we don't hear so much about great books coming out of countries where survival is the main objective.

And yet, those countries are the ones where there is more poetry, and a greater love of poetry.

At the National Book Festival I sat in on a poet who was talking about how she'd won awards and traveled for her writing. This is one of those rare poets in the United States who actually makes a living writing poetry. And then she said something that stunned the audience. "I don't tell people right away that I write poetry. If I meet someone, on a plane or at a party or event, I tell them I speak, or I tell them I write books and change the subject, but I don't tell them I'm a poet."

I think one lady in the audience about had a heart attack. She stood up and shouted at this poet: "How can you be ashamed of being a poet?"

And the writer replied back: "Because American's have very little appreciation for poetry, or for poets. In other countries it's a big deal. If you look closely, the great poets come from poorer countries. South America has some of the greatest poets, and the greatest appreciation for them. People there love poetry. But here, they look at you funny. They ridicule you. They act as though it's not real writing, not something to be valued."

I don't have anything perceptive to say about this. It's just gotten me thinking, about who is writing, and why, and what readers value. About how my preferred form of writing in high school and college was poetry, because it was cathartic, and how that changed over time into stories in which I could hide better behind characters and plots, and hope to make a little money at it if I'm lucky.

Do North Americans not value poetry because it shows vulnerability? And do we love our fiction because it we can identify from afar?

And is writing a luxury?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Reading List

This is my reading list for the next two weeks. They are all books written by the faculty at the Pacific University MFA program, where I'll be starting in January. I'm hoping to have at least one, if not two books, written by each of them read before I go. This is a very small start!

Last week I read The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint (by Brady Udall) and Leaving Atlanta (by Tayari Jones). Today I'm starting Pete Fromm's How All This Started. None of these are books I'd heard of before, and judging by the awards they've received and the quality of them, clearly I'm reading the wrong things. These are amazing books!

One thing I don't do enough of as a writer is make time to read. I love reading, and maybe it's that very thing that makes it feel like an indulgence. To just curl up on the couch and read... what a luxury! And yet, I've been reading these books lately, I can tell you I think this may be the most worthwhile thing I will do over the next two years in improving my writing. Reading great writing inspires and motivates me to write better. It makes me think about plot and character development and what makes a book more than just an interesting story. It stretches my reach, challenges my comfort zone, and increases my vocabulary. Or, even better, increases the way in which I use the vocabulary I have.

I've learned two big things this week while reading.

1. Any rule can be broken if it's broken well. In the blogging world, we are told not to use adverbs, and to use adjectives sparingly. Don't overuse backstory. Don't use passive tense. Don't start a book with someone waking or dreaming. Begin a book with a bang...action and drama and suspense all wrapped in the first sentence. But a great writer, if he knows why these rules are important, can break them if he does it well. (For instance, a writer shouldn't rely on adverbs because that makes them lazy about using strong verbs in the first place. But if your writing is full of strong verbs, the adverbs can become less a crutch and more to drive home a point of specificity.)

2. No piece of writing is perfect, and as reading is such a subjective thing, it can never be perfect for all people. As such, I've learned to stop criticizing each book for what I think it should have done and learn to appreciate what it does brilliantly. This was an easier lesson for me to learn here, because these writers are going to be my teachers. I went into the books with the idea that I would learn from them. So when certain things came up that I wouldn't have chosen to use in my own writing - or when absolute rules of good writing were broken - I looked at why it worked, how the writer got away with that, and instead of criticizing it, I came to appreciate it. And the things I still wouldn't have chosen to do, I let them go and focused on the brilliance I did see.

I can honestly say I'm loving these books, and amazed that I'm going to get to meet these authors, talk with them, work with, have them read my work and be mentored by them.

What book are you reading lately?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Revision Purgatory

I'm in revision purgatory. This is why I've not been blogging recently.

I looked up the word purgatory; it means a temporary state of suffering and punishment. I'm not calling it revision hell, because I'm pretty sure hell is a permanent state of suffering and punishment, and I'm full of HOPE these days. Hope that this revision thing will not keep going on forever, which is, I admit, what it feels like.

