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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If at First you don't Succeed...

I had it in my head I'd get up for the sunrise this morning.  But when I looked out the window, it was black, black, black, and I was pretty sure cloud cover would skunk my chances.  I know from experience that January sunrises can be iffy...

Forty-five minutes later, I'm assured I made the right decision, and you get a blogpost rerun from last year.  I'd risen in frigid temps on a Friday, to get a cloudy dawn.  I posted this the following Monday.

. . . try another sunrise.

Saturday morning at 6:35, a tap, tap tap on the shoulder wakes me. Aware of Friday's sunrise photography attempt, my husband points out the window.  The sky glows orange and pink through the trees, but it's a seven minute drive to the harbor.  Darn.

Sunday, I don't give it a thought.  Today though, since it's MLK Day. . . it isn't necessary to make breakfast or a school lunch.  So I get an extra half-hour of sleep and still have enough time to hop into the car to try for these.  It is cold as you-know-what out there, but the views are worth the frozen fingertips.

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Hope you are having a great week.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

An AP English Exercise

Here goes…

Mr. Collins taught my husband AP English in high school.  Hubby describes him as a good but challenging teacher.  Many times over the course of our marriage he has referenced the weekly writing assignment from that class.  The creative but demanding educator required his students to write a 500 word essay every week, without using the verb “to be.”   As a result of this rigorous practice, my husband developed strong writing skills.  

Okay, that’s 76 words using one "to be" and I couldn't leave that one out.  How hard could this be?  Darn, I mean, Let’s keep going shall we?

Although I love writing, and my husband professes to hate it (perhaps a consequence of the year spent with Mr. Collins), I often ask for his advice when drafting formal documents, to help me tone down my verbiage or make my writing clear when it gallops away from me.  (My husband kicks butt in grammar and spelling too, but I’ll save that story for another time.) 

Through these joint writing ventures, over the years we've been together the “Mr. Collins Effect” has seeped from my husband’s brain to mine, where it coaxes me to employ powerful verbs rather than weaker, less demonstrative examples.  “Action” language pulls readers into a story, offers up food for imagination, fodder to entice and engage, with the goal of making the reader's connection to the story more powerful. 

Oh my goodness, , I’m only at  Only 203 words?

When I began writing here at Middle Passages, I wrote first drafts of every post.  Then I edited them multiple times in an attempt to remove any representation of the offending verb. Every time I reviewed a post, I pictured my husband describing Mr. Collins’ assignment, and charged forward brandishing a sword in my effort to cut out the enemy weakening my prose.  In truth, sometimes, things read better when I left it in.  But I maintained my guard, lest the poison of too much passivity drag down my writing. 

Now as I approach my third (gulp) anniversary of blogging and subsequent regular, focused writing, (which also “celebrates” the third anniversary of something else I try to forget), I recognize my early drafts read more powerfully because I have developed the habit of avoiding “that” verb during my first round.

344 words.  This exercise is oops, kills me!

I appreciate teachers whose lessons continue to give.  An eleventh-grade creative writing teacher drove me crazy with her inability to focus, yet she taught me how to consider the world through a poet’s eye—and our daughter’s middle school pre-algebra teacher exhibited such enthusiasm that she continues to earn her best grades in math courses to this day.

401 words.   Oh my.  And he did this every week??? 

I wonder if teachers ever consider the residual benefits of the concepts they instill in their students.  Imagine if Mr. Collins, standing in front of his class of impatient high school seniors could see into the future and recognize the long reaching ramifications of his hard work.  How would he feel to know that even though I attended school in a different part of the state and never met him, I apply his lessons every day?  If I knew where to find the long retired educator, I’d thank him, and tell him I channel the homework assignments from his AP English class each time I sit in front of a computer  tearing my hair out.

There!  512.  Exhale, sigh, wipe brow, and thank God I didn't have Mr. Collins for English I only had to do this once.

What do you do to make your writing stronger?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Winner is...

Last week, I posted information about a giveaway to thank the blogging world for their support in my quest to improve my writing. Whether you knew it or not, if you commented here on Middle Passages during the first three weeks of January,  I entered your name into a drawing to receive a copy of Nicola Morgan’s Write to Be Published.  Read more about the book and giveaway here.  

Last night, I entered the “contestants” names into a hat and the winner is…

Your Royal Highness, I extend my humble congratulations.  I’ll send you an email, but if you see this first, please send me your address.  It will be my pleasure to order and forward you copy of Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan. I hope you find the book as fun and helpful as I did.

Note to the author:  If, as a result of this post, Google Alerts sends you my away again, thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom via your outstanding book, and for your comment here last week too.  Both provide further evidence that the writing community consists of many caring and thoughtful people, a truth that continues to amaze and delight me.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Picture Unfolds

I’m not artistic, though my husband and daughter will tell you I obsess about recording the ever changing  landscapes that emerge where we live.  These days, I have to force myself to refrain from saying the words: “I wish I had the camera” when they are with me.  They are so sick of hearing it; one of them may clock me upside the head.

