Christmas break

Aside

I originally planned on keeping up the blog over Christmas week but now that it is upon us, I realize that I won’t be able to give re: read pages the attention it deserves and spend time celebrating the holidays.

So please come back on Monday, 30 December for re: read pages’ regular schedule and have a safe and happy holidays!

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Going forward

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This week, I reread the pages I have completed so far on my novel. There were good parts and bad. In some places I just wrote in what I needed to find, for example “job title,” or “Transition” when I wanted to get to the next scene. I can see what I’m trying to do and still like the idea but it is so rough. So, so rough.

My biggest desire is to go back and smooth it out, work out the kinks and fill in the blanks but I am going to ignore that impulse. It can be fixed later. Right now I need to get more words on the page.

So I have made two goals for myself. First, I want to reach the end of my novel. I figure it should be a little over 300 pages when I am finished. If I even wrote just a page a day, I could be done before the end of 2014. I know that a page a day is an impractical way of writing because I won’t get the chance to write every day, but a goal of seven pages per week (minimum) doesn’t seem that impossible.

Second, I noticed a dependence on dialogue. I use it too much and skip over showing the scene. I need to start filling in those blanks, show what the character is seeing and add some heft to the scenes. I think this will go a long way in adding not only length but quality to the pages.

When I think of the books I admire, there is not very much dialogue. Part of reading great books is the hope that their greatness will sink in and influence my own writing. I’m hoping that the idea behind “you are what you eat” converts to “you write what you read,” kind of like I’m consuming nutritious novels instead of sugary beach reads. I like sugar and there is noting wrong with eating a little, but I have to eat my Grapes of Wrath, too.

I must admit, it was a little discouraging to go back and look at my old work. I remember being excited when I wrote it and going back to it with a cold read exposed its flaws. I know that there will be a lot of revision and ultimately it will make the novel better, but right now it feels like a long way between the first word and last word. So I am trying to focus on a quote from Earl Nightingale:

Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.

Writing a book seems like a good way to pass the time.

Finding The Idea and running with it

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Before you begin to write, you have to have something about which to write. D’uh, right? Except finding The Idea isn’t that easy. At least not always. Or it begins as a good idea but then fades and ends up in a desk drawer or trash bin.

Having a good idea for a story, one that hasn’t been told before, seems impossible some days. Most days. I’ve found stories in family stories and rumours, news stories, snippets of overheard conversations (I used to collect them in a notebook; one of my favourites, still unused, is “And that’s why you should never steal a taxi cab.”), and, as is the case with the novel I’m currently writing, reading other books.

Most often, I’ll start scribbling a few lines to see where I think the story will go, make a rough outline maybe. I like knowing where I am going with a story. It gives me something to work towards, even if I do end up off course. Talking out loud, strangely enough, also helps; it is like I’m having a conversation with my characters to see what they want.

Okay, so let’s say you have an idea, a good idea with potential, now comes the writing. Sit down. Computer on. Let’s go. But then the excitement withers as the work builds up. And the blank white page is so much longer than you remember. Where has the spark gone? Where is the inspiration? Where is your muse? 

I’ve tried a lot of things to get my writing in gear: prompts, daily journals, literary magazine subscriptions, classes, coffee shops, walks. The more frustrated I feel, the farther away from my computer I seem to get.  For me, leaving my writing when I am at a good part has helped jumpstart my work the next day. It makes me excited to get back to it and, often, I’ve thought of the next words or next scene while I’ve stepped away. I make mini-bargains and mini-goals – write 500 words and you can have a coffee. Mostly it is just work. If I wait for inspiration that page will stay a cold white for a long time.

The work vs. inspiration problem is one of the reasons I started this blog. I’m hoping that reading great books will improve my own writing and provide some inspiration to keep going.

So, what about you? Where do you find your writing ideas and how do you keep your writing up? Let me know in the comments.

BJL

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

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I apologize for the delay in posting (a round of sickness swept my house and we were all down for number of days). Thank you for your patience. I hope you enjoy this response to a long-loved book of mine.

