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Monday, July 29, 2013

Last Week's Old Push-Pull

There I was, striving to strip a chapter of my work-in-progress of unneeded description and backstory so I could read it to my Tuesday class without getting pummeled.  In the middle of it, I received an email from a friend/client  looking for a quick turn around on an email marketing message.  Easy peasy, right?  Except his draft was so unclear, it meant conducting a phone conversation with him that ended up being five-times longer than the little writing project.   And he is nothing but exacting.  We’ll go back and forth on this piece three more times before it’s just right.  While I worked on that, another email arrived…this time from an editor looking for a 1,200-word feature article for a local magazine, which meant driving an hour south to interview an interior designer.  Yahoo, and um, when is the deadline?

When I first started writing seriously, unemployment delivered hours to write.  I got up in the morning,  worked on blog posts until my eyes blurred, then I walked, two miles, three miles, four.  I returned home, edited my daily essay and pressed publish.  Oh, the luxury.

I promised myself I would never again let life chain me to an office for forty hours a week.  But that would indicate I had control over life, and let's be honest. Who does? As a result of one of  reality's hiccups, since March, I’ve working full-time again.  The good news?  In this particular case, "full-time" means less than forty hours, thirty-two to be exact, and it’s a five minute commute.  But still.  Now, I fit the writing in at 6:45 a.m., for forty-five minutes, five days a week, and whatever I can cram in on the weekend.  I get home from my job in the afternoon and try to sit down and get more done but distractions arrive in the guise of errands, meetings and dinner to prepare.  And when there is paid writing on the line, it trumps everything. This week, the WIP languished while I tweaked the email and drafted the article and felt like I was cheating on my lover.

Probably every writer reading this feels the same push-pull I do.  I neglected Middle Passages last week and I refuse to miss two weeks in a row.  As I work on this post Saturday morning, there are windows to wash and closets to clean and a WIP jumping up and down in the background, reminding me I have so much more work to do.  Somehow today, I'll get the gardening and grocery shopping done.  But maybe, just maybe, I'll wait on washing the windows.   

They may be filthy, but when they are clean they are just a surface sparkle.  When I carve out time to write for me it validates who I am deep to the core.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Class Three Epiphany

It was my turn to read again.  I knew my story wasn’t moving right, knew I hadn’t nailed it. But, since I couldn’t figure out how to fix it, I shrugged and printed my pages to pass out to my classmates.

To their credit, they hammered me on all my unnecessary telling details.  The problem with the first couple of chapters of Novel #3?  Too much backstory.  In truth, that’s not a surprise to me…it’s been my bugaboo for a while now.  I chopped over 20 pages from the beginning of my last book. But still, even hearing what I expected, I struggled.  How do I get my characters to the right place in the story without sharing all the particulars?

It took the workshop leader’s words to spell it out for me.

“Write in real time,” she said.  “Write in scene.”

Holy Smokes.  On Tuesday, July 9, 2013 a huge lightning bolt of epiphany struck southeastern Massachusetts.
Finally, I got it.

If my character is in a room, I need to write about what’s going on in the room, not what happened four months ago that led him to the room. If two characters don’t get along, it’s Okay to leave the reader wondering what caused the ill will.  The reason for their argument will come out in due course, but in the meantime, it is enough that the reader knows they quarreled.  Too much bla, bla, bla, slows the thing down.

Sorry to say, I am the queen of bla, bla, bla.

A very good writer once said to me, “Sometimes we write backstory in order to learn the whole story ourselves.  But the reader doesn’t need to know that much.” 

I learned something else last week.  Do you know the term “Killing our babies?” 

I’m wielding the proverbial sword.  Anything that doesn't move the action forward?  Gone.  So far, more than 1,800 words (babies) have lost their lives in my charge toward novel clarity.  Things are getting ugly folks.  I expect a lot more bloodshed.

But the story?  Well, fingers crossed.  It's starting to MOVE!

Jordan McCollum has some great tips on conquering backstory here.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

Significant Surrender

Like many across the country in the last week, we’ve melted under the relentless blow drier of a week-long heat wave.  The gardens flopped in the sun, the black tar driveway scorched bare feet and indoors, a hot blanket of steam heat compressed our lungs.

