Structure vs. Chaos

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Lately, I’ve been feeling like one of those inflatable tube men that are put up in front of businesses that are having sales – flailing my arms, full of hot air, and not accomplishing much. Re read pages was supposed to help me focus on my writing by getting me to actually write, but I feel like it has become just another thing for which I’m not writing enough.

October is going to be different. And since I don’t just want to hope I’ll be different this month, I am making an October writing plan and giving my writing goals for re: read pages and my novel (a lot) more structure.

This is what I will have coming up this month:

Books to Read

Lives of Short Duration by David Adams Richards – Richards’ third novel, time to get back to reading my way through his works

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart – this will be the second time I’ve read this novel; Stewart died this past May at the age of 97

The White Deer by James Thurber – another reread, this is a novel I first read with my mother when I was little

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville – a debut novel and historical fiction, my two favourite things

On Writing Wednesdays

I will also restart my discussion of various aspects of writing. To help support my novel writing, I’ve decided to dedicate each month to an area I am interested in/struggling with in my novel. For October, the topic will be description, and I plan on talking about examples of great descriptions, cutting unnecessary fluff, using description to add foreshadowing, and getting the details correct, and offering a sample of what I feel is my best bit of description produced in October (yikes!). I’m flipping my Wednesday and Friday schedule for this week, just so I can introduce my plan, so Friday will be a post on description, but next week everything will be back to (the new) normal.

My Novel

The goal for the month is 14,000 words, dispensed in 500 words (minimum) per day segments. This is doable. I’ll update my progress every Friday, including the weekly word count (yikes 2.0!). I really need to get words on a page because, as Jodi Picoult has said, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

The hard part will be making it a habit to sit down at the same time each day (at the end of the day when the kids are in bed) and hammering out those words. Hopefully I will become a more efficient writer with each evening’s work.

So there is my October writing plan. I’m hoping making a game plan will keep me more accountable, but feel free to shout at me if I start missing deadlines or if you have some suggestions about how to keep on track I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

– BJL

This is how you do it

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I intended to do a close read of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for re: read pages but instead the novel became a pleasure read that I devoured in almost one sitting.

The Birth of Venus is a historical fiction set in Renaissance Florence, and it grabbed me from the first paragraph. I couldn’t help but put my pen and notepad down, squish down into my chair and turn page after page. The opening lines open the story wide and already showcase Dunant’s gift for seamlessly meshing research and writing:

No one had seen her naked until her death. It was a rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into drafting of this observance.

So much is said in just the first three sentences. We know that a nun has died. We know one of the rules under which she lived and the importance placed on hiding away the female form – the implication of the dangers of the flesh. And, because the rule is being pointed out, that the revealing of this nun’s flesh will yield more than just a naked body.

The opening paragraph goes on to outline the rules surrounding this observance. While Dunant’s understanding of the time and place in which the story takes place is evident, the information never feels like it is being dropped in, like a side note in the middle of lecture, but folds into the plot and drives the narrative.

I didn’t take any notes, as I usually do while reading for re: read pages. I was just enjoying myself too much to want to break away from the story, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.

The choices Dunant makes throughout the story just build strength on strength, with the historical setting supporting, influencing and revealing her characters. For example, the protagonist, Alessandra Cecchi, a teenager, is the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. The novel is set in Florence just as the Sumptuary Laws (rules limiting conspicuous consumption, such as fur lined gowns or jewel encrusted hair pins) were being blasted from the pulpit by Girolamo Savonarola, a real historical figure who enthralled the city and enraged the pope. So the very thing upon which her family has earned its fortune, the selling of luxury, is being questioned by the highest leader in the community.

As Florence is in upheaval around her, so is Alessandra’s life. She is interested in art and wishes to become an artist but also knows her duty to her family as a daughter of a marriageable age. Her response and her intelligence never take her out of her age or time, but still give her an autonomy that is uniquely hers, especially when compared to the life of her older sister.

The novel was a pleasure from start to finish, and I will definitely be rereading this novel. Dunant’s talent is admirable, and the final pages sums up how I feel about my writing in comparison to the greatness of her own.

Alessandra is reflecting on the art she has created through the years, including painting the chapel walls in the convent in which she resides, and concludes that it is “sadly mediocre” but does not feel the lesser for the results:

And if that sounds like a statement of failure from an old woman at the end of her life, then you must believe me when I tell you it is absolutely not.

Because if you were to put it [the chapel] with all the others…then you would see it for what it is: a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others.

And such is the sound that the chorus made together, that to have been a part of it at all was enough for me.

Deadline extensions are the best

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Last month I discovered that a publishing house was accepting unagented submissions in June and tasked myself with preparing my first 50 pages for consideration. I worked on getting that ready (more on that process in a moment) but, of course, I wasn’t content with what I accomplished as the deadline loomed. But I promised myself that I wouldn’t chicken out and I would send in my work for review.

So you can imagine my relief when I learned that the deadline for submission is actually the end of June not the beginning. Yay! Additional days to smooth the scene transitions and rewrite clunky dialogue.

I’ve been reading more historical fiction with the idea that reading great examples of the genre in which I am writing will force me to up my game. And it is, but it is also showing me how much work I have yet to do.

