Category Archives: writing

Writing While Sick

 

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

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Patching My Pants

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?

It’s not always what you think

Recently I took my mother to the local hospital’s Emergency Department for evaluation for a possible heart attack. We remained briefly in a packed waiting room where we overheard a mumbling man grumbling because they wouldn’t let him into the treatment area. Something was going on in there and they were keeping him from it.

As soon as a nurse escorted us through the closed door into the treatment area, I sensed a tension in the air, as before a hurricane hits. The hysterical wales and shrieks of a female that erupted throughout the ED indicated it had hit.

Someone had died. Right then and there. I just knew it.

Certainly she would be escorted out of the curtained area of the ED and into a private area where she could grieve. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being alone.  Maybe the man in the waiting room was a relative. Why wouldn’t they let him in?

The nurse guided us into a private room at the far end of the ED and a team of medical professionals swooped in and drew blood, hooked up monitors, inserted an IV, and wheeled in a portable x-ray machine. Suddenly it was just my mother and me. Bloody gauze littered the floor. The monitor blazed green, yellow and blue squiggles, its beeps a reassurance that life went on.

A methodic pounding now accompanied the howling. Even my hard of hearing mother heard it. We looked at each other and started laughing.

I stood near the open door of my mother’s room, hoping to glimpse a clue as to the tragedy that had struck. A male voice—the man from the waiting room, perhaps—loud, firm, annoyed. “If you don’t stop this right now, I’m going to lay down the law.”

For just a moment my mother and I relaxed into the quiet. When the howling started again a nurse closed our door, the noise muffled but not stopped.

We never learned what had happened to the young lady, we knew only what our minds could conjure, though I’m pretty sure no one had died.

It’s not always what you think, is it? Not so different from what happens with a murder mystery. As an author, I insert clues to mislead my fictional characters as well as my readers, who make assumptions based on the meager information I’ve doled out to them. The all-powerful author controls what the reader learns and when she learns it. The reader controls what assumptions and conclusions she makes. In the end, the author has the last word when she ends the suspense and reveals the murderer. What author doesn’t revel in that power?

Prayers for those impacted by Hurricane Irma.

You’ve Got Letters.

John Adams to Abigail Smith

A few blogs ago, I was whining and complaining about the decline of all things literate: cursive script gone from the schools, editing that goes no further than spellcheck, and above all, letter writing that has dwindled to email.

But why mope? We’re all writers here; hence, we’re all readers; hence, we have access to the written treasures of the centuries. I went to my bookshelves and within minutes pulled down an armload of books likely to contain the kind of letters no one writes any more. Here is a sample to brighten your day.

In the parlance of his own day (the reign of Charles II of England) John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester was a rakehell. Not the man you would expect to write this letter to his new bride:

I know not well who has the worst on’t, you, who love but a little, or I, who doat to an extravagance; sure, to be half kind is as bad as to be half witted; and madness, both in love and reason, bears a better character than a moderate state of either.

Full disclosure #1: Rochester was an earl, but an impoverished one. His bride, with whom he eloped, was very, very rich.

Full disclosure #2: After a lifetime of drinking, whoring and brawling, Rochester repented on his deathbed and died in the odor of sanctity. On the other hand, we have only his friends’ word for this.

In Sense and Sensibility, Lady Middleton is wary of the Dashwood sisters, fearing that they may be “satirical” of mind. Wonder who Jane Austen was thinking of? Jane to her sister Cassandra:

Another stupid party last night…. I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable; I respect Mrs. Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment. Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress & exposed bosom. Adm: Stanhope is a gentlemanlike Man, but then his legs are too short, & his tail too long.

E.B. White and his wife hobnobbed with the literati of The New Yorker. It didn’t go to their heads. White to his brother:

The summer reached a sort of peak the day we went to the Blue Hill Fair and K [White’s wife] tried to take a leak in the bushes just as the trap-shoot started.  She came out with only a minor flesh wound, but she might as well have been through Anzio. We all thought it was very comical, and one shooter (I heard later) got 25 pigeons out of a possible 25.

Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road, in New York, to her supplier of out-of-print classics, Marks & Co. of 84, Charing Cross Rd., London:

De Tocqueville’s compliments and he begs to announce his safe arrival in America. He sits around looking smug because everything he said was true, especially about lawyers running the country….

Did I tell you I finally found the perfect page cutter? It’s a pearl-handled fruit knife. My mother left me a dozen of them…. Maybe I go with the wrong kind of people but I’m just not likely to have twelve guests all sitting around simultaneously eating fruit.

