Oh, Write

Writerballs

For the past couple of months, I’ve been writing around the edges of everything else.

I get up early and write—after I take care of our elderly cat’s needs and until I have to wake the kids.

I write on breaks at work—after I run errands or answer e-mails.

I write in the evenings—after the kids go to bed sleep and until bedtime/husband-attention-time.

On the alternate weekends I don’t work at the library, there are swim lessons or church or other family stuff, so I write when everyone else is occupied with their own interests.

On my every-other Friday off, I run errands in the morning, and write after lunch until the kids get home—or fall asleep where I stand, because jeez.

This hasn’t been a bad way to write—there are no bad ways to write, if writing is being done—and for a long time, it’s been the only way I could have a family and still write.

Because I need both.

But it recently dawned on me that in my efforts to make sure my writing time doesn’t inconvenience the family, I’ve given them the impression that it isn’t important to me, either.

Which meant that it could be interrupted, dismissed, and ignored.

It was becoming harder to submerge myself into a scene, when I knew that I’d be yanked out again at any given moment.  And it was easier to give in, most of the time, because I don’t really have any deadlines I don’t set myself, anyway, and the kids are still young and this will only take a few minutes and it’s easier to stop than explain (again) why I need to get these words down right now . . .

But then I read Averil Dean’s post, “work |wərk|“,  which asks the question, “How do people take it when you refer to your writing as work?”

This question struck me right between the eyes.

Because I haven’t.  Not for a while.

When had I stopped treating the act of writing as my internship/second job/thing-I-would-rather- be-doing-than-anything and started treating it like a poor excuse for not doing what other people expect me to do?

Writeus Interruptus is a chronic condition for most writers, but when had I stopped treatment?

I mean, did I still want to do this writing thing?  Did I still want my stories to be read?  Did I still want to take the time and effort necessary to convince someone to pay me to do this, someday?

Okay then.

In order to be taken seriously as a writer, in order to have my family treat my writing as an important activity, I needed to show, not tell.

So I decided to make a deal with my husband.

In Summer, he likes to play sandlot baseball on the weekends—he rarely misses. The league offers games Saturday and Sunday, and he’s usually gone for three hours.

On the Saturdays I work, he plays Sunday. On my Saturdays off, I’ve been watching the kids, so he can play in the afternoons.

I braced myself—for what, I don’t know, exactly, but brace I did—and told him that I needed more time to write. And I asked him to play baseball on Sundays all season, so I could take three hours on my Saturdays off to go to the library, while he took care of the kids.

If he absolutely had to play on Saturday, I’d be glad to move my three hours to earlier or later in the day, or take them on Sunday instead—if the library wasn’t open, I could hide in Panera or Starbucks or somewhere.

He agreed.

I was surprised, which tells you more about my mindset than his.

I was also elated. I’d figured out what I needed and made it happen.  Sure, it’s a very small step, but it’s in the direction I want to go.

So, after lunch this past Saturday, I ran away from home with my laptop and headphones and notebook. Jane wanted to go with me, but before I could figure out how to tell her that I wanted to spend some time in her favorite place in the world by myself, my husband explained that I needed some time to work on my book without any interruptions.

“Oh,” she said. “Okay. Have fun, Mom!”

The first hour was hard—I kept expecting to be interrupted and ended up interrupting myself. But it smoothed out eventually, and I fell into the Zone for an hour or so until the alarm buzzed on my phone.

It was a very good write.

When I arrived home, my MIL told me that everyone else was biking the river trail.

So I stretched out on the bed and closed my eyes and thought about plot points and poisonous plants—until Sunny landed on my stomach.

Anyone else notice that the pain of Naptus Interruptus is directly proportional to the size of one’s kids?

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Getting My Acts Together (Maybe)

Story Quest

I’ll confess, I don’t think much about story structure while I’m writing a first draft of something.

I usually know where I want the story to end and can generally figure out where the beginning is within a few chapters, but I’m usually fine with winging the journey.

Until I start editing.

And then I’m forced to either justify or cut (noooooooo!) all those metaphorical ninjas I threw in when I thought the pace was dragging, or the philosophical discussion about nose hair that went so well with the story I thought I was writing, but not so much with the one I seem to have written instead.

Which is why I’m wondering if I might want to try a little planning for once.  Run up a little outline, give pre-structuring a try.

I’m a bit worried about losing some of the fun—see image above—or that structure might equal predictability or (oddly) loss of control over my own story.

But  the imaginations of poets and composers thrive within some pretty rigid forms.