My biggest fears in writing historical fiction are that I will be historically inaccurate or shallow and that the writing will be immature. I am 35 years old and, while there is great writing for every age group, my aim is to write a book for adults, not YA, not New Adult, but for actual, can’t-deny-it adults. To me that means the story is more than just the experience of the characters, it is the experience of that time and place and expresses an idea larger than the situation, which is no small feat to accomplish. Most of the time I’m not even sure that I’m up for it.

But I won’t know until I get the bloody thing done.

So with that in mind, I printed out the first 50 pages of my book and read them straight through with a pink pen in hand (much more friendly looking than red). By the end of my read, I had removed four pages of text, the equivalent of around 1,300 words.

And it felt good. Really good.

I learned a lot about my writing in this editing pass, but here are the five key things I took away from experience:

  1. I go too fast. It was like my story was on fast forward. I couldn’t wait to get to the next scene, the next plot twist, the next conversation. I need to give my characters time to take things in and build up the world they live in.
  2. My characters touch each other way. too. much. And not even in a sexual way but just like they have no personal space. I mean, I’m a hugger, but even I was thinking, “back up a little.”
  3. Pick a genre. Ugh, sometimes my writing has too much feels. #melodramaticmuch?
  4. I have more research to do. I read Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus and in the first three pages she presented a master class in historical fiction that really made me see how details can be implemented to help the plot along while grounding the book in its time period. Meanwhile, in my editing pass I actually wrote “kind of bullshit” beside a passage I crossed out
  5. I like my main character, Rosaline. I want to know what happens to her and I hope readers will too.

After I finished my slash and delete editing pass, I headed to the library to pick up a massive stack of books to help build up the work I have already done. The weeks remaining in June will be busy ones but I am glad to have them. There is so much more to come and that is exciting.

BJL

The first cut

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I’m editing my first 50 pages and needed a little perspective:

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

“If a word in the dictionary were misspelled, how would we know?”  Steve Wright

Ah, better. Now back to editing.

 

For more quotations on editing, check out the blog Terribly Write.

84 days

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The last time I posted on this blog was in January. 84 days ago. It feels like forever but, despite my best intentions, I never had the time to put up a proper blog post. Instead, you would have been treated to the incoherent ramblings of a sleep-deprived proofreader whose work was tied to the corporate tax season. The timeframe is, mercifully, defined by law, but the hours are coo coo bananas.

Over those 84 days, I maintained my sanity by reading on the subway. I managed to read three books in 45-minute increments: Lucrezia Borgia by John Faunce, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (I actually read non-fiction!), and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (third time is a charm). Plus, on my first real night off, I binge read Listen to the Squawking Chicken by Elaine Lui (a memoir, sort of, and great read to celebrate the return of free time). I’ll be posting my thoughts on the two novels over the next couple of Mondays.

My own writing was completely dropped. Terrible, I know. I did try to write while on my way to work, but more often than I should perhaps admit, my thinking between sentences turned into napping for the rest of my commute. But now that my work has slowed and I have more hours to myself, I am ready to rededicate myself to my novel, this blog, and reading.

To help get back into the habit, I am making myself a new goal: 84 days of writing. Every day from today until July 16, which, coincidently, is my wedding anniversary, I will write for at least 45 minutes. I will treat this time like the time spent on my commute – completely unavoidable – and, hopefully, at the end of it, I will feel more invigorated and inspired than I did at the end of tax season. Seems doable!

And just as a little motivational reminder, check out this post from the blog 101 Books on 7 myths about being a writer.

BJL

J.K. Rowling is awesome

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It is time for me to come clean. I love the Harry Potter series. Love the books, love the movies. For me, the fact that J.K. Rowling is awesome is not to be disputed. I know there are flaws and I know you probably will want to argue with me, but you will never change my mind.

The little things Rowling puts in the text are just the best, which makes the Harry Potter series worth more than one reread. Here is a good example that just came to my attention thanks to @ArryPottah on Twitter:

The first time Snape speaks to Harry, he says, “Potter! What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”.

During the Victorian era, each flower type had a specific meaning when a flower was given. Asphodel is a member of the lily family and to give some an asphodel meant “My regrets will follow you to the grave”. Wormwood meant “absence; bitter sorrow”. Thus, Rowling was actually having Snape say to Harry “I bitterly regret Lily’s death.”

While the meaning of asphodel, I believe, is a little stretched to fit the situation (as far as I know asphodel simply symbolizes regret), the statement does still have a deeper meaning to the character. It seems so simple but I think details like that add so much to a story.

 

This one is for you

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I was warned by a lot of well-meaning people to do things (travel, watch movies, sleep) before I had kids because after they were born I wouldn’t be able to do them anymore. So the idea of being a writer would have to be abandoned in order to provide for my family in a more realistic way.

Well, now I have two kids, but instead of feeling like I have to give up my goal of being a published author, I think I’ve gained two more reasons to keep trying. How can I tell my kids to pursue their dreams if I give up on my own?

Which is an overly serious way of bringing up the topic of dedications. Many dedications are to family members or close friends (I know I’ll mention mine when I get the chance), but some authors are a little more creative.

I recently found this dedication from Rick Riordan’s House of Hades, which was published in October, 2013, while clicking around BuzzFeed.

To my wonderful readers:
Sorry about that last cliff-hanger.
Well, no, not really. HAHAHAHA.
But seriously, I love you guys.

How awesome is that?

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

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.