You may notice that I didn’t say writing “in” December? The only thing I’ll be writing this month will be this blog post, addresses on envelopes for Christmas cards, and checks as gifts. I don’t even need to sign my photo Christmas cards—our names come pre-printed.
As luck would have it, this poem (mostly) popped out of my mouth while I was in the basement bedroom sewing Christmas presents. I believe this is the first poem I have written since grade school, over fifty years ago. And that one was better than this one.
I apologize in advance—the use of “poem” in reference to what is written below is hyperbole at its best/worst. I blame the poem and my willingness to post it to our esteemed blog on the stress I have been under as a result of December and Christmas.
Most wonderful time of the year. Kids must behave and adults gear Up. Up. And up. Photos to scour for cards and calendars. Hurry before Snapfish wants more of your dollars.
Envelopes to address. Stamps to buy. Cookies to bake and apple pie. Presents to make. Who spends time crafting presents anymore? No one! That is what Amazon is for.
Who gets what? How much? Oh, to heck with it. Everyone gets a gift certificate. Secrets to keep. A tree to cut and lights to string. Decorations. Carols to sing.
Parties to attend and surprises to hatch.
Parties to plan and Hallmark movies to watch.
Do not forget
The Hallmark movie drinking game,
Carrots to leave for reindeer tame.
Stockings filled by Santa before milk and cookie, Smiles of children at presents placed under the tree, Make it worthwhile. Christmas night all is calm, the gifts put away. We’ll do it all over, come what may.
Heidi here. I’m in book jail, and I’m not writing fast enough. I was already not writing fast enough when I came down with the flu. The words dried up completely. Here are my four tried-and-sometimes-true methods for making the deadline anyway.
- The filing method: shuffle paper (or electrons.) Look through all those appended notes for corrections and improvements. Organize them. You may use pretty-colored file folders to do this. If you get lucky, some sentence will click and you find yourself writing instead of amending.
- The copy editing method: You’re going to have to weed those adverbs eventually. Start the line-by-line read-through. The upside of this method is the same as for Number One. Some connection will appear that sets you to churning out words for elsewhere in your book. If worst comes to worst, you end up with fewer adverbs and cleaner prose.
- The jig-saw method. Bring up on your screen all the hopeless dreck you’ve generated while trying to get your current chapter right. Clip out the substantive bits that simply must be in the final version or the plot won’t work. Dump them in a new file. Try to make them fit with each other. This method works the way physical jig-saw puzzles do: each sentence — even each phrase — that meets your eye might just fit over here… or over here… or…. And you’re just going to do one more piece before you stop. Really.
- The butt-on-chair method. For those of us raised as New England Puritans, this is Number One, not Number Four. If you were a serious writer and a virtuous person, you would simply ignore your illness, sit down and write. The result would be War and Peace or the Iliad, at least. On account of your will power, you see. The fact that this is a total crock never penetrates the Puritan mind. Neither does the fact that if you try it, you succeed only by using methods 1, 2 or 3.
You’re going to be sick no matter what you do. But if you can bring yourself to put your hands on that keyboard, and something does click, for some blessed number of minutes, you’ll forget to feel sick.
Holiday tip: check out The Harvard Book Store’s Holiday Hundred
TERMINAL MEDIOCRITY OR CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE. What’s it to be?
There’s quite a distance between terminal mediocrity and conscious competence but there are also steps, conscious, and unconscious steps, to take from one end of this spectrum to the other. Or, you could continue to fly in a holding pattern over the spot you’ve called your comfort zone.
- Unconscious incompetence (also known as terminal mediocrity) lies at the beginning of everything. It’s a baby crying in the cradle. He can’t do a thing for himself and doesn’t know he can’t. Because he is unconscious of his state he could be doomed to terminal mediocrity as a human being. Because he is a human, however, his mind develops and he strives to grow, to achieve to whatever he is capable. Random crying becomes selective crying for example. The baby has moved on to:
- Conscious incompetence. Usually at this point he is not called a baby but a child, but that’s semantics at work. This stage could last forever. The child is still incompetent and he knows it. He can use his wiles but cannot control his functions. He becomes frustrated and carries on like a two year old, because that is what he is. Perish the thought he should remain in this state or his frustrations will consume him. Young men and women in their twenties are usually finished with this stage. Mid-twenties denotes the completion of the judgement functions of the brain.
