Category Archives: writing
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.
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
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
I was thinking the other day about the dying institution of marriage. The mystery I’m writing involves an inheritance which, in turn, hangs on the outdated concept of legitimacy.
Mind you, I’m all for dropping any stigma (if any remains) on being born “out of wedlock.” But honestly, older people, if you had been asked in your youth what major changes might occur in your lifetime, would you have predicted indifference to the presence or absence of marriage vows? Of substituting “if it works out” for “till death do us part”?
Anyway, I sat down and tried to come up with other dying institutions that I had thought would live forever. Lo and behold, nearly every one that occurred to me involved reading and writing — one of the core complexes of life for likely readers of this blog.
I had occasion to write something down for one of my grandsons not long ago. He frowned at the note – I thought my handwriting was the problem. I got no farther than, “Oh, sorry, that word’s….,” when he rushed to reassure me. “Oh, it’s okay, Grandma. I can read cursive script.” He can’t write it, though. The schools now teach printing, not writing, because who writes anything longer than a grocery list anymore?
Letters (in the sense of correspondence) no longer exist. Their factual content is now transmitted through email. Their creative, imaginative, playful and literary qualities are just gone. (Worse: their playful qualities are have shrunk and hardened into emoticons created by some wretch chained in an office cubicle.) Email is to letter-writing as tweeting is to thinking.
Now that apps have homogenized all forms of information transfer, “writing down” is no longer a distinct activity with defined functions in society. Do our grandchildren get the point of “The Typewriter,” the famous piece of music that duplicates the rhythm of typewriter keys, the ding of the bell at the end of the carriage and the slam of the carriage return? This tune, without comment, once conveyed “composition” or “news reporting.” (Click the link to hear the Vienna Philharmonic play it, with percussionist Martin Breinschmid on the typewriter.)
Editors are as the dodo. I am still unpublished, but I hear by the grapevine that publishers no longer employ such people. Or if they do, the evidence has vanished from much of what is published. My blogging colleague Eleanor Ingbretson recently read a mystery involving that nasty marine animal, the leech. It was spelled “leach” throughout. WTH. You know what I meant. (That link will take you to the blog of the same name, where you will find fellow mourners of the craft of words.)
(Subcategory of the above: use of the subjunctive. And don’t get me started on “may” and “might.”)
Paper is gone, too, or at least unnecessary. I think text is made of electrons now, but I really haven’t the faintest idea. Vandals burned the monastery libraries of Europe; hackers may yet wipe out War and Peace.
We have lived in the age of the Antonines, and Commodus is upon us. (Don’t bother me with questions when I’m being crotchety. Google it.)
Spoiler alert…I’m indulging in some writer whining. Again.
Tonight, a remake of a movie that holds a special place in my heart, “Dirty Dancing,” airs on ABC. Among many other negative reviews, TV Guide had this to say: “In an era where actual dirty dancing…has gone so mainstream that Katie Couric knows how to do it, this adaptation does not tango with the present…”
And yet, knowing that it will be a huge disappointment, I will watch it.
I’ve registered for the 2017 New England Crime Bake. Without allowing myself to consider what it would entail, I paid the extra $49 for the Agent and Editor Program, which includes critiques of a pitch and a query as well as the opportunity to pitch to an agent.
Initially I thought that I should pitch my current project, Gabby, at the conference. She’s nowhere near ready but if I focus on her I might be able to whip her into shape by November. What does pitching Gabby do to my plans for a trilogy that takes place in Woodbury, NH?
If I am committed to creating a trilogy, I am pretty certain it doesn’t make sense to pitch the novel that is chronologically the last one (Gabby). I am also pretty certain that it would be incredible if at the Crime Bake I could pitch a cohesive trilogy.
The truth is that in addition to Gabby, my other rough drafts are not ready to be pitched. Anne, Olivia, and Claire. Yes, that is four novels not three but Anne is begging to be joined with her daughter Olivia, and if I acquiesce, I will have a trilogy. But Anne has no murder. Or murderer. My list of characters reveals that I can change a death to a murder and provides a potential murderer. That was easier than I expected. Now for some suspects…
However, that is not the biggest issue with Anne and Olivia. It’s somewhat like Katie Couric and dirty dancing. The premise works for 1993, when it is set, but not so much in 2017. Will it be relevant to readers?
Claire is next. She has some flexibility as to when she takes place but as a senior citizen she is aging the longer she waits. Luckily, she is endowed with a murder, murderer and some suspects. And a man in the attic is timeless.
So now I’ve created a three-headed monster: Anne/Olivia, Claire, Gabby. Do I put Gabby aside and return to Anne/Olivia because she started all of this? Is what I’ve invested hours of time and brain cells into worth resuscitating? Or am I trying to breathe life into a bunch of Word files that I would be better off jettisoning into the Trash folder?
Funny how I can hear a little voice in my head, let’s call him John, giving me some advice—most likely because I have posed this same question to my writing group numerous times. Don’t worry about a trilogy, just focus on getting one novel in good shape so you can pitch it in November. Burn those early writings. They were just practice. And that’s just some of what I assume his advice would be.
But I love my ladies.
My road down the path to becoming a genealogy junkie started innocently enough, as I imagine it does for many addicts. (See my blog post of September 13, 2016, A Pilgrim in the Family.) My husband’s family is my drug of choice.
When my research revealed that Bailey Clough, my husband’s fourth great-grandfather, of Lyman, NH, fathered Helen Luella Clough at the age of sixty-nine, I knew I had some digging to do. I located Historical Sketches of Lyman New Hampshire, written by E. B. Hoskins and published by Charles P. Hibbard in Lisbon, NH, in 1903.