And there are some fundamental physical laws that have to be followed when you design a building, but that doesn’t mean everything has to look like the Taj Mahal.

And you can make pretty much any muffin you want, as long as you get the basic proportions right.*

Plus, I’ve been re-reading Alexandra Sokoloff’s excellent blog posts (scroll down past the books, though I recommend those, too) about structure and story elements and getting one’s Acts together.

She makes knowing what you’re about to do sound easy, fun, and creative.

And Lord knows that would be a novel—pun totally intended—experience for me.

Anyone have any experience with outlining? Story structure?
Comparisons between writing and other art forms?
Awesome muffin recipes (looking at you, Dee)?

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*Although that’s no guarantee they’ll  be edible. Or that your family will touch ’em.  Thus endeth the analogy.

(Thank Tom Gauld for the excellent image and Watson for finding it somewhere)

NanoWHYmo?

About seven years ago near the end of April, the librarian in charge of selecting for the 800s handed me a writing book and said, “You write, right?  I’m not sure about this one—could you take a look and see if it’s legit?”

One look at the cover, and I understood her misgivings.

No Plot?  No Problem! by Chris Baty

A whole novel?  In 30 days? Without a plot?

Right.

But I’m not one to judge a book by its cover,* so I took it home and read it.  Then I bought my own copy, recommended that my co-worker buy two more for our branches, and e-mailed our assistant director about a potential programming bonanza, come November.

It turns out that Chris Baty isn’t a scam artist or delusional—he’s the founder of National Novel Writing Month and his book is full of tricks, tips, and strategies to help you meet the Nanowrimo challenge.

For those of you who haven’t heard of any of this,** Nanowrimo is an annual event in which people all over the world pledge to write a 50,000 word ‘novel’ in one month.

Pens or pixels up the first second of November first, pens or pixels down the last second of November 30th.

There aren’t many rules.  You can prep, or not.  You can set a strict regimen of 1,667 words a day, or not.  You can join a local group for support, or go it alone.  You can use any medium to write, you can write about anything, and most importantly, you never have to show your work to anybody. 

Ever.

Seven late Aprils ago, I’d never finished a long piece of fiction—sure 50,000 words was more of a novella, but it was longer than anything I’d managed to write without losing interesting or momentum.   Nanowrimo sounded like a good deal, but I wanted to get started now.

And I remember looking at the calendar and thinking, “Wait.  May has thirty-one days.”

Two days later, I was off and writing.  Thirty-one days after that, I was exhausted, but victorious.

My imagination hurt, my eyes hurt, and my kidneys wanted to have a quiet word about my caffeine consumption, but I’d finished a long piece of fiction.

It wasn’t a good long piece of fiction^ but that wasn’t the point.  Or maybe it was—I’d powered past my inner editor like a marathoner breaking through a wall, which meant it could be done.

And what’s more, I’d found the time, despite a two-year old, a husband, three cats, and a full-time job, none of which seemed like the (loving, essential, first-prioritied, ahem) obstacles they had before I’d tried.

So . . .

I’m going to try it again this year, without that extra day’s grace and two of the cats and with a second kid, a MIL, a Watson . . . and a blog.

I’m not going in completely blind this time—I’ve been following Alex Sokoloff’s suggestions for Nano prep, just to see if they make a difference^^ and I have a pretty good idea of the general plot.^^^

But starting Thursday, my posts aren’t going to be as long (I can hear you cheering, you know) and might not be as frequent (stop it).

If anyone would like to support me in my endeavors by offering a guest post, or by sharing a favorite poem or two—original stuff would be awesome—on a Wednesday, please e-mail me.°  Soon.

Anyone else want to throw caution to the winds and join me?

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*I’ll judge covers plenty all by themselves, though, especially over at SMTB, because holy cow.

**You probably have, but humor me—I need a blog post, here.

***Did I get that right?  I think I did.

^Not even after several drafts, though I recently brought the last incarnation out of the drawer to take another look, because you never forget your first, even when you should . . .

^^They’re going to make a difference to my next book, I can tell you that.

^^^Or plots, because it’s tempting to try to jump-start my next book but it might be fun to run  with something completely different.  I do know that the working title will be Pirate Ninja Nuns from Mars because why not?

° The poetry posts can be anonymous and/or commentary-free, if you like.  If  you want to share someone else’s poem, it has to be in the public domain or we’ll need permission to post the whole thing—but we can always share a few lines and link to it if it isn’t and we don’t, so just send ’em!