Oh the joyous day when I typed "The End" on this manuscript back in June (mentally, figuratively, because no former English teacher would ever actually write those words on a manuscript. That's the rule. Do not write The End. Trust the reader to know that when you've stopped writing, it's the end. This is one of the every present purgatories of the middle school English teachers).

Where was I?

Oh yes, figuratively typing THE END and thinking I would only have a month or two of really good, solid revisions whereupon my manuscript would be polished and pretty and ready to send out. That was before revision purgatory, where I am in a constant (but hopefully temporary) state of suffering. This manuscript will not be tamed. I think it whispers that to me in my sleep. I will not be tamed. I will not be tamed. Every time I start a new draft, I think, this is the last one. This will be just a quick polish.

But it never is.

I am almost to the end. I am within 40 pages of finishing the revising and I realize, a whole scene needs to be moved to the end. It's the end of the story. Why didn't I write the end after it? Maybe if I had actually written the words, "THE END" I wouldn't have kept writing and ended up with 40 pages of necessary material that are not where they belong.

I know someone is thinking, "Why not just cut and paste? Click and hold and drag?"  Because, dear readers, if I do that, I have to change the entire timeline of the book. A book that takes place over fifteen days would have to take place over ten. An entire holiday and its events would have to be thrown out, necessitating moving those necessary events into other places. Conversations spattered throughout the book would have to be changed. Whole scenes would have to be rewritten to fit the new timeline. Plots will have to be twisted. My head is spinning just thinking about how much needs to be changed.

The thing is, I could keep it as it is. Everything in me - almost everything - is screaming to leave it be. You're almost done! You can see the end! 40 pages and you're there! It's a breathe! A hopscotch! A small leap! If you keep going, you could be done by tomorrow!!

But a tiny part of me - a very loud tiny part - is screaming I need to rewrite and revise again, because if I don't, I'll always know it could have been better, could have been stronger. I'll know it's not the book it should have been.

I'm past the point to just be done with a book to say I could write one. The first book I wrote was to prove I could write and finish a novel. The second one was to prove I could write one worth publishing. This one... needs to raise the stakes even more.

And if it takes time to do that right, I guess I'll pay my dues.

Monday, October 11, 2010

And So It Begins

If I were to be totally honest with you, I'd say that the reason I never went back to grad school, even though I've wanted to since before the day I left college, was logistics. What exactly did I want to study? How would we pay for it? And in the more recent years the logistics grew more complicated. Who would watch the kids? What if they are sick and need to be picked up from school? Who's going to pack their lunches and brush their hair and make sure their clothes match? Who will check their homework and carpool them to swim team practice and piano lessons? Where would I ever find the time to study when I can't even find the time to get the clean, dry clothes from the dryer to the dressers?

When I began researching and drooling over programs, these were still always the questions. Where is the money going to come from? Who will take care of the kids? When will I find the time to get the work done?

Until finally my husband said, "Just apply. And we'll work the details out when it happens."

So I applied, and now the details are hanging over me like weighted clouds. I still don't know the answers to those questions. School doesn't technically begin until January and yet I already have a stack of things to do, to write, to submit, to read. I thought I'd have time this fall to finish revising my current book and get it off, have a short break for Christmas and be up and rolling the first of the new year. But it's not looking like that.

So yes. Details.

But if I were to be totally honest with you now, I'd say the reason I feel like hurling every time I think of school is not because of money or time. It's because I've glimpsed the people in the program.

There's not a list anywhere, but a resourceful writer who is likethis with google can find names. And I've found names. And they are beyond impressive. Awards heaped upon awards. Publications all over the place. One man has TWO pulitzer prizes for journalism. Because, you know, one just isn't enough. He has TWO.

I say this to my husband at random moments when he probably thinks I've paying attention to TV or marveling at how the dish soap stays soapy after so many dishes. Out of the clear blue, into the silence between us, I say, "Two Pulitzers. He's got TWO! PULITZERS!"  And my husband will sigh and say, "Yes. I know. You've said that before."