I don’t remember why I first read Fifth Business, it wasn’t for school, I just remember that reading it changed my life. When I first read Fifth Business, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I devoured this book and have many times since that first reading. Every time I read Fifth Business, I find something new to admire whether it be a turn of phrase or a foreshadowed event, but, ultimately, I enjoy being in the company of the main character.

Is it strange that I, a girl of 14 or 15 years of age when I first read this novel, identified with a male character in his seventies? That’s right, Fifth Business (1970) tells the life story of Dunstan (Dunstable) Ramsay, a retired schoolteacher with a scholarly interest in saints. Told in the form of a memoir written to the Headmaster of the school where Dunstan taught, the story begins with the event that would shape the rest of Dunstan’s life – the injury of Mary Dempster as a result of being hit in the head by a snowball. The snowball was meant for Dunstan and after being hit by it, Mrs. Dempster goes into labour, delivers a premature son, and turns “simple.” The guilt he feels compels a lifelong sense of responsibility for Mary Dempster, which is fed by his belief that she is a saint.  

I feel like my description is doing a disservice to this remarkable book. It doesn’t sound like a compelling read: schoolteacher, saints and guilt. But that, perhaps, is part of the point. Fifth Business, as described in the novel, is a player in an opera who is neither “Hero or Heroine, Confidante nor Villain” but is essential to making the plot come together. Dunstan writes the Headmaster after a disappointing sendoff for his retirement. He feels his life was poorly represented and sets out to show his place on the stage. The schoolteacher is revealed as magician, decorated war veteran, lover, traveller, author, and confidant. His life didn’t change, but the way his role was cast did.

Davies develops Dunstan’s character naturally, with the voice of the elder Dunstan often reflecting on the actions of his younger self. Dunstan’s choices are explained and his thought process left open, allowing the reader to see how his decisions impacted his life. A good example of showing Dunstan’s character comes after he has survived World War I and been awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions. He is called a hero but doesn’t wholly accept that role for himself:

…I knew that I was no more a hero than many other men I had fought with, and less than some who had been killed doing what I could not have done, I determined to let society regard me as it pleased; I would not trade on it, but I would not put it aside either.

He knows he is one of many men who fought and died and that it was circumstance rather than something unique within himself that made him a hero. Still, Dunstan knows his own value, knows himself and accepts himself.

The memoir defends his life’s significance, if only to one person, “…I address this memoir to you, Headmaster, hoping thereby that when I am dead at least one man will know the truth about me and do me justice.” Dunstan’s life was not in the spotlight. He was not a major world player, he did not shine brightly, but his role was still significant, still valuable. That is something a self-conscious, awkward teenaged girl needed to hear when I first read Fifth Business and a self-conscious, searching adult still needs to hear now and again.

So this post has turned out very differently from my first look at a novel (click here to read my discussion of The Coming of Winter), but I think that is okay. We all go to certain books to fill a particular need. Fifth Business is a core novel for me; it is a pleasure to read and an inspiration for my writing, and I get something more from it with each reading.

And the ending of Fifth Business never fails to put a smile on my face. It is an end that, to me, is not unlike the ending of the movie The Usual Suspects – a slight of hand that gives Dunstan a heart attack but gives the reader great pleasure.

All quoted passages are from Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1996.

Little delay

Aside

Hi, sorry there will be a slight delay in posting my discussion of Fifth Business. I hope to have it up later this evening, otherwise, I will do a double post on Wednesday.

Thanks for your patience,

BJL

Origins: my novel

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Hard truth: I started writing my novel in January, 2005.

2005! How did almost a decade pass without my completing it?

It began as a project with good (but high) expectations. I had enrolled in a college’s creative writing correspondence program – six months of writing with a mentor – in the hopes of producing a strong piece of work by the end. At the time, I had just finished an English degree, was working two jobs and planning my wedding.

My mentor was encouraging and supportive, but, in five months, I only produced an outline, started researching, and wrote maybe 20 pages of my novel.

I was overwhelmed by what I undertaken – a historical fiction set in 15th century Italy. I wanted to be accurate in my descriptions and authentic in my characterizations. I drowned a little in the research, hampered by, among other things, the need to track down translations of Latin and Italian texts and the discovery that the Borgias (the papal family that feature strongly) were a murky mix of legend and truth.