While we’re on politics, you needn’t depend on cable news for furious denunciations of partisanship. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, explaining why the excellent law codes of antiquity have been lost:

Why are those Laws lost? I say the Spirit of Party has destroyed them, civil, political and ecclesiastical Bigotry. Despotical, monarchical Aristocratical and democratical Fury, have all been employed in this Work of destruction of every Thing that could give us true light and a clear insight of Antiquity. For every One of these Parties, when possessed of Power, or when they have been Undermost and Struggling to get Uppermost, has been equally prone to every Species of fraud and Violence, and Usurpation.

And while we’re on the Adamses, a final love letter from one of the great love stories of history. Abigail Adams, in Braintree, Massachusetts, to John Adams, in France representing the newly independent United States, 1778:

How insupportable the Idea that 3000 leagues, and the vast ocean now divide us – but divide only our persons for the Heart of my Friend is in the Bosom of his partner. More than half a score years has so riveted it there, that the Fabrick which contains it must crumble into Dust, e’er the particles can be separated.

Now please sit down, think of your brightest, funniest, most verbal friend, and write him or her a letter. On paper, with a pen, in script. Just to keep Tinkerbelle alive.

Author’s prerogative

Recently a fellow writer from Thursday Night Writes and I were chatting remotely about things, many and diverse. She mentioned that she didn’t “understand higher anything. Math, grammar, economics, electronics.” My immediate response? “To write we don’t need to understand higher anything. We need to feel and be able to convey what we feel. That’s it.”

Brilliant. Honest. At that exact moment, that is what I believed. I feel therefore I can write. Four days later, I still believe it.

And yet…At our weekly meeting of the Thursday Night Writes group, another member, who is on her third or tenth revision of her current (and almost perfect and so close to publishable) novel, submitted a rewrite of her next chapter for our review.

Did her submission meet my criteria for conveying what she feels? Most definitely. Did we expect her to understand “higher anything”? Why yes, as a matter of fact, we did.

Last night we quizzed her on contract law, injunctions, town government, and zoning permits. Her lawyer character is a crackerjack of an attorney and naturally we expect her to possess the same legal knowledge that she has attributed to this character.

We moved on to building construction and architecture. A discussion of whether the curvature of the building is tight or more gradual led to conjecture regarding curved-glass windows vs. regular windows placed into the curvature of the wall. I don’t even understand what I am trying to say and I was there. And how could we overlook the intricacies of contractor penalties for missed deadlines?

I have to give her credit, she did not get up and walk out, she did not raise her voice and emit words learned from Anthony Scaramucci, she did not shut down and pretend to record our comments—all things I have done or wanted to do while I was being quizzed on my writing. Instead, the author pointed out our misinterpretations and said she would consider all comments. That’s the author’s prerogative and absolutely the correct response.

So maybe I was wrong. As authors, maybe we do need to do more than feel. Maybe we do need to have an understanding of the “higher anything” that we write about. And maybe we do need an inordinate amount of patience dealing with our writing group members who don’t have the same understanding.

The Revision Knack

I wouldn’t say that I have the knack yet. On the second full revision of my manuscript, I still feel like Alice with the Queen of Hearts’ playing-card army showering down on her head. There’s too much stuff to keep in my head. I question my own judgement. Sometimes I read a chapter and think, “Where’s the story? What was this about, again?”

But the process has changed. Mysteriously, paragraphs that came seamless from my brain now appear on the page with words, especially adverbs, and whole sentences blue-penciled. (Only metaphorically. No actual hallucinations so far.)

A lot of the stuff struck out by the Revision Angel is background, details about my imaginary community and beloved characters that please me greatly. On the first

The Revision Angel. The sword is used on words; the three-pronged scourge on the writer.

revision, I couldn’t conceive of parting with them. Now, I see them as personal delights of my own, and I don’t object to clearing them away, giving my readers space to create the place and the people for themselves. My vision won’t disappear. Even if these details never make it into the series, I’ll still have them.

To my surprise, the pain is minimal. If I could see the expression on my own face as I work, I think I would look like my great-granddaughter when dessert is served. She listens, wriggling slightly, to her mother’s advice to “limit yourself,” sighs, wriggles just once more, and does not take another cookie.

My first six chapters now hang together and keep moving, but it’s time for a shock. Unhappily, the next thing that happens is a meeting. Not the “journeys end in…” kind of meeting, the kind with a Treasurer’s Report. The scene has a furious argument in it, but even so, a feeling of cerebrality creeps over me. No doubt getting your own way over Subparagraph 17b can be a genuine victory. The problem is ensuring that your prose doesn’t read like Subparagraph 17b.

This is where Alice’s playing-card army seems to threaten me. There are 40 scenes to go, at least, and the thought of rearranging them gives me the same short-of-breath feeling I get when playing jackstraws. If I pull this one stick out, will the whole pile collapse? How can I be sure that revision won’t become rewriting the whole book from scratch?

I guess I can’t be sure. There’s some new text in the six revised chapters, so there is such a thing as “a little rewriting.” I’ll just have to pick one jackstraw and pull. If you hear a loud crash, call 911.