If a picture is worth 500 words . . .

I was looking for research notes gone astray this morning, and discovered a folder of writing exercises I’d done at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival almost a decade back.*  And, having no other ready means of writing avoidance, read them. 

I know, I know, but I did.   Believe me, the embarrassment is worth knowing that I’ve improved.

But one of them caught my attention for other reasons.  It isn’t the best thing I’ve ever done, God knows, but it’s the first of its kind I’d ever done. 

The prompt was a captionless newspaper photo of an old man as seen through a fish-eye lens, as if he was peering at you through the peephole in his door.** It wasn’t in the folder, or I would have posted it, but I remember it well— it was truly creepy.

And the story it prompted out of me was unlike anything I’d written before, which was probably the point of the exercise.    I suppose that’s the point of all writing exercises:  to give the writer a chance to try something new, look at something from a different angle, plug the power cord into a different source.  They can’t all be meant to give the writing instructor time for a smoke and a trip to the bathroom, right?

Our instructor—who, to his credit, didn’t smoke, gave timely breaks, and did the exercises along with us—said that a picture in his class was only worth five hundred words, and we were supposed to write a five hundred word story worthy of the picture.  I have no idea if these five hundred words are worth beans—far too many of them are adverbs, adjectives, and articles.  And I’m pretty sure I buried the twist.

But you know, I think I like it, strange as it is.  And the exercise did show me that I was capable of  a darker mindset than I would have suspected.  I suppose it’s good to be warned.

(and I swear, I have improved)

 ********

“Come in,” said the gimlet-eyed man, standing too close for Ryan’s comfort.  “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Ryan, easing back from the odor of old dentures and recent onions. 

A small smile rearranged creases in the aged face.  “Come in,” the man repeated, and turned to walk in slow, stiff steps down the hall.

Ryan followed, automatically pricing the art on the walls, the thick woven rug underfoot.  The hall opened up into a living room festooned with old velvets, gold tassels, and crystal droplets, multiplying his estimates by–carry the three–a shitload. 

Ryan was waved to an overstuffed parlor sofa in royal blue, where he sank among the small silk pillows.   He eased a finger around the inside of his collar, hating the tie, but still glad he’d worn it.  It didn’t help him blend–he’d need a cravat and spats for that–but it showed a certain respect.

 His host perched on a winged armchair upholstered in purple and gold brocade.  “Do you know me, young man?”

“Yes, sir.  You’re–”  He stopped as a hand lifted.  “Yes, sir.”

“And you know all about,” the small smile reappeared, “the job?”

Ryan nodded.  “I don’t usually–”

“Meet the client?  I suppose not.  But this is a special case.”  His smile widened, yellowed porcelain teeth appearing between thin, blue lips.  “A very special case.”

“That’s what I was told.”  Ryan tried to shift his weight, but the pillows held him in their soft grip.  He noticed the crystal decanter set on the small Queen Anne desk in the corner.  A drink, even a cup of coffee, would give him something to do with his hands, a polite way to avert his gaze.  But he guessed under the circumstances, refreshments wouldn’t be offered.

“And what else were you told?”

“How you want it done.”

The client leaned back in the chair without bending the authority-fused spine.  Long bony fingers curled around the ends of the armrests.  “But not why.”

Ryan shook his head.  “Why gets in the way,” he said, without meaning to.

“Yes, I can understand that.  But under the circumstances . . .”  The thin lips pursed, relaxed.  “I’m certain you’re no stranger to the greed and desperation of waiting heirs–you must be, in your line of work.” Grey eyes, sharp in the age-blurred face, examined Ryan.  “And no doubt you know something of insurance and beneficiaries, and possibly about protective measures, in case of deliberate ‘accidents.’  But do you know about betrayal and cruel disappointment?” He leaned forward.  “Do you know about revenge?”  Porcelain flashed in an unholy grin.  “Do you know about the St. Francis Home for Stray Cats?”

Ryan blinked.  And, unprofessional or not, grinned back.

A pocketwatch was produced.  “I believe it’s time.”  The client stood and Ryan followed suit. 

“Goodbye, Mr. Ryan.”

They shook hands.

“Goodbye, sir.”  Ryan raised his gun and fired twice between the gimlet eyes.

Then he called in the boys to start packing up.

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*Of course I kept them.  Why do you ask?

**I’d originally been given one of a cute hamster in a wheel, but the aspiring children’s writer next to me had asked to swap.  I don’t blame her—and heaven knows what I would have done to the poor animal.