I was happy with the work I produced, though disappointed with the volume. I didn’t work right to the end of the program as my wedding took place a month before and I was also accepted to a Master of Arts program for English in a different city, so I wasn’t focused on my writing aspirations.

And that was pretty much the last time I spent quality time working on my novel. Sure, I’ve had spurts of writing, but they have been irregular and often combined with sweeping editorial changes as I reread my own pages and found them lacking. I always had an excuse for not spending time working on my book: finishing my degree, starting a career, having two kids, cleaning the fridge. Really, any excuse would do because I was terrified of being a writer (see my post would-be writer from Wednesday for a discussion on the fears of a writing life).

But then I turned 35 and started questioning how I wanted to spend the next 30 years of my life. And the one constant that remained was that I wanted to be a writer. Consequently, I am dusting off what I still consider to be a good idea for a novel and making time for it (and, ultimately, myself).

So, here is the idea: What happened to Rosaline?

Who is Rosaline? Rosaline is the young lady who didn’t fall for Romeo’s charms before he met Juliet. She is the one that got away. Not many people remember that Romeo first was tortured by love for Rosaline, but I always wondered about this girl who spurred Romeo’s advances in favour of  “Dian’s wit” – a reference to the virgin goddess Diana, meaning Rosaline had taken a vow of chastity. What did a life in the church mean for a woman at that time and why, next to religious belief, would someone choose that life? The idea spun out from there after I began my research, but, really, if you’re going to borrow from another writer, Shakespeare is a pretty good place to start.

Now that I’ve decided to go back to work on this novel, I need to make a plan and set some obtainable, but challenging, goals. I’m going to start by rereading what I’ve got so far (resisting the urge to edit too much) to remind myself of how much I have done and, hopefully, get more excited about the idea again. I am going to decide how much time to give to my novel each week. I do still have a day job, so I may not get to work on it every day. I think by making writing part of my schedule, just like going to work, making dinner and playing with my kids, I’ll get a lot farther than I realize. And, of course, I’ll share the process and the work here on re: read pages, so I hope you will check back often.

BJL

Would-be writer

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“It was like finding yourself in a great library as a young writer, and gazing around at the thousands of books in it, and wondering if you really have anything of value to add.”

“…to get up and read my own words – such an exposed position, such possibilities for making an idiot of yourself – this made me sick.”

– both quotes are from Margaret Atwoods’ Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002).

My greatest difficulty in trying to write is fighting the compulsion to delete everything I’ve just painstakingly composed the moment I reread it. For me, there is no point in writing anything with which I am not completely satisfied. The problem with that benchmark is that I never meet it. I am occasionally pleased or amused, but never fully satisfied. If I didn’t have deadlines, I would never finish anything.

But to be a writer, one must, you know, write something and then, terrifyingly, have someone else read it. If that doesn’t happen then you become a would-be writer: I would be a writer but…. You find a day job to pay the bills and quietly stop finding the time to write.

It is scary to write and to open up your writing for judgment by allowing it to be read. That fear has kept me from writing for a very long time. The list of reasons for not trying is long and shifts but generally comes down to three fears: 1) I am not smart enough to pull this off, 2) I have nothing new/interesting/important to say, 3) people will laugh at me. But then I think I’m being too hard on myself, people who would laugh at me are mean so forget them, and I’ve already failed if I give up before the end.

I set myself up for failure if I define success as a critically acclaimed, commercially successful novel that is immediately added to English course lists across the country. The pressure to write that kind of book ensures that every word I write will be not good enough. A more reasonable goal is to write a novel. Full stop. Because, I got to tell you, that isn’t a small task. But it is a great one. Imagine being able to say, “I finished my novel.” If I focus on how it will be received rather than the task of writing it, I will miss out on achieving a personal goal.

So I’m trying to get out of my own way by remembering to keep things simple. I try to remember why I want to be a writer. I’m sure this list would be different for every would-be writer, but here are five reasons I want to be a writer:

  •  books are the best
  •  create something from nothing
  •  explore interesting topics and ideas
  •  coffee shop office
  •  find myself in the library

Now I think writing is like running a marathon. If you come in first, somewhere in the middle, or last, you still just ran a marathon. And that is pretty awesome.