If these sketches are brief and contain little of deep interest, it is because Lyman is a small farming town, and its history has been quiet and peaceful, with no events of a remarkable character.
I smiled when I read this. It is how I envision Woodbury, NH, home to Gabby, Anne, Olivia, Em, Lexi Rae, Claire, Louise. Nothing has happened here of a remarkable nature. Until now.
Finally, on page sixty, I found the Clough family: William Clough served in the French and Indian war three years, was captured by the foe and carried to France, where he was kept a year or more. He entered the Revolution without enlistment, and was at the battle of Bunker Hill. His children were, namely: Zacheus, Enoch, Bailey, Cyrus, Abner, Jeremiah, Elizabeth, and Dorcas.
Turn the page and there’s virile Bailey: Bailey Clough, son of William, married Susannah Smith, sister of Reuben Smith, Nov. 28, 1799. Their children were, namely: James, born in 1801; David, born in 1803; Darius, born in 1809; Benoni, born in 1812; Chester Hutchins, born in 1822; Susan; and Bailey.
Aha. Bailey had a son with the same name. And Helen isn’t listed among the offspring of Bailey Senior. The son must be the father. If the children are listed in order of birth date, which the author generally did, then Bailey would have been born after 1822. As Helen was born in 1838 or 1839 or even 1841 (I think she lied about her age so that she wouldn’t appear to be ten years older than her second husband), it’s hard to believe that her father was the younger Bailey.
I scanned all of the biographies in the history hoping to find something to link Bailey Clough, senior or junior, and the daughter, Helen, and the wife, Lydia. Nothing there, nothing in Ancestry.com, nothing in Find A Grave, nothing in Wikitree. I can’t believe I’ve reached a dead end in the nineteenth century.
I’m mentally exhausted. And ready for a trip to another cemetery!!
PS After writing this post I was itching to resolve the Bailey Senior/Junior mystery. I returned to Ancestry.com and looked at some other family histories (the least reliable source of information) that I had ignored earlier. Some more research and I am closer to saying that Junior was married to Lydia Stevens and was the father of not just Helen Luella but also Martha Ella. (And I get complaints about the names of my characters!) Bailey Junior was born in 1817, making him old enough to be Helen’s father. He died around the time that Martha was born so it is conceivable that Helen went to live with relatives, as the 1850 census shows her living with an eighty-year old Bailey Clough and possibly her aunt and uncle.
Mystery almost solved…now to get to work on my own mystery.
I went down to D.C. two days early for this year’s Malice Domestic conference, because my husband had an event to attend beforehand. I was at loose ends while he expounded energy policy, so I wandered into the annual Smithsonian Craft Show. It’s a juried show that draws applicants from all over the country. More than 1,000 artists competed for 120 spots. Thirty-four states were represented.
You know how you can get really depressed when you read a good mystery, because you can’t imagine how you’ll ever write one that good? Well, here’s news: other crafts than writing can have the same effect. The sheer perfection of these objects left me wincing at my own feeble efforts to make a work of art out of words.
But I’m a brave little soldier. I walked around, took pictures, talked to artists and tried to learn. I’d planned to write you a profound meditation on creativity and craftsmanship. But what do I know? Below are eight of my favorite exhibits, followed by what the makers themselves have to say about the process of bringing them into being. Change a few terms here and there, and they’d apply just as well to the writing trade.
My work began as a quest for iridescence…. I studied and apprenticed with a master potter for six years. At first, my studies focused on form. I made thousands of sake cups, then thousands of tea cups, then, eventually, vases and other forms, until my hands and body could create without the intervention of my conscious mind. I performed thousands of experiments….
I was drawn to working with silk and dyes because of the vibrant colors of the dyes and the wonderful texture of the silk. Since I am self-taught in this medium, I had no idea of traditional silk painting and developed my own way of applying and managing the unmanageable dyes. I did, however, have a sense of the imagery that I wanted, and was able, after many trials and much patience, to adapt a process that achieves my goals.
It was not until I started planting my own gardens about ten years ago that my imagery changed from abstract to realistic in the form of botanicals. I was so excited every time something emerged or bloomed that I felt compelled to capture this beautiful and amazing natural structure.
Tom and Kathy Wegman’s beaded art lives when they began collecting Native American beaded objects. After a while, they began making their own art, inspired by the beads themselves — bright, shiny things with the power to transform a mundane object into a thing of wonder.
Using over 450 different colors of seed beads to transform everyday objects into works of art. They glue individual strings of beads to other people’s discarded objects — roller skates from the Salvation Army, a lunchbox from the local secondhand store. Their general policy is “the brighter, the better.”
I take my cues from everyday objects, nature, the world around me, something as basic as a leaf – simplicity and elegance on the surface, but with an amazing underlying complexity.
The reclaimed lumber he predominantly sculpts in provides a sense of history much greater than anything he could hope to achieve through artificial means. Elements of the wood’s own history, such as, nail holes, checking, and insect burrowing go into forming what he creates.
Retablos are sophisticated folk art in the form of portable boxes filled with brightly colored figurines arranged into intricate narrative scenes. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Retablos were carried through the mountains by Spanish priests as portable religious shrines for Catholic saints. Later, they were adapted by indigenous people to include their own deities and mythologies.
These pieces arose from a desire to create something interesting with clear glass. I enjoy working in this style because of the balance between control and serendipity each represents. Maintaining the shape of each vessel while allowing the glass canes to create a chaotic and beautiful fused nest within the piece is an exciting balance to execute. As a result, no two are alike.
I lost my note of the artist’s name and contact information for this one. I’m still searching. For now, I’ll leave the nature of its inspiration to the reader as an exercise. Anybody care to ghost-write the artistic statement of this dragon’s maker?