Still trying to slay that dragon

Don’t be a Perfectionist. It will only lead to procrastination. And you know where that gets you quickly: NOWHERE!! Life’s too short–take a chance, make a mistake. You will still be loved, maybe even more than if you insist on being perfect.

I’ve never been a fan of the telephone. Before caller ID flashed on our television screen, before it flashed on just the telephone display, back when you didn’t know who was on the other end of the line, my husband or one of our daughters would have to answer the damn thing.

As for me picking up the phone and initiating a call? Not unless there was absolutely no other means of communication available.

Apparently I haven’t outgrown this. Yesterday waiting with my mother for her appointment with her cardiologist, I looked across the hall and spotted a fellow DAR member (Darlene) who has just moved back to the area and lacks email or internet service. The only means of remote communication with her is via the telephone. Darlene: I’ve been waiting to hear back from you. Me, vaguely gesturing toward my mother: I’ve been busy, sorry. (I couldn’t very well tell her about my issues with the telephone. The mental health department is right down the hall.)

Was I confident that if I waited long enough I would run into Darlene—who lives thirty miles away from me in another state? No, I’m not that bad. I would have called her. Eventually. When I couldn’t put it off another minute. And I mean minute.

Once again, with our random meeting, I was rewarded for my procrastination.

Stuart Little

I remember the first time I procrastinated. Not everyone remembers their first time, I bet. Second grade. My “Stuart Little” book report was due. It wasn’t a written book report. We had to dress up as a character for an oral presentation to the entire class. I pretended to be sick and stayed home from school.  After a day spent in bed moaning whenever my mother checked on me, the book report went well, mouse tail and all.

Once upon a time I was a teen. I eagerly awaited the ringing of the phone followed by long conversations when I stretched the curly telephone cord to its ironed length to talk to my friends, especially boyfriends, away from the watchful ears of my parents.

Then something happened and the Perfectionist switch was turned on full-time.

I have analyzed my extreme dislike of the telephone. Clearly I am more comfortable with the written word. I can edit my response, I can let it ferment, I can make certain that all information is accurate. I can be a perfectionist when I talk to people in writing. On the phone (or in person), who knows what will—or has—come out of my mouth.

My writing battle with perfectionism and procrastination should be well known to you by now. I still am trying to slay that dragon.

A long way to go before the butterfly emerges

Over the past two days I have written the following:  1) a confession by a murderer; 2) an abduction; 3) a car crash; and 4) a suicide—all of which transpire in the matter of about an hour or less. This is all part of the transformation of my novel, Anne, from women’s fiction to a murder mystery. Though I know it won’t be long until I have to rework the parts of the novel I’ve written in the past, for now I am having fun adding new scenes.

Yikes. Did I just say that I am having fun writing about people committing murder? The “real” me, not the “writer” me, does not like to think about people (or pets) dying. Who does? So how am I able to kill off my characters without shedding a tear? Heartless, I suppose. But only when it comes to fictional characters. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some credit to my fellow bloggers on Thursday Night Writes who have paved the way with their own heartless stories of murder and mayhem.

There’s still one more death to go but that one was written a few years ago as part of Olivia. Though originally the result of an accident, the death could benefit from a few tweaks to make it more sinister, maybe a full-fledged murder!

I’m excited to be reworking what I now realize was a flat story about family relationships into an exciting murder mystery, albeit not your typical Tana French mystery with a plethora of suspects. At this point in the writing I do not have any suspects, other than the guilty party. Naturally I’m concerned that the “zero suspects” approach will be less than satisfactory to “my” readers. But I remind myself that it’s still early in the process—the chrysalis has a long way to go before the butterfly emerges.

A lack of suspects isn’t my only concern with “Anne.” I’m afraid that I’m front-loading the novel with the stuff that keeps readers of murder mysteries turning the pages. 

Did I mention that I don’t have a sleuth? And many miles to go with Anne?

How To Do Thumbsucking Properly

I was doubtful when my TNW colleague Mike Horton recommended that I take an online writing class with Onestory.com. This online literary magazine publishes just one short story per issue, but it also runs writing seminars. In the end, I decided to sign up, on the grounds that any outfit that could help Mike Horton to write better would have no trouble at all moving me up a step or twenty.

I’m an old fart, I admit it, and I hate computers. Participating in the course meant using something called PowerSchool Learning, a program like the online Blackboard now used in colleges. I don’t understand that either. In fact, I was given my own personal assistant at the Blackboard training session when my curses began to be audible to the group. The geek kept piously telling me that I didn’t need to have anything explained in advance; “it’s intuitive.” Yeah? Well, the PowerSchool Learning Welcome page ends with, “Good luck!”

But lo and behold! I could do it. What’s more, I figured out what it is about living in cyberspace that makes me nervous. It turned out to be exactly the problem I need to surmount in order to write the book I’m stuck on.

