Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do

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Here we are heading in to late July and I haven’t posted in a long, long while. I’ve written things. I’ve been reading. But I couldn’t make myself click publish.

I couldn’t get excited about what I was writing. All I saw were the ways in which it wasn’t matching up to the expectations I have for myself and what I want to be.

Mostly I was feeling like a failure because recently I’ve had a string of professional rejections. A lot of no thank yous were filling up my email and filling up my mind.

I had a crisis of faith: faith in myself, faith in my writing, faith in my life. I had already been feeling the need for change. Things haven’t been fitting together as comfortably as usual. My kids are getting older. My interests are changing. My needs and ambitions are shifting.

And as I tried to discover new experiences and opportunities, I was getting shutdown. I began to feel stuck. Like who I am and what I am capable of isn’t good enough for where I want to go and what I would like to be doing.

I felt stupid. Incompetent. Useless.

And so I haven’t published anything. I’ve avoided looking at my blog and pretended that it didn’t matter to me. I binge watched tv and read too many Buzzfeed quizzes (I would be sorted into Ravenclaw and I should go to Paris on my next vacation; these are things I needed to know).

But then I got really busy with my day job. Like seven-days-a-week busy, with nights and evenings, too. And I thought being bad at something I enjoy is better than being good at something that just pays the bills. And am I really that bad or do I just need to make room for improvement?

So what does that mean for re: read pages?

That means that re: read pages is going to be a place where I work on my voice. I’m going to write more broadly or at least with fewer restrictions on what I may post and when. If I read something that makes me pause, I’m going to blog about it. If I have an idea for something other than my novel, I’m going to blog about it. And if that means I post things less than perfect, or scholarly, or deep, so be it.

I love reading and I love writing. And if the requirement for me getting more professional opportunities is spending more time reading and writing – that is nothing to complain about.

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Trust issues

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I’ve been working on a scene in my book that is a pivotal moment for my main character. I’m not actually that far along in the story yet, but I really wanted to write it so I skipped ahead. The difficulty in writing the scene was the need for Rosaline to decide if she trusts someone or not, and I needed to decide if her decision is the correct one. My choice and hers could bring the story in different directions and I had to weigh the pros and cons of each. An added concern was that the choices revolved around a real life event, so the characters’ actions had to make sense for the real outcome.

On June 14, 1497, after leaving a family dinner at his mother’s home, Juan Borgia was murdered and his body dumped in the Tiber in Rome. The Pope began an investigation, but abruptly called it off after only a few days. As a result, while the family had many enemies, a rumour implicating his brother Cesare began to circulate. Juan’s murder was never solved.

Borgia

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At this point in my story, Rosaline is close to the Borgia family, acting as Lucrezia’s confidante and friend and frequently sparing with Cesare, though they are also friends. It is a dangerous time and Rosaline needs to decide what path she wishes to follow.

While the process was difficult and I struggled to make a final choice for the plot, I really enjoyed writing it and, ultimately, I think I stayed true to Rosaline’s character and her development.

Now I have to go back and tie the sections of my story together. Knowing where the characters are going and what the fall out will be helps me weave details and clues in the previous pages. I have to admit, the hard work of putting together feels really satisfying.

BJL

Realistic to Reality

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I didn’t finish my novel in 2014. When I started my blog I really thought it would be a possibility. I would get my first draft done. When I look back at my posts over the year, I can see where my job, you know, interfered with my writing – there are several months when I have no posts and completed no writing of any kind. And then there are posts that are full of great plans that never got fulfilled. I admit I felt embarrassed and discouraged by my inability to reach my goals and my general lack of progress. Even at the beginning of this year, when I sat down and looked at my novel, I had to work hard to not just give up entirely – on the blog and on my novel.

But then I read a really good book called Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen. I wrote about it in a guest post on Girl of 1000 Wonders, check it out here, but as you can probably guess, it is about the Nurse from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The novel is a good example of historical adaptation: it uses the source material well, smoothly integrates historical details, and presents a good original story. And it made me rethink my own novel.

What I was left with at the end of Juliet’s Nurse was not only a satisfying reading experience but also a renewed sense of value to my own story. Rosaline’s story is worth telling.

So now I need to make a plan to which I can actually stick. Part of that will be admitting that, as my busy season at my work starts up in the next week, I won’t be doing much, if any, writing. And that’s okay. It’s not because I don’t believe in my story or want to get it done, but that I am just giving way to the reality of my situation.

Would I still like to finish my first draft this year? You bet. But I will just have to deal with the pace my life allows me. I have to take the time I am given and use it well. I have to turn off the distractions (cough, cough, Netflix, cough). I have to remember the hard work does pay off. I have to put words on the page and not try write the next great Canadian novel but write my novel.

Step one: break one bad writing habit.

I will write every day. It doesn’t even have to be on my novel, but I will sit down and write. Even if I can only find five minutes, it is better than nothing. Those minutes and words will add up to pages, chapters and, eventually, a book.

Today I wrote 206 words for my novel. Huzzah!

BJL

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

Tattoos by the book

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I have often thought of getting a tattoo but never have because I couldn’t find something that I thought I would love for always. But after seeing some of these literary tattoos featured on Buzzfeed, I think maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong place.

I still would be terrified of having a typo.

What words mean enough to you to permanently add them to your body?

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

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