This is coastal New England. Sure we get hot days, usually a solid row of them toward the end of July.  But most summers, by the time the sun goes down, a breeze lifts limp curtains from windows, shuffles and murmurs in the pines surrounding us, and by bedtime, sleep becomes attainable.  The second-hand air conditioner donated to us by my husband’s parents years ago, spends most seasons perched on a cinder block wall in the unfinished section of our basement.  But this long stretch of tropical nineties enticed us to lug it up and balance it in one of our bedroom windows.  Then we marched around closing the others.  It helped.
It also delivered a lesson.  You see, most summer mornings, I wake early.  Before I get up, I pull on my glasses and stare out our open back windows to where red and yellow lilies bow over granite ledge, to balloon flowers washing the air purple.  I listen to the wind ruffling the hydrangea by the window and the cheery-o of a robin as it stop-start-skitters across the inclined lawn.  But in the last few days, all I heard was the wheeze of the old air conditioner.  The view outside reminded me of a silent movie.  Birds tiptoed across the grass, the flowers bobbed, but the scene was flat and one-dimensional.   It made me think of writing.  Because, just as the view out my closed window was lacking, a scene written without considering sound, along with touch, taste, and smell as well as sight, comes up short.  When I climbed out of bed each day, I’d felt as if I’d been robbed of something dear.

An east wind brought dampness to the air late today.  I turned off the air conditioner and opened the windows.  A song sparrow trills in the distance and goose bumps pit my skin.  The fresh cut grass wafts up amid the drone of the lawn service mowing my neighbor’s yard.  A hawk flies out there somewhere, I hear his long eeeech eeeeh and the chipmunks scampering up and down our rocks have vanished. 

My view to the yard is more rich and full with the addition of these detailed elements. 

Thanks to a heat wave, I'm reminded to keep my writing windows open, too.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

School's In for Summer - IWSG July

This is my July post for Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers' Support Group.  For more posts on the subject of writers encouraging other writers, click here.

Last week, I started my Grub Street writing class: The Novel in Progress.  Other than work-related seminars and a grant-funded writing workshop offered by our library two years ago, I haven’t taken a class since college.  Since I became serious about my writing, it's been four plus years of self-education, baby--so in the hours before the class, a few spare butterflies floated around.  But call them moths, really.  For the most part, I stepped from one foot to the other in anticipation of three hours each week in a class focused on the craft I love.

Our first assignment required that we bring page one of our current work-in-progress to read in front of the group, so of course I edited my first page to death.  On Tuesday, I printed it out, slapped it into a folder and drove six miles to the class location.  Ask my husband and daughter.  Normally, when I start something new, I  morph into a panicked, pacing monster.  But Tuesday, I descended the hill and bumped over the railroad tracks on my way to the harborside office one town over, breathing easy.  I didn’t beat myself up that my writing isn’t good enough or arrive a half hour early only to take a walk, afraid to be the first one in.  I didn’t quiver that everyone in the room would be more accomplished then me.  I simply stolled in, greeted the teacher and grinned.

To be truthful, there are very good writers in the class.  But listening to these talented people share their brilliant writing inspired me to keep charging forward in my drive to improve my own.  Is there anything more enjoyable than hearing a sentence that spirals down deep, causing you to go, “Whoa. How did she think of that?”  I drove home batting words around in my head, embracing a renewed commitment, as well as solid criticism in regard to what I need to look out for when I write. 

So for the next seven Tuesdays, think of me, a kid in summer school and the big guys are letting me play with them. So far, it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

Happy Fourth of July to all.  Hope you are all enjoying summer!

Monday, July 1, 2013

For My Daughter on the Cusp of Twenty

I see in you a 2:00 a.m. face.
Amber light in a wing-back chair,
The talcum arc of rounded cheeks,
Coils of love vining an invisible wire.
I had yet to know we all remain infants.
Even as we grey, life casts us
Into washing machine blizzards,
Snapping limbs,
Marathon bombs and such.
How to explain—
In some way, you will always feel
Two, or seven or ten or nineteen.

At eighty-one my father said
He didn’t feel different
Until he looked in the mirror.
Now I understand.
I sit on the contoured cushion
of that aging chair,
while down a narrow hallway,
you sleep folded into yourself 
like a moth turned toward the wall.
Bound now by compound steel,
nothing is the same.
But nothing changes.
I know only that
You remain every age you ever were
On the path toward what you'll be,
Your nineteen as young as fifty-four,
Twenty as old as my ninety-three.