The first web page that came up was an essay by the teacher (Hannah Tinti, whose novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was the text for the course.) Within it were links to books and articles elsewhere online. Those pages sent you to other pages, with more links, to pages with more links.

To use again a quotation I overuse: Ceci ne pas un manuel scolaire. The “textbook” for this course is not one you can finish, because it’s a meta-text. The internet is like the universe: finite but unbounded. If a particular chain of links peters out, another will ultimately be found to circle around behind the dead end and bring you to every- and anything else. It’s all experimentation and openness. That’s why the internet makes me so uncomfortable. How do you know if you got the right answer?

There isn’t one, of course, if what you are doing is writing a novel.

That’s why I found the first of the three sessions, “Beginnings” so inspiring. Tinti sent us to an account of Lynda Barry’s book on how to stimulate creativity, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Barry is a visual artist. Her book is based on a class she taught, “The Unthinkable Mind — a wonderfully unusual interdisciplinary course exploring the biological function of the arts and the psychological mechanisms of the creative impulse by blending cognitive science, visual art, and writing.”

I thought, “I don’t have time for this. Too much.” Wrong. Barry wants us to journal, but not to write reams of deep reflection. Her template journal page looks like this:

 

Did

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

Saw

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

Heard

“___________”

 

 

 

Draw:

Just be there, so that you actually notice what you are doing, seeing and hearing. Then, no matter how crude your doodles, let your own interpretation of some part thereof appear on the page.

Tinti insists that just this kind of focus on individual things, events, and memories, along with a determination to bring just one such item to vivid life in a single scene, can bring a book into being. With examples from her novel, she convinced me she was right. For once, an author answered, clearly and in detail, that tired old panel question, Tell us about your process. 

But best of all, Tinti doesn’t claim that it’s easy if you just use some technique. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley took Tinti seven years to write – hooray! Answering a student’s question on her experience of writing the book, she began, “A few years in,…” Also, she had a proposal I really liked:

I feel like there should be a secret signal for any writer who has worked on a book for more than five years. Then, whenever someone corners us at a party and asks how the writing is going, we can salute each other silently from across the room.

Suggestions for the signal, readers? I vote for thumbsucking.

Now I’m ready to move on to Lesson Two on dogging one’s way through the middle, with “research” thrown in. I’ll get back to you on how that goes.

Tickled by Ticks

So that I wouldn’t end up boring our faithful readers with a regurgitation of a prior post, tonight I reread my recent blog posts. (Topics I was considering: genealogy, NO; my in-progress murder mysteries, NO; whining about my inability to finish any of my writing projects, NO. I wasn’t sure what was left to write about.) This followed my second shower of the day, a necessity after the excitement of finding two ticks crawling on my body, with no way to tell if there were any nestling in my hair.

Generally my husband handles all of the spiders and other unsavory creatures in the house. He was off grocery shopping. Lousy timing on his part.

My reaction to the discovery of the first nasty, vile, disgusting creature crawling on my upper arm was to flick it off with the tips of my fingers. He landed on our multi-colored granite counter and by the time I grabbed a paper towel and turned back to the counter, he was scampering away. I was faster and nabbed him with the paper towel (there is no way you can squish those buggers) then flushed him down the toilet.

I texted my daughter so that she would know that one of her ticks had traveled twenty-two miles home with me and she should check her children then settled on the couch to get caught up on the political news I missed today.

Just as I was about to take another bite of my peanut butter and jelly covered English muffin, I felt the telltale tickle on my leg of another tick. (Often those tickles are just phantom ticks–tricks of your mind.) I jumped up and flicked it onto the rug where it was extremely invisible. But I wasn’t. It found my bare foot. Flicked onto the rug again. Back onto my heel. (I may have screamed but since no one was here to hear it, we’ll never know for certain.) Flicked onto the hardwood floor where I could see it. I managed to capture him with a piece of notebook paper.

I flushed him as well. And watched him get sucked down the toilet into the pipes and out to the septic tank. That’s the plan, anyway. You can bet I won’t be using that toilet for a few days.

(Topics I wasn’t considering but wrote about anyway: ticks, YES!)

UPDATE: At exactly 4:52 a.m. I was startled awake by something crawling on my face. TICK!! I bolted out of bed, smashed at my face while frantically pounding the bed. I couldn’t see anything on the bed so I ran into the bathroom thinking it was still on my face. I flapped my bangs but didn’t see anything. I returned to bed and surprisingly fell back asleep. When I woke up a few hours later I found a dead spider on the bathroom sink. Not just dead but almost petrified.

Spider who Fell from the Skylight

Spider who Fell from the Skylight

Is it possible he fell from the skylight over my bed and landed on my face? If this were a novel I’d say of course it is, anything is possible.

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