But I'm still wrapping my head around the idea that I will be sitting with these people, and who am I? Am I the obligatory "person with potential" the program chose? How in the world did I get lumped in with these writers? How can I even call myself a writer among them?

I worry that I will get there and everyone will be more well-read. They will know great writers and be impressed with the guest speakers, and I will wonder who they are and why they talk in words with more than two syllables. I will wonder if I need to do more navel gazing, write more poetically, write less like me.

Will I lose the voice I fought so hard to find? Do the professors expect me to be a better me, or a different me?

And I keep reading about how painful it is, but in a really good way, like people rush out of rooms crying because they feel the poetry punched them in the gut, or their advisors push them so hard they are emotionally drained and already I cry more easily these days, when I never used to cry at all. So will I spend my residencies crying and being embarrassed and rushing from rooms and saying, "I have no idea what came over me, but now I must go write until it cleanses my soul!"

Or should I just make sure I have plenty of kleenex and waterproof mascara packed?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Club Editions! MFAs! It's Friday: It's a Good Thing

A long time ago I started a tradition of making Friday my thankful day on the blog. Somehow under all the roller coaster hills of the last year, I've gotten out of doing that. Today seems a good day to get back to that.

So here are some good things from this week:

1. My book is being reissued as a book club edition! I have some great questions in the back now, an updated cover, and a plan of attack. Bwaahaahaa!!! Also, if you know of any book clubs that might like Some Kind of Normal, either contact me with their info, or them with mine, and I can get them signed books, and even do a skype book club chat with them if they want.

2. My MFA information has come in the mail and along with it my first few assignments. I KNOW! Classes don't even start until January!! I guess they figure it's good to get us when we're still excited instead of dying under the realization of what we've signed on for.

3. That information included asking me to list my top five advisors/mentors for the next two years. I went through the list of faculty, reading their bios, googling pictures of them, reading opening chapters of their books, and there are some amazing writers here!! And also, out of the fifteen, I found exactly five that I thought would fit really well with my own style and personality. And I found one I absolutely love love love. Keeping fingers crossed I get my first choice!!

4. That information also asked me to compile a reading list for the next semester. I get to compile my own list! How cool is that!! How stressful is that!! I feel like this is the first big test they put in front of me: Let's see if this student can choose good books. I have a feeling John Grisham and James Patterson are not on their secret list of great literature. I'm drawing on suggestions y'all made a while back, so that's awesome! Thanks!

5. FAFSA and I have decided to get along. FAFSA is the financial aid application which I filled out this week to put myself and family in debt to get this wonderful degree. If you've filled out government forms that deal with other government forms (like tax forms) you know how crazy it can drive you. Thankfully, I only yelled at my husband twice, and I totally blame that on the fact that my blood sugar was 43 and I felt like I could barely process words. So the FAFSA is done and out there in the ether and my husband and I are still happily married. That's a good thing.

6. I am happy for cooler weather. Fall is finally on us, and I love it. Nothing better than curling up with my laptop to write all bundled in a comfy sweatshirt.

On an end note, here's one of the pics I posted on my photo blog this week. It's one of my favorite fall photos so far. Happy weekend, and happy Thanksgiving to my Candadian friends!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Blogfest 2010

Patti Nielson challenged writers last week to keep track of how many hours they wrote. I signed up because... well, Patti is a friend, and I wanted to support a friend. But also, because I was interested in knowing how many hours I write. It seems like a lot sometimes. Surely I'd come out with streamers flying and confetti falling, right? And also, it wasn't a challenge to write X amount of hours. It was just to count the hours, and to make me aware of how I was choosing to spend my time. Simple.

So this is how things panned out:

Monday: 1 hour 10 minutes. This was broken up into three different chunks, because I didn't have an entire hour to spend all at once.

Tuesday: 3 hours 30 minutes. This sounds great. I was devestated. I stayed home with the intent of writing the entire day. I have five hours when the kids are all in school. I have time at night. What happened? Life.

Wednesday: 40 minutes. Give or take. There was the gym, shopping for a birthday party, Bible study and kids choirs, and the news that I'd gotten into grad school, which pretty much killed any productivity for the day.

