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July 2016



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Jul. 26th, 2016


Mix 'n' match: from the closet to the keyboard

Usually, when I buy a piece of clothing, I have some idea of where I might wear it and what other clothes I'll combine it with. How wrong those ideas can be! A good deal of the time, when I get it home, I discover that the brown in the shirt doesn't really match the brown pants I was thinking of. Or the lack of pockets bothers me even more than I thought it might. Or it never is the perfect temperature for that shirt, or I never find the right occasion for that dress. I once had a skirt I loved but never found the right top to pair with it. Nothing matched it. So eventually I donated it, and I hope whoever got it found the perfect shirt for it.

Then there are the clothes I end up loving more than I thought I would. The pants that are so comfortable, the shirt that matches everything, the sweater that's just right for chilly days. I don't always recognize these "greatest hits" when I first meet them; they grow on me.

Today I wore a black T-shirt  that I originally bought to wear under a particular low-necked sweater. I found out that I don't like the way it looks under the sweater, but it pairs perfectly with a skirt I've been holding onto for years. The skirt originally came with a matching top, and I wore that outfit until the shirt began to fray. The skirt, with its shades of blue and purple and black, was so pretty that I couldn't bear to throw it away too, and after all it was still perfectly wearable. So it's been waiting in my closet--apparently waiting for this shirt to come along.

My writing is the same way. I have the stories that seemed like great ideas at first, but didn't really work. The stories I thought I'd try to write, but weren't really "me" after all. The ideas I pursued on a whim just to see where they went--and ended up loving. Like pairing that black shirt with that skirt, I have pulled characters out of failed stories and paired them with plots or settings from different failed stories, and realized they were made for each other.

Despite all the planning I do, surprises are still inevitable.

Jul. 24th, 2016


Inner compass

I've been lucky to have writer friends going through similar experiences at the same time I have. Seeking that first book publication ... launching a first novel ... juggling the writing of a second book with promoting the first ... We rode those roller coasters together. And many of us have also hit a point, a few books into our careers, where we ask ourselves what's still working for us and what isn't. Where we refocus on the writing, and reconnect with whatever spark led us to pick up a pen or tap a keyboard in the first place.

Most people don't start writing because of riches and fame, which are rare in this field and more easily had by pursuing a different career. We start writing because we have something to say. And sharing that writing can be wonderful; it is the natural next step. But along with that comes pressure and worry about what people will think--will they approve, will they condemn, will they ignore, will they pay? What will sell? What will please that one reviewer who pointed out that one flaw? What will please the reader who thought the ending was too sad? What will please the parent who thought the language was too rough? What will please that bookstore buyer who wants more zombies?

I'm not saying that thinking about the audience is wrong, or that we should never take feedback. I'm saying that when we find ourselves lost in projecting and predicting the reactions of others, when their voices (as we imagine them) drown out our inner voice, it might be time to reset the compass. And ask: Where was it I originally wanted to go? What do I need to say?

Jul. 20th, 2016



Just a few days after posting my own Tale of a Trunk Novel, I found this in a memoir I was reading:

"... I'm mulling over the story I spent years writing and failed to turn into anything ... Nothing is wasted when you are a writer. The stuff that doesn't work has to be written to make way for the stuff that might; often you need to take the long way round."
--What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas

So often, writers find this happening: our own thoughts or experiences there on a page written by another. As a reader, there's that joy of connection, that "Me, too!" moment, that feeling of being less alone. As a writer, there's that worry that no thought is really new or original.

But if all we do when we write is find new ways to say old truths, I'm okay with that. Because we each have to discover life for ourselves.

Jul. 16th, 2016



I've never yet been able to write a book without, at some point, creating a calendar showing on which date each scene takes place.

Otherwise, I lose track. What day of the week is it? How many weeks have passed since the opening scene? What season is it now? What holidays are coming up? Should the characters be wearing shorts or parkas by now?

To this end, I save the free calendars that come in my junk mail, and I use them to help with this aspect of plot and setting. Since I have never specified a particular year in which my books occur, I can pick any year. I'm not looking for my dates to match a specific year; I'm only looking for the relationship between scenes to make sense. A scene that happens seven days after a Sunday should also be on a Sunday; a scene that happens six months after midwinter should take place in midsummer, and so forth.

Jul. 11th, 2016


New territory

In my last entry, I mentioned some short pieces I've written in the past year. One of these has been published in The Head & The Hand Press's Bible Belt Almanac, an anthology of writers grappling with questions of faith and religion. And in my short memoir, "What I Learned in Sunday School," I definitely have more questions than answers.

Memoir is a genre into which I've been sticking my toe. I've been reading lots of them (whatever I write, I start as a reader first), and participating in Creative Nonfiction's #cnftweet Twitter challenge (tell a true story in the space of a tweet). I took a short workshop with Beth Kephart (who is now offering multi-day retreat workshops in writing memoir), and I've been exploring this territory more and more.

