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August 2016



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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 I didn't have a story, an idea, an issue, that called to me the way my four published books (and a few unpublished ones) had.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.

Jun. 19th, 2016


A for Effort

"The effort of writing itself is nothing. It is that intense concentration, the imaginative heave before I can write a word that is exhausting."
--May Sarton, Recovering: A Journal

Writing is at its easiest when I can see the scene unrolling in my mind's eye. But getting that mental film loaded into the projector is the hard part.

Jun. 17th, 2016


Whatever works now

A writer friend and I were talking about process today: how much time to sit at the writing desk, and when, and how to fit in everything else, and how to end a writing session. I noted that my process has changed over the years: I do more writing in the morning now than at night, for example, and I write more regularly rather than in the occasional binge-like sessions of my college days.

Both of us realized that marriage had correlated with more productivity at the writing desk. We could think of a few possible reasons--more stability, happiness, less need to invest emotional energy searching for potential partners and navigating the uncertainty of the dating world--but of course there's no guarantee it works that way for everyone who marries. We just found it interesting.

One thing I have observed is that many writers' processes change over time. Life happens, medical conditions happen, our day-job and family circumstances change. Beyond that, we change as writers: we try new things, learn what works, explore new genres and formats. And then, technology changes, too. I used to write primarily in longhand; now I write primarily though not exclusively on the keyboard. Whatever works now is my motto.

Jun. 12th, 2016


The slowness of words, the illusion of immediacy

"When I write, I am trying through the movement of my fingers to reach my head. I'm trying to build a word ladder up to my brain. Eventually these words help me come to an idea, and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite what I'd already written (when I had no idea what I was writing about) until the path of thinking, in retrospect, feels immediate. What's on the page appears to have busted out of my head and traveled down my arms and through my fingers and my keyboard and coalesced on the screen. But it didn't happen like that; it never happens like that."
--Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock

This is one of the most apt descriptions I have found for how I myself write, and revise, and why I am often unable to write about events until long after they happen.

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