Thursday: 1 hour 30 minutes. Most of that was at the swimming pool while my daughter had swim team practice. I have to say that when I know I don't have much time, I get much done. I normally would have gotten more done at night, too, but the looming birthday party has me tied up at night with discussions with the hubs over plans and gifts and such.

Friday: NADA. ZIP. ZERO. Nothing. I worked like a mad woman all day trying to get the house in shape for company, making and decorating a cake, and setting up a scavenger hunt through our woods for five  boys. thankfully, this only happens three times a year in our house. Unfortunately, this happened during the blogfest week.

So total time: 6 hours 50 minutes.

I have to say I was stunned and sad by that. At first, I thought I'd completely failed myself.

And yet, what I learned was this: I got a tremendous amount done in that time. Huge. And in writing it down each day, I was uber-conscious of how I was using my time, and I used it well. I chose writing when I could. I shut down the internet often. I was focused. Accountability, even if only with bloggers, is a great thing.

Now, I have to focus even more. I have my first two assignments for the MFA program due in November, and I want to finish this current book within the next month so I can shelve it without it nagging me. There are so many more polishing edits it needs, but for the time being, if I can just pull it all together with this last revision to make it cohesive, with a believable character arc, I'll be happy.

How's your writing?

Friday, October 1, 2010

News!! That's Pretty Big!!

I was going to title this post "BIG HUGE LIFE CHANGING NEWS" and then I realized the news is really only big to me, and only life changing to my family, so maybe that's overstating it a little.

The news is that I received a phone call this week that I'd been accepted into the MFA program I'd applied to this summer. Which means, in a scant three months, I'll be a grad student.

Everyone around me keeps saying, "We knew you'd get in," but the truth is that they didn't. No one could tell that. I don't know how many applied, but the fact is that MFA programs in writing are notoriously small. In the single to low double digits small. A school might take as few as seven or eight new fiction writers a semester. I was worried. I didn't apply to a bunch of schools. I picked one. My favorite one. The program that fit me best, that made my heart beat harder every time I thought about it.

And who knows what they're looking for? I was thinking probably not a mom who long ago started losing brain cells and the ability to find a word over two syllables. Will I be the oldest in the class? Will I be the most haggard, least fashionable one? Will I be the only one who has to read a page of classic literature over and over and end up saying, "I don't get it. What am I supposed to be looking for again?" When I write my first critical essay, will it rise above my traditional book reviews of, "It was a cool book. I liked it okay"?

I don't know, but these are questions I'm worth humiliating myself to find out.

Getting a writing degree isn't critical to being a writer. There are plenty of authors all over the internet who will tell you that college only ruins any talent a writer might have. They say it's pretentious. It's a waste of money. It's a waste of time.

I don't agree. I agree that there are great writers who don't ever get a college education, let alone a graduate degree, and they are brilliant in what they do. They are gifted.

But I want the degree. I want the classes and the teachers and the textbooks and the assignments and the fellow students. I want to be a student. I want to be pushed beyond what I'm doing now in my writing, and I think this is the best way for me to do that.

So in January I'll pack my bags and head to Oregon for two weeks, where I'll sit in class and overlook the ocean and have evening bonfires at the beach (they do that!!) and sit around the bonfire talking books and literature and writing with other people who love that sort of thing as much as me. I'll start writing a new book. I'll start making lists of the books I'll read over the course of the next two years. I'll meet my writing advisor, attend lectures, listen to book readings. In essence, begin the next two years with a bang.

I have no idea what the next two years will be like for me. Intense, I'm sure. Busy beyond what I can imagine. Stressful. Tired. Crazy. Wonderful. Bliss. Amazing.

And I imagine this blog will very much become a record of all that. I hope you stick with me for the wild ride.

(Monday I'll post my week writing times, and my observations about it all. I had less time than I thought I would, but writing down how much time forced me to be productive in ways I couldn't imagine. I should be done with this book by the end of the month. Just in time for a short break and a chance to begin all over again!)