I haven't given up on novels, however. I've always liked variety: I've published short stories, short nonfiction, a nonfiction book, novels, and even a couple of poems. Writers tend to get known for one form or another, but many of us write various forms. There are so many options.

Jul. 9th, 2016


Tale of a trunk novel

Last year when I took a break from writing for a time, part of the reason was that I didn't know what to write about. I didn't have a story, an idea, an issue, that called to me the way my four published books (and a few unpublished ones) had. I wasn't burning to say anything in particular.

And so silence really was what I needed then.

Finally I wrote a book, the only book I could write then, the first thing I'd been driven to write in a while. I even had hope that others might want to read it eventually.

You've probably heard stories like this before: writer has slump, writer flounders, writer turns inward and writes from the heart, writer produces great story that brings acclaim.

This isn't one of those. Because the book I wrote then turned out not to be ready for prime time. After I considered the feedback, it didn't seem salvageable, and more than that, I was no longer interested in trying. The fever in which I wrote that book had broken.

Its destiny is to be a trunk novel, but that book did what it needed to do, which was to break the logjam. To get something out of my system. To help me on to the next story, and the next. Since then I have been writing more and more, both short- and long-form pieces.

Not a word was wasted.

Jul. 5th, 2016


Letting go

One of my themes over the past year or two has been letting go. Letting go of excess possessions, of one-sided relationships, of illusions of how life is "supposed" to go, of expectations about my writing career, of youth and the energy and quick physical healing that went with it, of books I don't want to finish after all, of papers that are not so important as they once seemed, of certain fears and worries, of beloved people lost too soon, of bucket-list items that have lost their appeal, of a heap of intimidated self-consciousness (good riddance!), and much more. Some of it drifted away with much regret; some of it I shed eagerly.

Writing is still here, though. I need breaks from it, and I took a long one last year, but in the long run it seems to circle back to me.

Jul. 1st, 2016


The highs and lows of a writing career

If you've ever believed that a writing career is a marathon, not a sprint, this conversation between Janet Lee Carey and Janni L. Simner will ring true. It reflects a reality I've experienced and seen other writers go through. A few sample quotes:

I thought I understood so much, but most of my advice came down to, “Just be like me.” That’s terrible advice.

At some point, it also hit me that there were no guarantees as a writer and that success wasn’t as simple as just being intense enough or doing any other one right thing.

We forget that everything cycles around, and that any book can be commercial one year and uncommercial the next—or vice versa.

The fear of not belonging as a writer is another really common thread I see among writers, especially new writers. I wonder if our initial intensity is in part an attempt to outrun that fear.

No one can make us stop writing … it’s always the writing this comes back to.

The whole thing is recommended reading. (And there's a book giveaway, too!)

Jun. 27th, 2016



I could use a few dreamy, idle moments--how about you?

Here's how I spend mine, as recorded in my monthly YAOTL post, this one my favorite things about summer.

Jun. 24th, 2016


Finding an ending

I've been working on a project whose ending has been elusive. I wrote toward a specific ending, but when I got there, it seemed a bit--off. Underwhelming. But I wasn't sure what else to do with it. I tried this and that. I went back and seeded certain things earlier in the story, to set up the ending better. I rewrote the ending scene. I made it longer. I made it shorter. It got better, but I was still plagued by nagging doubts.

I usually have trouble with endings, much more so than with beginnings. Here's how I have solved a few of them:

--Look back at the theme. What's this story really about? That gave me the ending of one of my short stories, "Feed the City."

--Go back to the beginning. Have I fully explored everything that was present in the opening scene? Where else can I take it? These questions led me to an entirely new climax and ending for Try Not to Breathe.

--Lop off material that seems to be starting a whole new story. Get into the character's head in order to give him emotional resolution. Go all out emotionally, and then dial it back just a touch. That's how I wrote the final scene of The Secret Year.

For my current project, I took an idea from a novel I just finished reading. That novel's author had written a climactic scene full of sparks and confessions and consequences, a real payoff for the tension that had built up over the course of the book. As I read it, it reminded me of the way movies often end; I could really visualize that scene happening in a movie. So I looked at my own story and asked whether it could end with a bang instead of a whimper. In my latest draft, the main character takes an important, but quiet, step. I started looking at what kind of step could have the same meaning, but be much more interesting and significant, involving more characters and a bigger emotional payoff. How could my own book have a movie-style ending? And I've come up with an idea. It may or may not lead to a better ending, but after several hours of thinking it over, I'm still enthusiastic.

Basically, I conclude that brainstorms come from anywhere and everywhere. That's one reason to develop a large writing toolbox; you never know which tool a project is going to need.

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