Thursday, June 27, 2013

Writing in seasons

With summer finally in full swing, I've seen a number of blog posts about fitting writing in around childcare. Or, with the approach of long days and late nights of raspberry picking, ice cream runs, campfires, and fire fly hunts, a parent might take a complete and well-deserved writing vacation.

On the flip side, as a child-free teacher (at least in those summer months!), my summers used to mean drafting, squeezing as much writing time in as possible before work again overwhelmed me.

But lately I've realized that while my writing is still seasonal, it no longer follows the temperature or the calendar, so much as the stages of the writing process. 

For example, as you may have noticed from all the whining on Twitter, lately I've been struggling to put together a plot outline for my next novel. But even though progress is agonizingly slow, I've also found myself unable to focus on it for than two hours tops before I'm creatively burnt-out.

It's completely different to last summer, when I was revising a novel practically non-stop, and had to consciously roll over every few hours to prevent festering sores.

Sometimes it's frustrating being a seasonal writer, fretting about slow progress, or overwhelmed with the lack of hours in the day, never accomplishing as much as I hoped. But even though I've tried to change, this seems to be my process. I might as well embrace it.

After all, in between outlining, this summer's been a good opportunity to practice my 45-minute chunk routine, allowing me time to do some more revisions on Project Fun, to work on other short pieces, to blog, and thankfully, to plan a major move.

If I'm lucky, I can maybe even squeeze some raspberry picking, ice cream runs, campfires, and fire fly hunts into this summer.

Are you a seasonal writer? How do you make the most of your time?

*Picture is mine, from Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes*

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Radical revision

What do you do when a chapter isn't working? The characterization is good, the language, the actions, the emotions--they're all there. And readers think it's good, too, but... well, not quite ready yet.

Clearly, it's time to do something radical.

What if you change the order of the scene? What is the scene really about? What if you lead with that element and work in all the rest later? Or just cut everything else?

Having a hard time breathing? Yeah, that was me last week when I got this exact advice from a writing friend.

But the more I thought about Ros' advice, the more I loved how big picture it was, how out of the box, and how radical. 

Sometimes I get so caught up in my literary self, changing one word here, and imagining it recolors a whole paragraph, that I can so easily lose that big picture view. Maybe I should be shaking things up a bit more.

My writing friend (and fellow Bath Spa grad) Ros said that she frequently finds when a scene's not working it's because she has the right events and emotions, but her brain somehow put them in the wrong order. She admits this might be just her brain, but I kind of suspect my brain does this, too, only I haven't been smart enough to notice it yet. By scrambling scenes around, Ros says she can then re-envision the scene, even heighten its effect, without changing the arc, and, more importantly, not having to write anything new.

How grateful I am for brilliant writing friends. By the way, while she doesn't (yet!) blog, you can find Ros on Twitter.

Any other radical revision tips to share?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Leaving Massachusetts

It's funny saying goodbye to a place I don't know all that well.

Before Phil and I left Bristol, we had a list of things we wanted to do--visit a favorite restaurant, walk along the harbor, eat jerk chicken at St. Pauls neighborhood carnival, stroll the streets of Bath one last time. There were also some quintessentially Bristol / Southwest England things we had missed--I went on a self-guided graffiti tour, and dragged Phil through the glorious tourist trap that is Wookey Hole (combination cave, circus school, dinosaur park, penny arcade, paper mill museum, and about two thousand other bits and pieces. Why have I never blogged about this before?!). We also took the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to Europe; I visited a friend in Switzerland, we spent a weekend with another friend in Paris.

I mention this because Tuesday was my last day subbing at the local school. It seemed momentous, yet I left the building late, so few of the staff were around, and I didn't say goodbye to anyone. That evening, instead of celebrating, Phil and I went from room to room of the house, creating a list of valuables for the movers.

There have been a lot of sad goodbyes with writing friends, and my incredible SCBWI critique group. In terms of favorite places, I'd like to take a few more pictures of the hiking trail to remember it by. And the Eric Carle Museum. But that's about it for Amherst.

Last weekend, Phil and I went to Plimoth Plantation, a place I've dreamed of visiting ever since I taught history in Chicago, way before I lived in Massachusetts. Unexpectedly, my favorite part of it was meeting the Wampanoag people who live there, not role-playing, but recreating their tribal life in the 1600s. It was so fascinating, and I had so many more questions that only occurred to me later. I'd love to live in this state longer, learn more, see more.

I realized as we drove there that I'd never even been in that corner of the state. I've never been to Cape Cod. Rick Steves, the travel guide author and guru, tells people to always assume they'll be back. That way you never overload yourself trying to see everything, but appreciate the bits you do see. Even better, it's not like Massachusetts is a distant, expensive European trip. I'm looking forward to coming back.

And yes, this is a picture of roosters (at Plimoth Plantation) eating lobster. I've lived here less than a year, but this seemed quintessentially New England:

*All pictures taken by Phil Anderson*

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On judgment

Sorry for the unexpected blog hiatus. I was briefly out of town (at my sister's baby shower! Yay!), and somehow traveling for just a few days snowballed into a lot more stress and busy-ness than I anticipated. I guess I DO have a lot on my plate at the moment. Thankfully it forced me to put my feet up for a bit, and take a few deep breaths, which was sorely needed. Now, back to my regularly scheduled writing.

Have you seen that quote about storytelling from NPR host Ira Glass? It's been making the rounds for years, as videos and jpgs, popping up on blogs and tumblrs and Facebook, and encouraging many many people.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

(here's the full video of this excerpted quote from Public Radio International)

I get why people find this quote encouraging: it's that reassurance that it's okay to stumble, that it's okay to take years to develop your craft. Glass' humility is comforting, too. And of course, there's the assumption that as a creative person, and someone who loves quality storytelling, you will get there. It's not lack of talent; if you just work hard, you too can get where you want to be.

