Novel Progress

My novel, working title Suit of Coins, has been in progress since NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 2008. Yes, that’s ten years. However, a few things have happened since then. I had two babies, went up for tenure, and found myself snagged in a hopelessly complicated plot tangle that caused me to ignore the novel for an entire year. I got the plot untangled at the end of 2016, but 2017 was pretty eventful, with a ten-day trip with the kids to Disney World, looking for and buying a house (no easy feat in a HCL area like Flagstaff), moving out of the house we’ve been living in for twenty-one years, and planning a wedding. These are not the conditions for writing a book.

What about 2018? Well, except for recovering from 2017 and also trying to unsuccessfully jumpstart my pathetic academic career, I don’t really know what happened to 2018.

Let me tell you something about writing. It’s damn hard. There’s a good reason many writers are single white men. Or women with no children. Or alcoholics or drug addicts. Or insane. Just as an example, I sat down to write for thirty minutes last night and was interrupted no less than seven times. I managed two sentences before I gave up. To put my struggles into context, I know several famous novelists (including George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame), who are years and even decades overdue for their novels. George R.R. Martin’s last novel was published in 2011. These are writers who have no end of time and resources. They are rich, have no day job, and have the clout to lock themselves in a room and do nothing but write. And even THEY struggle.

Excuses, excuses.

HOLY HELL I am determined to write this story. The characters are very real to me and keep coming back around, determined to be heard. This may sound like crazy talk but it’s a normal thing for writers. Writing gets under your skin in a way that can make spinning out sentences and scenes intoxicating.

I am trying again. I realized that my plot problems required what they call a “clean sheet rewrite” which means starting over from scratch. That sounds extreme until you realize that the entire novel lives in my head. I just need to get it on paper.

2019 is the year. As Stephen King advises, the first novel is the novel that teaches you how to write. I’m just getting started, and that’s okay. That’s perfectly fine. What else am I going to do?

I plan to post regular word counts (Weekly at a minimum) and little W.I.P. (work in progress) snippets.

Progress report for January 1st, 2019: 

Suit of Coins: 18,272 words (my goal is 80,000) so I’m almost a quarter of the way through.

Excerpt:

When I was a little girl my mother used to read Shakespeare plays to me at bedtime. Without blinking an eye, she read about people stabbing and poisoning each other, about teenagers falling in love and killing themselves, about war, and bitterness, and revenge. Shakespeare used beautiful words to talk about terrible things. She said, “In literature, murder looks like art.” That always stuck with me, especially years later when my best friend in high school was murdered, and there was nothing beautiful or literary about it. Unlike Shakespeare, I couldn’t find the words to talk about it, not then, not now.

#amwriting: Process & Projects

My hopeful attempts at regular blog updates are always derailed by real life, this time I’ve been hopelessly sidetracked by summer (when teaching ends and I become a full-time mom for three months) and moving (twenty-one years of STUFF) to a new house. Now that we’re finally getting settled in and it’s almost time for everyone to go back to school (but it’s only July!), I’ve decided to start going forward with some writing projects.

There are three, to be precise, because three is the magic number, right? I’ve also heard from some time management experts that it’s good to have more than one project active (so that you can work on ones that require different levels of time and energy as needed), but that more than 3-5 projects at a time is a bad idea.

The projects:

An academic research paper, which I’m submitting for funding in a few weeks and then trying to turn into an article. This is simply to keep my career afloat, but I do like the process and I’m interested in what I’m writing about, so I can’t really complain. I’m so lucky in this day and age to like my job.

My novel. This hairball has been building for almost a decade and I’m ready to cough it up and spit it out. I’ll soon be looking for beta readers for this one, so keep your ears open if you’re interested.

Finally, I’m working a project called Timekeeper Stories, an interactive storytelling project/alternate reality game that I’ve been working on since last year (the idea came to me the day after the election-HA HA). For those of you not familiar with the genre, typically the PM (puppetmaster) stays hidden and anonymous, and the game is played is if it’s not really a game, but taking place in real life (“this is not a game”). However, this time around I’m experimenting with the genre a bit and trying some new and different things, so the frame story itself will be somewhat unconventional in that it will be autobiographical, and I will provide different different entry points to each story over time (trailheads), which will allow varied levels of participation and immersion. People will have the option to just read the story installments as they are posted, OR they can also interact with story characters and work to solve mysteries and puzzles which appear in the stories.

My motivation for this project is to include a broader audience for the stories (typically ARG audiences are a a very small, select group of people), and to play around with the potential for using this genre for educational purposes.