So imagine how tickled I was when blogging buddy, fellow online writing group member, talented artist and soon to be published novelist Bridget Chicoine asked she could paint one of my pictures.  Bridget’s book, Uncharted, A Story for a Shipwright, takes place in coastal New England, and she was looking for something appropriate to the story to paint. She chose my photo of a peeling wooden dory as her next project, and is depicting her progress on her artist blog: JB Chicoine Unsupervised & at Large.  If you’d like to watch as this talented woman develops her painting, click on the link.   To learn more about Bridget’s writing and Uncharted, click here.

While art doesn’t live in my fingers, I’m grateful it exists in my mind.  So as Bridget uses sienna or burnt umber as she layers and shadows her interpretation of my photo, I’ll stick with words in my attempt to sculpt the images that transform the land in front of me.

But as a back up, I'll keep taking pictures.

(This is NOT the picture Bridget is working on.  I'll let her reveal that when she's ready.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Giving Back, or Paying it Forward

A few more months ago than I care to admit, Claire at Points of Clair-ification held a book give away.  I was fortunate to win Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan.  Notwithstanding my delight at winning, (Thank you Claire!!!) upon receiving the news, I stood on an anthill of niggling self-doubt.  Due to irreconcilable differences, I had shelved a miserable, one-time edited draft of a first ever WIP and had slogged out about 20K into a new project (the first draft of which is now complete).  That was the sum and total of my book writing experience.  Reading a book with this title seemed presumptuous. Who did I think I was?  But then the book arrived in my Post Office box. 

The back cover of Write to be Published says: “You want to make a publisher say yes?  First understand why they say no; then apply that knowledge to your book.”  Whether I’m published tomorrow (yeah, right), in the next five years (in my dreams) or never (nightmares abound), this book is a treasure of lessons about writing, and information relating to how to conduct the business of writing in a manner most likely to result in positive feedback. 

Whether you're a novice like me or a ready to be published pro, reading this book is well worth the time.  Turning the pages is like sitting in class while an engaging and enthusiastic professor calls all your bluffs and then directs you how to do things the right way. Published over 90 times herself, and the creator of the blog Help! I need a Publisher, it took Morgan something like 20 years achieve publication, so she knows the downsides as well as the up.  She's a British author so US readers, make allowances for cultural variances.  But no matter where you are from, the entire section called “Written in the Right Way” will resonates with the wisdom she imparts pertaining to what it means, and what it takes, to write “right.”

I could go on and on.  But I won’t.  Instead, I’m going to go back over the book and highlight everything that resounded in me.  Then, to say thank you to everyone who’s been so supportive and encouraging in my quest to improve my writing, I will put names in a hat for anyone who has commented here at Middle Passages in first three weeks of January. That means if you've already commented, or you do so in the next six days, you get one chance.  Next week, I'll pull out a winner and send them a copy of Write to be Published, by Nicola Morgan.  Hopefully it will be as helpful to someone else as it has been to me.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Knock on Wood

I am almost afraid to write about this, for fear of jinxing things, but we’ve been having a mild winter.  And NO, Snow Gods, there is no need to interpret that as in invitation.  It’s just that folks who have been following Middle Passages for a long time may recall I’m not a fan of the season, especially when parked in our family room where the temps, for some reason, hover ten degrees below the rest of the house.  

Being of the frugal, New England Yankee sort, we keep our thermostat on a timer.  It maintains the heat as low as tolerable during the day (tolerable being a relative term).   In previous years, I have transitioned my writing desk at the back of the house to a winter residence in by the laptop in the warmer (again, think relative term here) front living room.  In spite of this improvement, to survive over the last two winters, I climbed into a cold-weather writing costume before sitting down at the computer. Let’s just say a scarf, a knit cape, fleece boots and occasionally, a hat were involved.
This year though, I’m still camped out in my cubby in the back corner, and though I won’t call it warm, my daughter’s plaid flannel scarf suffices.  I have no complaints.  But it struck me recently, as much as I hate to admit it, there are parts of winter I'm missing.  Other than a dusting of snow that melted by noontime yesterday, we’ve had none.  We have yet to wake up to the cotton quiet of a muted dawn after an overnight storm.  The cement meeting pond, on the town common across the street from the building where I now work part-time remains liquid, absent of toddlers pushing around chairs while learning to skate.  The thwack of hockey pucks fails to echo down the street from our house, because the rim of ice around the edges of the pond there surrounds black water.  The down jacket I inherited from my daughter two years ago hangs on the hook in the closet where it’s been since last March. 

I can do without the singe of cold that ices the inside of my nose when the temps drop into the teens, but when the thermometer does register that low, there’s something alive about stepping into breath-gasping air to pick up the paper in the morning.  When dressed right, a walk in those temperatures defies something powerful, and celebrates a determination to muscle through, no matter what. 
Folks who move out west, or down south after living in New England often say they miss the seasons.  When  I hear that, I roll my eyes. “Try me,” I say and for the time being, I guess Mother Nature is calling my bluff.  I'd be lying if I said it doesn't feel more than a bit off. 