- . . .
Okay, you say, we’ve been reading this drivel for some time now. What gives?
What gives is my fevered brain at work trying to generate a idea of when I will finally achieve my writing goals. At this point I seem to be hovering over the following step. So, if you will allow me to continue?
3. Unconscious competence. I’ve been in this holding pattern for some time; maybe eight years. Which is bad because I’ve been writing for eight years. I’m holding unto some of step two, the frustration. That combined with the knowledge that I can write (see step four) leaves me in some sort of a no-where land, like a teenager but worse since somehow I’ve gotten to elder-hood without watching where I was going. I know I want to write, and I write, but I’m not certain of the correctness of everything that appears on the page. Think teenage boy driving before his brain has fully developed. No, don’t think of that. Think practice can make perfect.
4. . . .
Yes, there’s one more. But I’ll leave out the follow-up commentary. How’s that?
4. Conscious Competence. This is the ultimate goal. The pinnacle, the apex. To know what you want to do, and how to do it. No faltering. A confidence backed up by knowledge. Getting out of the comfort zones of all the preceding stages and moving ahead. That’s where I want to be. Confident.
by Dave Pasquantonio
Congratulations—you finished your novel! You crafted nail-biting tension and perfect character arcs. You killed darlings and kept reader promises. And that ending? It sings. You’re done!
But wait—93,827 words? Uh-oh. You really wanted to come in under 90K. And that last editing pass was thorough. You killed off three secondary characters, consolidated scenes, and took out those boring pages where Wilhelm and Gene talked about that time they saw the moose. There’s nothing left to cut!
Or is there?
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The sleet snow hitting our skylight over the bed woke me up early this morning. Our first snowfall of the 2017-18 winter. Didn’t we just enjoy the warmest month of October on record? I loved every minute of those above-average temperatures.
I am happy to be up early today as in a few hours I will be on my way with Eleanor and Heidi to the New England Crime Bake in Woburn (rhymes with Reuben!!), Massachusetts. This is my second Crime Bake and I am expecting it to be even better than last year’s. I know I will return home motivated to finish my novel, “Clare.” Or any damn novel.
Yet I won’t be able to devote all of my energy to that pursuit. We are nearing the end of a bathroom remodel and bedroom refresh. Another week or two and the ceiling, walls, and woodwork will be painted, the vanity and shower glass doors installed, and a new gray (to match the paint) blind will cover the skylight–which explains how I was woken by the snow hitting the skylight. This remodel reminds me of writing a novel. I’ll save that for a post when the remodel is done and I can discuss it rationally.
November is the month to hunker down and focus on interior projects. It must be on record as being the grayest month of the year. That’s why for the last few years I’ve looked forward to participating in NaNoWriMo. Not this year. “Clare” is the beneficiary of my attention, not a new project. I’m plotting–not pantsing–and I can see it’s benefits. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
Time to pack and head to Woburn. A bonus of leaving town? My husband is in charge of the painting in our bedroom.
I like my cozies cozy. We’re talking mystery novels here, of course. The base-case definition of “cozy” is “no overt sex or messy violence onstage.” For me, there’s one more requirement: the story has to happen in a place and/or a social setting made so vivid by the author that living in it for the length of a book is worth the price of admission. Cozy, after all, is a matter of one’s surroundings. Solving a murder? Not so important. It’s local color that makes me part with my cash in the bookstore.
Currently, I’m reviewing the presence of the great state of New Hampshire in the umpteenth draft of my novel. It’s a wonderful place, no question. I notice, though, that my local color focuses only on the nice stuff. Autumn-leaves-sort-of-thing. This is the “place” equivalent of the sweet and comforting cat owned by so many mystery protagonists. Said cat never ignores her owner, gores the vet or vomits on important people. Autumn color on the Kancamagus Highway is New Hampshire’s version of that cat.