Why share and discuss these projects before they are completed? I recently read a book called Jay Lake’s Process of Writing, which is a distillation of his blog posts on writing. I found his blog and was sad to learn that he passed away from cancer a few years ago, but his blog is still there and I was captivated by how completely and honestly he shared his writing process: the ups and downs, the good with the bad.

There is little discussion of the writing process itself, and I think this kind of transparency not only helps writers, but students as well. There is certainly no transparency in academic writing, which is something I have struggled mightily to do and have failed at miserably, filling me with a sense of shame and isolation in my career. However, I’m determined to learn the craft and plan to share what I’ve learned here, in the hopes that it might help someone in the future.

Finally, I need the discipline of a daily writing practice, and I like the idea of creating a small amount of public accountability. Already I’ve had some feedback on social media which has greatly boosted my motivation and resulted in an extra long writing session this morning.

I’m off now, to write.

Early

Aria woke me as usual this morning at 5:30. She just wants to be covered up and then she goes back to sleep. Sometimes she waits until 6:00 or 6:30, but then she usually wants to get up for the day.

This morning I headed back to bed in the hopes of getting some more sleep, but when I got there I realized that I might as well stay up and do some writing. I really didn’t want to, but most of my favorite writers do all of their writing in the early morning. Because when you’re a mother and you work full time, is there any other way to get anything done?

I made coffee and managed to write 300 words, which is not a lot but more than I wrote yesterday. The rest of the day will be spent getting Oscar ready for school, going to work for a meeting about a course that I’m designing for the College of Education (my first stint as a curriculum consultant), and then working on getting my summer course ready, which begins in less than two weeks.

Most people think now that school is out I have nothing to do. HA!

Back to writing…

Dusting off the novel…

During NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November 2013 I wrote about 70,000 words of a novel that I’ve been kicking around in my head for over ten years. I was proud of myself for “winning” NaNoWriMo, but knew that what I had written was a huge, lumpy mess. Not only is the novel not finished (I’m guessing that because of the pace at which the story is unfolding that the novel will ultimately be 100,000-150,000 words), but I also wrote myself into a few corners. In keeping with the NaNoWriMo philosophy, I plowed through and got my word count. I put the novel away for a month and tried doing a bit of revising in January, but I was overwhelmed by the task that I put it away again. After a busy semester and several strange dreams involving my persistent characters, I pulled the thing out, braced myself with a cup of coffee, and decided to take a close look at what I was dealing with. Could this hulking mass be saved?

It turns out that it’s not as bad as I thought. As I read through the opening scenes I found myself getting caught up in the story. I realized that it’s time to get this thing done, once and for all.

The first thing I did was read through it completely and cut a bunch of utter crap. Repetition, out-of-order scenes that have no place, and some useless stream-of-consciousness stuff that is incomprehensible to me. After chopping away gleefully, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still have a solid 60,000 words to work with.

The next thing I did was print it out. 222 pages! Not only is this a LOT of writing for me, but oddly the number 22 has significance in my story. I don’t attach much significance to this, but it’s kind of a neat coincidence.

Stuffed all 222 pages in a binder and now I’ve begun the sometimes fun, sometimes painful task of re-reading it again. I’m taking notes as I read. Once I’m done I’ll read it again and make an outline, then I will rewrite the novel from scratch. This may seem extreme, but it’s actually a pretty common process among the writers I know and those who write about their process in articles, books, or blogs.

My goal is to have a complete and coherent first draft that I can send out to beta readers by August 25th, which is the first day of classes.

I plan to write about the whole process here, including logging my daily work and word count on the novel.

novel

Why I Write

I am writing. I have written. I will write. I will have written.

I write because it is, for me, the clearest distillation of the human experience. I write to tell the truth.

For me, writing is unlike anything else I do. When I move through the world I am a bit lost, a bit discombobulated, a bit out of my element. I am as parched and oxygen-starved as a fish far from the sea. I bungle, I bump, I crowd, I dodge, I cringe.

When I sit down to write, a space opens up. I slip into it. I glide. I breathe, expand, remember, and love.

Words are not chosen with care (that happens during the revision process), rules are not remembered, and the Editor is silent. Time and everything else falls away…

what to do what to eat what to say what to exercise what to clean what to dress what to change what to cook what to buy what to believe

Everything. Every thing. Falls. Away.

The experts call this “flow.” It’s what elite athletes and musicians achieve. It’s what leaves us breathless and spellbound. I don’t call this flow. I call this life.

I write to create artifacts. Each word, each sentence, each idea and phrase is an artifact. They are my sculptures. When you enter my writing you enter the museum of my mind.

When I was a child I stood looking at the mummified form of a kitten that an ancient Egyptian had taken with him to the grave. There was an x-ray of it next to the display. It was delicate, shadowy, beautiful. It took my breath away. I thought to myself, “Finally, this is something I understand.”