Can I tell you a secret?

This quote frustrates me. I do see all the encouragement. And I'm a big Ira Glass and This American Life fan. But one of the things I personally find most difficult about writing is that most of the time, I like what I write. I'm not talking about rough drafts. But final, finished work, work I've poured over and edited to death--I'm usually proud of it. I can imagine a publisher snatching it up, it getting a gorgeous dust jacket, finding its place on a bookstore shelf. 

Sure, I like to think I have good taste. I'm certainly crazy critical. And I surround myself with books, and inhale stories day in and day out. But sometimes it's hard to see where I fall short with my own work. Time and distance help, as do my incredibly supportive writing friends, who sometimes pull the wool off my eyes just enough that I can see mountains of revision in front of me.

And not to brag, but I know I'm close, too. I've won contests with my writing, praise from published authors, had editors and agents seriously consider my work. But I haven't made it yet, and when I'm not shaking my fist at the heavens or railing against the commercial market (every writer needs a little hubris, right?), I'm usually honest with myself and know my work isn't ready.

But seeing it, for me that's the hardest thing. And not such an easy fix.

Are you a good judge of your own work?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Crafting the first line

First lines are a big deal in the writing world. A great first line can grab readers by the shirt collar, and force them to keep reading. Likewise, a boring, or confusing, or trite first line can be enough to make someone put down a book forever.

After hearing multiple comments on Project Fun's first line, from love, to a suggestion to tighten it, to a suggestion to delete it all together, I decided to do some research about what makes a great first line.
  • A hint of place
  • A hint of mystery
  • A hint of the end
  • An interesting character
A good line should draw in a reader, make them want to read line two, then line three, then devour the whole book. It should cause an emotional reaction. It should also convey all the basics of a novel, tone, genre, age-range, so a reader knows exactly what kind of story they're slipping into.

All in one line? Now you're getting why writers get a little uptight about crafting that perfect first sentence.

A few other tips I learned about what a first line shouldn't include: 
  • Dialogue. Without knowing the speaker, dialogue can be confusing, and once the reader does know the speaker, they'll probably have to go backwards--rather than forward in your novel--to re-read the dialogue in context.
  • Adjectives, adverbs, cliches--anything that can cloud the writing.
I brainstormed descriptions of my setting, mysteries in my book, and what my character discovers at the end. I combined all of that, along with a healthy sprinkling of character and voice, and jotted down over a dozen possibilities.

I also checked out my nearby bookshelf for some good examples:

"It's one thing watching someone get killed."
When I Was Joe by Keren David

I love how this is an incomplete sentence, forcibly pulling me to finish the thought and read the second sentence. It also manages to effortlessly (in 7 words!) convey voice and genre.

"You saw me before I saw you."
Stolen by Lucy Christopher

Spooky! Definitely a hint of mystery.

"The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World."
Going Bovine by Libba Bray

To me, this line has it all: hints of mystery and place, an interesting character, a hint of the end (hope I can say that without giving anything away!), voice and humor. Actually, at this very moment, I'm thinking I haven't ever re-read Going Bovine, even though I've wanted to for a while, and I'm tempted to scrap this whole blog post and keep reading.

But one last thing! After all that research and brainstorming, what first line did I end up with? Well... I stuck with the one I had.

I know. It's still a work in progress. But I couldn't craft anything I liked better and remain true to the story I wanted to tell (though I did tighten the second and third lines). So maybe it's a keeper after all.

"My first day of school, way back in kindergarten, ended with me cowering under the reading station table, my hands clamped over my ears."

Okay, I showed you mine! What's your current first line?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


I'm at that funny stage in the moving process where I can't wait for it to actually happen. Sure, it will be a logistical nightmare, exhausting, sweaty, overwhelming. I'll be leaving behind a place I've really enjoyed living, along with numerous friends, and an incredibly smart and supportive writing group. And I'll be moving some place I don't know well, and which feels a fair way out of my comfort zone. But at least, once the move is done, it's DONE, and I can stop dreading it. Plus, even though I seem to have a lot of experience at it, I really hate goodbyes.

Several weeks ago, Phil and I flew down to North Carolina, and found a small house for rent in an older, tree-filled neighborhood, within walking distance of lots of shops, cafes, and parks. Knowing where we're going to be living makes the transition easier; it gives me a place to visualize, to mentally decorate with our stuff, and to call home.

And it's encouraged me to start compiling a mental list of things I AM looking forward to in North Carolina:
  • Central air (it's been a really hot, sticky past week)
  • A dishwasher (my current dishwasher, Phil, is great, but sometimes a bit ornery)
  • A dog (Phil and I both have been waiting a long time--six years since Connor!--to live some place that will let us have a dog. A new best friend is one of our first priorities)
  • A back porch (I love the idea of writing outside, and our new porch has a great view. Plus, no creepy, too close neighbors!)
  • A house that's all our own, with no shared walls (see above hint regarding our current neighbor)
Admittedly, it's a small list, all focused on the new place. But hopefully, being safe, comfortable, and happy in our home will give us courage and excitement to explore our new surroundings, too. I have heard rumors of an excellent bookshop within walking distance. And eventually I'll find a new writing group, a local library, and hopefully even some friends.

The move is in July. Once it gets closer, I'll probably go on another blog hiatus, and my Twitter feed will be an endless string of stress and frustration (lucky readers!). But in the meantime, strangely, I'm counting the days.

How do you deal with big changes in your life?