So I’m hunting around for aspects of the New Hampshire life that will take readers into the real place, including the unsweet parts, which they will nonetheless want to explore with me. Here’s where that effort took me.
The Kancamagus, narrowly defined, is 37 unspoiled miles of two-lane road through the White Moutains, no turnoffs (except for trailheads), no gas stations, no food outlets, no nothing. On the other hand, it starts in Lincoln, New Hampshire, home to the Loon Mountain ski resort and a stretch of random and ramshackle shops whose only purpose is to extract dollars from skiers and leafpeepers. You can eat a gyro, spend more on a mountain bike than the annual household income in Rwanda, or get your nails painted blue with little sparkles on. Every tourist trap in the country could boast the same. So how is this New Hampshire?
I find a possible connection: a little strip-mall shop that sells very upscale foodstuffs, organic of course, plus Luna bars, sandwiches, and elaborate chocolate pastries clearly made by machines in a factory somewhere well to the south. But one of the sandwiches is a lobster roll better than anything I’ve tasted on the coast of Maine. Why make that a specialty? Because this is northern New England, mountains or no mountains, and the lobster is one of our totem animals. (So is the moose, but you don’t want moose on a bun.) Serving bad lobster is done in New Hampshire, yes, but it is nevertheless Not Done in New Hampshire.
Winter is another New Hampshire specialty. I do let my heroine enjoy the first pristine snow of the season. This brook isn’t just down the road from my house, but its twin brother is.
Where I have to be stern with myself is on the downside of all this loveliness. Hence :
We aren’t the rural state we once were, either. In the southern tier, New Hampshire is becoming downright post-industrial. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is no longer the economic engine of the area. It’s more a blight on the sea coast. Good place for a thrilling climactic chase scene, though.
So one way or another, I imagine I’ll give my readers a place more interesting than some non-denominational Heaven. If I get really desperate, I still have one lead to follow:
E-PUBBING, NOT FOR THE TIMID
I experimented with e-pubbing a bunch of short stories. I happened to have seven short, short and flash fantasy stories hanging around with nothing to do and I put them to work.
Writing them was the easy part.
My group informed me that I was now the expert in case any of them wanted to e-pub. I have news: I have no idea how it’s done or how to do it.
I went through Smashwords since it sits on my dashboard looking interesting. No other site clamored for my stories and really, it must be five years since that icon of a hand smashing closed a book has tried to get me to notice it.
So, I sent Smashwords my collection of short, shorts. They immediately answered back that yes, they wanted me. I was thrilled. I had passed their initial look-see but now the stories needed to get formatted.
I read the instructions on formatting and wanted to weep. I had no clue to what they were talking about. No problem, they said, here’s a list of independent formatters who will fix it for you. It needed fixing? Why?
I chose a formatter at random from their list. He was very nice and formatted it the way they liked. I have no idea what he did. But one thing that gave me no end of joy was the fact that he hyperlinked my ToC (Table of Contents) to the correct pages. I had read the how to’s on hyperlinking and wanted to beat my head against a wall. But, to be hyperlinked? Oh joy.
You need to have a profile, they said. Okay, I can write a profile. I am supposed to be a writer. I wrote a profile and successfully sent it to them. I was a genius. I went up a couple of notches in my own estimation.
Now you need a picture of yourself. I had a photo that was enough years old to be flattering. It was a distance shot. I found it on file and tried to crop it and save it to send. Well, I saved the outside border that I thought I’d cropped off. No idea where the center of the picture went. My son sent them a different pic.
Cover picture. Well, something indicative of one of the stories, right? I tried to get a stock photo from the internet of a cute little goldfish. One that looked intelligent. Goldfish have attention spans of 3 seconds. It’s impossible for them not to have a ‘duh’ expression. I asked my husband to give me a hand. Paint me an intelligent looking goldfish, please. I was so reminded of the part in “The Little Prince” by Saint Exupery where the prince asks the pilot to draw him a sheep. And the pilot did, over and over. Well, we finally did get an intelligent, in that it’s inquisitive looking, goldfish. But it’s not enough just to paint it and photograph it and superimpose the lettering on it, there was something to do with pixels, for crying out loud. I wanted to forget the whole thing. Writers are not meant for this kind of work. My son fixed the pixels.