That is why I write.

The Worth of Words

I’ve always lived in the borderlands. No place to call home. I am not a mother. I am not an academic. I am not a woman. I am not rich or poor. I am not a teacher. I am not a writer. I am…me. How does that find expression? Who are my soul mates? Others like me, certainly. There are many. They identify themselves to me at school, at family gatherings. Pulling me aside, quietly, secretly: “I just wanted you to know that I really like what you wrote about blah blah blah…”

It’s like water in the desert.

That’s what pulls me back to this blog. That’s what compels me to to put my pen to paper. It’s why I write and why I read. Just this morning I read a line in a book that startled me with its truth. It’s very important to remind people that there are threads connecting some of us at the deepest levels. We may not be the best teachers, students, parents, daughters, or friends; but we are the best for each other. We are there for each other beyond time and space.

A writer’s words carve their way into my soul like nothing else.

I am cleaning vomit off of my son at 3:00 A.M.. I am nursing my daughter back to sleep at dawn. I am standing at the kitchen counter wiping up crumbs, the words I long to write spilling out of my fingers and eyes and ears, lost forever to the wind because I don’t have the time or energy to create books, or stories, or articles. But they are there with me, these other women. Across time and space. Anne Lindbergh, Anne Lamott, Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Barbara Kingsolver, Sylvia Plath, Anne Tyler, Sharon Olds, Faulkner Fox, etc. They whisper in my ear, “I know, I know.”

This is what I can give. I can tell other mothers, other writers, other women, that the journey is hard. It’s hard. But if I can give you words that you can weave into a blanket, or a life raft, or a balloon, than I have given you everything I can give.

 

 

 

 

The Life of a Writer

Fifty years ago today Sylvia Plath took her own life. I’ve been fascinated with Sylvia Plath since I was twenty years old and came across a copy of  The Bell Jar. Twenty is a really good age to read this book; at the time her voice spoke to me in a way that nobody else could.

I went on, over the next two decades, to read everything by and about Sylvia Plath. I read her poems in grad school, I studied her short stories and her novel when I was learning to write fiction, and I devoured her diaries, letters, and biographies at each stage of my life that mirrored hers: writing, going away to college, finding love, teaching, becoming a mother, and grappling with trying to create a life that is both fulfilling and artistic.

I am not interested in how Sylvia Plath died. I try not to think about it because it only depresses me. I don’t care about her death; I care about her life. She was a fully formed, fascinating woman who worked tirelessly every day to balance her life as a mother and a writer. She craved domesticity, baking and sewing and relishing motherhood at the same time she wrote some of her darkest and most brilliant poetry.

When she was a single mother caring for two children under the age of three she woke between 4:00 and 5:00 every morning to get some writing done. In one month she put together an entire manuscript of poetry, Ariel, the book that would be published to great acclaim after she died. In the middle of this productive month, she wrote to her mother, “I am a writer…I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”

One of the things I love about Sylvia Plath is that she considered motherhood to be just as important a vocation as writing, but she refused to give up either one. She wouldn’t give up motherhood to be a better writer and she wouldn’t give up writing to be a better mother. She felt that motherhood, despite its difficulties, made her a better writer. She also knew that without writing, she wouldn’t survive.

And despite her death, she did survive. She was alive on this earth for over thirty years, she was a mother, and she wrote books which are still in print. She loved cooking and eating and she loved the ocean and drawing pictures and painting and sewing dresses for her daughter. She took ten-mile hikes and long baths. She learned to ride a horse on her 30th birthday.  She became a bee-keeper and played the piano for her daughter.

There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illness and creativity, and about the death of Sylvia Plath. She was not a genius of a writer because she was mentally ill, she was a writer and a mother in spite of  her struggles with depression. She did not commit suicide because she was a writer, or because she was a mother, or because her husband left her. She took her life in the throes of a clinically diagnosed depressive episode, one in which she had experienced before several times in her life. In fact, her previous suicide attempts, and her hospitalization in a mental institute, occurred before she had children and before she met her husband.

I do not admire her writing and read about her life because I am morbid, or depressed, or suicidal. I read her words because they are some of the truest words I have ever read about life, parenting, and being an artist. Her words speak to the universal truth about what it means to live at the edge of art and life, what it means to be pulled in many directions, and what it means to turn all of it, the love and pain and laughter and sleep deprivation and hunger and fear and wisdom and the experience of the senses, into words. On the one hand, her words are like a stone statue or monument: timeless, beautiful, and a lasting legacy. On the other hand they are alive, breathing, and ephemeral, like the moments spent with a young child.

In one of my favorite poems, “Morning Song,” she writes:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and shallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.