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October 2016



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Aug. 30th, 2016


The receding finish line

As I work through the items on a revision checklist, I discover new things to fix, new items to add to the bottom of the list. It's the old game that manuscripts love to play when the finish line of a draft is in sight.

Maybe the manuscript knows that if it showed all its flaws at once, the writer would run screaming in horror. So it reveals them slowly, tantalizing the writer with the idea that someday this draft will be complete.

Aug. 26th, 2016



Before a writing session, I like to read a little, but not a novel with a strong voice or complicated plot that might distract me when I'm getting ready to focus on my own plots, my own voice. The journals of May Sarton work well for this. The entries are short, there isn't a traditional "plot" to keep track of, and she usually says something about writing.

This morning, I happened to be reading an entry for an August 26, which is also today's date. The entry opened this way:

"Doris Grumbach is here for two nights and a day and it is good to know someone is working downstairs, a fellow writer. It is rarely that a writer comes to stay, and it makes me see once more that no one who is not engaged in this particular struggle, to bring a vision of life out into words, can really understand what it is all about and the hazards that assail the writer every day ... It is wonderful to be able to talk freely without being thought absurd, self-pitying, or narcissistic about these silent battles."--from Recovering: A Journal

It was remarkable to read that entry with today's date, because today I hosted a fellow writer for a mini-retreat at my house. She worked downstairs while I worked upstairs, and at lunchtime we "talked freely" about our "silent battles!" It really is encouraging to have another writer in the house, as if the progress of each of us feeds into the progress of the other. Also by committing to this, we each formally set aside writing time that would not be disturbed by the distractions, household chores, etc., of a typical day.

I made substantial progress on my manuscript, and she processed a detailed critique in order to plan a revision. Altogether, a most satisfying day.

Aug. 22nd, 2016


What's in a name? More than I'd like

One great thing about writing nonfiction is that the people and places come already named. Naming fictional characters and places severely taxes me. The problem isn't just finding a suitable name, but finding a suitable name that also meets these criteria:
1) I didn't already use that name in a previous book
2) It's not the name of any family member, friend, or colleague
3) It's not the name of a celebrity, noted historical figure, notorious criminal, unsavory person, etc.
4) It's not too similar to any of the names of the other characters in the same book
5) It's not an unusual name that was just used recently in a more famous book, or has been used in a lot of recent YA already
6) It's not the name of a fictional place that's already part of some other well-known world like Pokemon, Disney, Game of Thrones, Narnia, etc., etc. (I may yet fail on this one; it seems like EVERY place name I can invent has already been used by someone. Or else it is the name of a new pharmaceutical.)

Just wait until I get around to choosing a title. That is when I really get dramatic!

Aug. 17th, 2016


The challenging read

Once again, I'm reading a book that I'm not sure I'm into. I was really looking forward to this book, mostly because of the setting--it's in a time and place that I find very interesting but is a bit unusual for historical fiction. Also, the main character is very different from me, and I was looking forward to a different viewpoint.

None of that is the problem. The problem is the plot. As in, there isn't much of one. I reached page 50 wondering why I wasn't more enthusiastic about this story, and then I realized: What story? Nothing's happening. We had descriptions of the main character and descriptions of where he lives and where he works and where he hangs out when he is not working, and there were descriptions of his relatives and his boss and his acquaintances, but by page 50 none of these characters had done much of anything to warrant all this ink.

I have been more willing lately to abandon books unfinished if they're not holding my interest, but I decided to give this one a bit more of a chance for the sake of the setting. Also, it's very well written on the sentence-by-sentence level, so I know this writer has some chops, and I'm hoping that persistence will pay off in the end. There are times I will stick with a difficult book to challenge myself, and I'm willing to challenge myself a little longer here.

Fortunately, things picked up a bit between pages 50 and 60, so we'll see how it goes from here. I'm not yet committed to finishing, but I'll see how the next 20-30 pages go. Also I am using this experience to remind myself that as a writer, I must never let a story go on anywhere near this long without some change, some progress in the conflict.
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Aug. 14th, 2016



I've been recovering from a medical procedure and so have been a bit scarce around here. I popped into social media for short periods of time, but mostly I have been just enduring, distracting myself with radio stories (This American Life archives, I'm looking gratefully at you) and Olympics coverage (even when I could only listen to it rather than watch it, it was a welcome mind-occupier). It's only within the last day or two that I feel like I'm finally getting my life back.

I've thought a lot about pain this week, too, about how we can prepare ourselves for a certain amount of it, but once its reality exceeds our expectations in either intensity or duration, our inner resources are sorely taxed. Sometimes we equate the ability to cope with pain with morality, and I do admire those who can endure without complaint, but I don't know that that's really a moral issue. There are times when all we can do is make it to the next moment. As writers, these are the lengths to which we push our characters, and I think the central question for me as a reader is: How do characters cope with pain?

Aug. 4th, 2016


The best intentions

A couple of sentences from the book I'm reading, Split by Suzanne Finnamore, jumped out at me. (In the book, they appear a few pages apart):

"I intend truth, but some of what I believe to be true is doubtless untrue."


"'Everything is going according to plan,' Christian says. 'Just not the plan you made.'"

They could apply to writing. Or life in general. We are always aiming at truth, but we're never sure what we might have wrong. We must be confident, even while we know we're not perfect. We weave coherent narratives, knowing that any thread could loosen and start the unraveling if our understanding changes.

We plan even though we know our span of control is limited, and things will happen that we can't predict.

Jul. 31st, 2016


Pen and paper

Over the years, I've gone from longhand drafting and editing on paper to drafting and revising on screen. Cutting and pasting is certainly easier on a computer, although it took me some adjustment to go from physically marking up a manuscript to editing wholly with a mouse and keyboard.

But the other day, I was working on chapter breaks and calendar dates in a manuscript--trying to pin down when every scene must take place, and identifying the arc and natural stopping point for each chapter--and it drove me batty, trying to do this on screen. Finally I printed out the whole manuscript, so that I could feel the heft of a chapter, flip back and forth easily, spread many pages out at once, mark and cross out things, more easily than I could on the computer. It worked so much better for me, for this particular manuscript.

Sometimes the tool we pull out of our writing toolboxes is the old-fashioned one, the one we haven't picked up in a while.

Jul. 29th, 2016


Summer afternoons

A couple of years ago, I started a summer-afternoon tradition: reading on the porch for an hour.

I'm technically too busy for this. I never run out of things to do, and if I didn't make time for this by putting off something else, it wouldn't happen.

But I decided I was tired of watching golden afternoons pass unsavored, tired of seeing my front and back porches go unused, tired of never stopping to enjoy the beautiful place where I live.

So I began setting aside this hour on weekend afternoons whenever it's warm enough to be outside. And it's been wonderful.

Time slows. I sit and read. I look up from my book to enjoy the sight of leaves waving in the breeze. I hear the wind chimes, the birds, the cicadas, the squirrel that scolds my cat. I sip some cool water. I catch the scent of pine needles or lilacs or holly flowers, depending on the month.

It's the simplest of simple pleasures. It costs nothing. It's one of my favorite parts of the weekend.

Happy reading.

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?

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