These different critical pieces of an e-pubbed book were sent to Smashwords over the course of a month. They never got impatient with me, oh no. They didn’t need my book, they have published in e-reader format almost a half million books.
Did I need them? I didn’t need the aggravation, but now that it’s done I look back at it as a different form of child-birth, one that I wasn’t quite ready for.
Will be available for purchase on November 7, 2017.
A BAKER’S HALF DOZEN is a new collection of flash and short, short fantasy tales for all ages. Seven stories, including three award winners, deal with life in the weird lane. Often humorous, sometimes poignant, but all odd. Something not quite right this way cometh.
After three consecutive years of winning NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided to take a break this year. And I’m already missing it.
You may recall that November is the only month during the year that I produce a measureable amount of writing. Is this really a wise decision?
It’s not because I won’t have time for it–there’s never enough time for it–but I’ve always managed to squeeze it in.
The problem is that I have numerous fifty thousand word drafts of novels floating around, begging to be revised and completed. Why would I want to add one more draft to those haunting me?
In 2014 my NaNoWriMo novel was It Takes a Village Store. I couldn’t remember what it was about so I quickly scanned it. Ahhh…Anne, Olivia, Christian, Emily, George, Mae. I remember them. In 2015 my NaNoWriMo was Full Circle. Anne, Olivia, Christian, Emily, George, Mae. In 1986 (I kid you not) I started Anne, which remains a work in progress. Anne, Olivia, Christian, Jeff, George, Mae.
As they are populated by the (mostly) same cast of characters, what if I eliminate all of the unnecessary stuff from each of them and create one complete novel? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that’s all I had to do? Wouldn’t I feel like a real author if I spent November doing that instead of writing a new story with a new cast of characters?
Of course I would. But. For me, there’s something magical about NaNoWriMo. It’s more than thirty days of focusing just on word count. It’s thirty days of creating lives, places, relationships, action. Without anyone criticizing my sentence structure, my choice of words, my story arc. It’s the freedom to get swept away by my characters, to ride the wave of my story, to float back to shore at midnight on November thirtieth, fifty thousand words richer.
If you’ve been following my posts, you might be wondering what happened to the murder mystery trilogy I bragged about recently. Oh, that trilogy, using the same rough drafts listed above. And adding Gabby, my 2016 NaNo winner, and Claire, my loser.
Confused?? Yeah, me, too. Maybe the best of use of November is figuring out what I am going to do with all of those drafts I have spent years crafting. With any luck, that might include producing one completed novel.
Finally, in a 2015 post, this is what I had to say about what I learned from NaNoWriMo that year: …I am able to write regardless of the circumstances. I don’t need the perfect chair…or to be in the mood to write. I can even write while indulging in (gulp) Hallmark holiday movies…Another lesson has been that it isn’t that hard to whip out a lot of words if I’m prepared to also whip out a lot of revising. In the future. Revising that I’m actually looking forward to doing. Not lying.
Stay tuned for the big reveal: to NaNo or not?
Who doesn’t love a Woolly Mammoth? I’m so glad they’re coming back. Hope I live long enough to see one.
(What started me off on this? An article that visited my in-box this morning. Don’t they have a way of doing that, these off-the-wall emails that send your day into a curve you never dreamed of?)
Anyway, these lovable creatures roamed over all the world at one time. They stood up to 12 feet at the shoulder and ate lots. In frozen Siberia there are ice caves that have been transformed into laboratories to study mammoths dug from the permafrost. In not so nice times in the Russian past, inhabitants of gulags got to eat the frozen mammoths they unearthed. I wonder what they taste like?