But then there's this; at least when unexpected visitors arrive, I don't have to run and hide.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tap, Tap, Tap

If you can hear that, it’s me, mentally drumming my fingers.  On December 28, I finished the first draft of my current WIP and now seek patience while I listen to the experts.  Jodie Renner,  an editor I discovered through The Blood Red Pencil recently offered a detailed list on her blog called How to Revise and Polish a Novel. 

Knowing I was going to get to that stage soon, I bookmarked her page.   She offers a wealth of process thoughts, as well links to posts on point of view, dialogue and style.  As per her instructions, I have put my draft away “for at least two weeks.”  Technically, two weeks is up on Wednesday, but I'll go longer to ensure when I open the file again, it is reads fresh and new. 
This is hard though, since I’m eager to get back at it…to revisit this thing I started writing last winter.  Other than presenting early chapters to my writing group, I have not allowed myself to go back and read, for fear of drowning in necessary changes and sputtering to a halt before completing the story at all.  And although Jodie says right now I should send it to Beta readers while I’m waiting, I’m not there yet.  I know how scattered my writing can be. It wouldn't be fair to do that to anyone.   Instead, I'll go through one revision before letting anyone read it…with the exception of the aforementioned writers’ group, whose members have patiently been commenting chapter by chapter.  As I complete this first revision, I’ll incorporate their comments. 

So in the meantime, the clock ticks slowly and I wait, trying hard not to bite my nails.  The upside? I’ve got more time to write blog posts.  And, I’m spending my middle-aged, sleepless nights, deciding if I have an idea for the next WIP.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Scene Storming

When I get really stuck, as I was yesterday, I scene storm.  Using a word, or in this case, a set of words, I try to write around them.  I’m happy to say, it almost always works.

I pulled today’s inspiration from Dancing with the Gorilla by Darnell Arnoult.   Historically, the author has offered weekly scene storming prompts.  It’s been a while since she’s updated, but if you go to past posts, you’ll find other suggestions designed to get you writing.  

Today’s words were:  Head, drive, ridges, reach, body, ground, voice, fog, refugee, sleep and here’s what I came up with:

Fog floated like a trail of refugees, weaving threads through bare fingered bushes.  It glided over ridges and congealed in the middle of the winter gray pond.  Water lapped a rhythm to the slap of sneakered feet on wet ground.  Ducks muttered back-up to her measured breaths, the swish of the borrowed nylon jacket, its wet hood spanking her back.  

Alongside the road, strands of bittersweet climbed from beds of composting leaves.   Their lethal tendrils wrapped around high limbs, screening the entrance to the woods with a ropy tangle.  Years ago, she and Ashley had created forts and shelters behind those thick curtains, unaware the creeping plants shading them from adult eyes pulled at tall branches with a pressure that weakened the trees, before yanking them to their knees.  

She hadn’t known when she’d woken from her restless sleep this morning she could still run this far, that she’d reach the bend in the drive marking their childhood shelter.  In the beginning, she and Ashley had pulled rusted beach chairs and an old milk crate underneath the gauze of vines.  Grandmother’s tattered tablecloths served as capes, sarongs, and the turbans they wrapped around their heads. They were older when Robert arrived in town.  Not long after, the hiding place provided an invisible spot to cough down the whiskey he’d pilfered from his father’s stash.

He’d come upon them unexpectedly that first time, in unlaced canvas high-tops covered in mud, his gold and white striped shirt ripped at the shoulder. She and Ashley had been talking, giggling really, about how Thomas Rodomont had kissed Ashley the day before, when something in the woods behind them cracked.   Ashley had screamed, her voice a bird cry on a still night when she’d seen Robert, his angled body slouching against a fat oak behind them, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his cut-off shorts.
He’d given them a long stare.  Then he’d run his fingers through his mop of hair, cocked his head, pushed off his resting place and sauntered toward them.  

Happy Weekend All!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

January and the Insecure Writer

This is January's post for  Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.  Click on the link to find other participants.

I have always been a late bloomer, one to consider things, to analyze the ramifications before moving forward.    (I wish this trait had resulted in the practice of thinking before I speak, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic, as they say.)   This quality has resulted in a long life of waiting before I act –and you know what they say about “she who hesitates.”  
Anyway, experiences in more recent history delivered the message that chasing after what I want feels a lot better than delaying—which is why I dared myself to write Novel #1, the first draft of which I completed early in 2011.  I went through one re-write before abandoning it. I didn’t know how to make it any better than it was, and trust me, it wasn’t good.

Novel two was born, no word of a lie, when the first sentence came to me in the middle of one sleepless night.  I wrote it down and let it sit on my desk for several months until I was ready to write the story it belonged to.  During the time I was writing it, I took a fiction writing workshop and joined two writing groups, where I have learned more about conflict and back story, character building, dialogue and story arcs.  As a result, well, I have a little hope for it this second work

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts."  The insecure writer in me is well aware that my own first draft is a piece of mud covered dung. I have a goal now, one that looms large and scary, of editing the heck out of it and then letting some folks I trust read it and critique it.  
For the year ahead, I’m wishing for the vision to see what is broken, the openness to listen, the strength to respond to difficult criticism, and the skill to make my story cohesive and readable.  

Then we’ll see if there is a query letter in my future.

I guess my practice of taking things slow hasn’t changed much after all.