In the first book of Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’, I learned that Neanderthals hunted mammoths and roasted their meat over open fires. Then they smoked quantities of left-overs to carry home to their families. What rollicking times they must have had back then. Jean M. Auel did extensive research for this book and for the whole series. She joined a survival class and learned to construct an ice cave, make a fire using primitive methods, tan leather and knap stones (flint) for knives. She was also a member of Mensa, that elite club for super smarties. You have to stand back for a moment and imagine putting a member of Mensa in a Neanderthal world. That is mind boggling.
But that, unfortunately, was the only book in the series that I’ve read. Next time I get a cold I’ll curl up with her next in the series. ‘The Valley of Horses’ I think it is. What fun.
Another mention of mammoths I’ve read and enjoyed is Thomas Pierce’s short story called ‘Shirley Temple Three’. It’s found in his collection of short stories called Hall of Small Animals. In the story, Mawmaw’s son Tommy; “works as the host of a popular show called ‘Back from Extinction’. On each episode they actually bring back long-dead, forgotten creatures – saber-toothed tigers, dodo birds, and all the rest. The show is a a little controversial, but people seem to enjoy it. Tommy always looks so handsome in his khaki safari vest”. So, guess what? In this story Tommy brings home a baby mammoth to Mawmaw in order to save it from certain death.
Which brings us full circle; bringing back the woolly Mammoth. Not as crazy as it sounds, apparently. Researchers are studying a frozen male mammoth from Northern Siberia hoping to either use his DNA, or sperm, to fertilize an Asian elephant’s egg. The Asian elephant has the closest DNA to the Mammoth’s, of all the elephants. Only a five percent difference.
All Europeans and Asians have maybe 3-4 percent Neanderthal genes in their DNA make-up. Makes you think; will we revert to our ancestor’s predilection for Mammoth meat in the future?
Jean M. Auel, you would get a kick out of this. Maybe you’re already on the team to bring back this luscious animal.
So here I am, on what I hope is the final substantive rewrite of my first mystery. I pantsed it, and I had a great time. I loved my characters, just set them down on the page and let them romp. Have you ever watched very young children – five or six years old, say – make up a game out of their own heads, coming up with a story and acting out the roles? I had that much fun, I really did.
And now it’s all come home to roost. The bill has come due for all those joyous episodes of ‘Ooh! Wouldn’t it be great if …’ For instance, I have a character who started out a genealogy snob involved in a lawsuit and ended up burying his ancestors (literally) and switching sides on the suit.
Well, no disaster. I can see how that could happen. But as I romped through my game, I just sketched in the change, didn’t take time to act out in my head the character’s inner or outer experiences. Result: a vague and confusing switcheroo at best; at worst, a great, clunky meta-clue to the reader: this character is being manipulated to work a plot. Why, he’s not a real person!
My faithful TNW critics (make that critiquers) pointed out a similar problem with another character. I noticed for myself that the police showed up, getting things wrong, when I needed to spur my amateur detective on to greater effort, but not when the police probably would show up in a real investigation. To crown my shame, one colleague gently pointed out that the pair of cute ferrets I had introduced (to make this work a proper cozy) really ought at least to appear in the closing scenes.
This isn’t one of my usual streams of whining complaint. I really can see how to solve the problems, and I’ve set about it. I’m pulling together separate files of all the passages on each faulty character, each badly constructed plot line. And that job has me wondering: if I had done that work before I started writing, I’d be a plotter, wouldn’t I? It sure sounds more efficient. But would I then lose out on all that five-year-old, cowboys-and-Indians fun?
On a practical note, here is a question for readers: do you use a writing program like Scrivener? If so, is there an easy way to pull characters’ appearances and tease out individual plot threads to be looked at separately? It took hours to use keywords and the ‘Find’ function to do this job for a single character.
At present, I have each scene in a separate file, color-coded by the plot line that the scene mostly serves. But my writing is not so clunky as to confine each scene to actions serving only one plot. In Scrivener (I think – I’m no adept) I would have to put each paragraph in a coded file if I want to pull out individual subplots, and it still wouldn’t be precise. Ideas, anyone?