Tag Archives: writing a novel

Faith

Standard

Blank page: could be good, could be very very bad. Coffee could be spiked…it’s all good.

Over an impromptu coffee with one of my writing teachers yesterday, I poured my heart out about The Novel and its 1) lack of direction, 2) lack of completion and my general mental illness regarding same.

My teacher, a wise and beautiful woman, nodded knowingly.

“Yes.  It’s the nature of the beast,” she said (or something to that effect).  “Why do you think so many writers off themselves or drink themselves into oblivion on a regular basis?  Being a writer is lonely, hard, thankless, and only undertaken by those who are mentally ill to start with.” (Or something to that effect).

A dark cloud passed over our cafe magnifying the sense of Gloom.

Instead of walking out of there and popping into the Kilt and Dagger next door (a not-so-charming pub perfect for a disconsolate sort), I walked to my car feeling strangely buoyant.

Yes, it’s true my mental instability knows no bounds but I think what my friend did was renew my faith.

I (finally) understood that having faith doesn’t mean that some days aren’t gonna suck.  Having faith doesn’t mean you don’t feel insecure or lost. Having faith is understanding that there are sucky, bad, bitch-worthy days – sometimes these days stretch into weeks and months.  You carry on because you know somehow that this hard, lonely path is the one you were meant to be on – no matter what.  You have to recognize that insecurities and low points are are normal.  It is ok.  Writers are blessed with permission to be insecure, unstable, self-doubting, and cranky – how awesome is that!

I’m not insane.  I’m a writer.  Well, ok I might be a little bit insane but…whatever.

Do gold miners walk into the hills and see bands of polished, gleaming metal on the surface?  No, they do not.  They have to dig through miles of muck and stone to find the good stuff.  Writers are different – we lay down the miles and miles of muck and then dig back through it looking for a nugget that we may have inadvertently written.  How many times have I sifted through page after page of dreck, thinking that the bottle of scotch in the corner really needs draining when suddenly, there:  a sentence, a turn of phrase, or a passage – a nugget of something golden.

Writing is thankless, hard, decidedly un-rewarding.  It’s lonely.  No one understands why we do what we do when the chances of winning the lottery seem to far outweigh the chances of getting published.  Yes, writers are a strange breed.

We are paragons of faith.

The Slowdown

Standard

I sit unwashed and pajama-clad.  The kids are gone, the cat is riding a skateboard around my kitchen.  Bono croons in my ear thanks to my iPod.  I am trying, determined and grim-faced, to write something, anything.  Just a sentence.  Please, God. Just a sentence.

Good job, kid.  You’ve managed eight quasi-sentences; not pretty, not perfect but there they are – words on a page in a straight line, in English.  Why the sudden struggle you ask?

Well for one thing, its Fall.  As the weather cools, things tend to slow down inside my head.  I swear I was born to hibernate – me ending up as a human was a boo-boo on someone’s part.  I eat copious amounts of idiocy-inducing carbohydrates and think constantly about sleep.  Thoughts and movements become sluggish.  My husband should realize that my appearance at the gym last night was nothing short of miraculous.

More sobering: I’ve gone back on antidepressants.  For anyone who has suffered from depression chronically, you know the medication can be as much of a curse as a cure.  Apparently in order to boost mood the brain needs to come to a grinding halt.  It makes no sense to me but there it is.

I have to say that the drugs have come a looooong way since I was last at their mercy.  I remember being on Paxil one bitter Calgary winter.  I was at the stove stirring something.  In a near-stupour, I stirred that pot for an hour until someone gently took the spoon away  and stood me in a corner.  I was robotic but really not too concerned about it.

Nice.  In those days, I was driving very small children around in snowy, icy conditions.  It makes me shudder recalling how completely out of it I was.  I didn’t write.  I didn’t even think.  The modern drug that I’m on now doesn’t make me quite as dopey but I am shite at parking the car suddenly.  And I don’t care.

What I do care about is the fact that my creative tap has been shut off.  The odd idea floats by but I can’t react fast enough to grab it and set it down on paper.  The Novel is literally a chapter or two away from completion.  I wrote a pivotal scene right before I went on medication.  It was bad – it careened between happily-ever-after and desperate cruelty.  Eesh.  I’m afraid to even open the file.

I could finish it.  I could wrap everything up in a neat, tidy bow and be done with it but I know it needs a substantial re-write.  I know I’m not capable of doing it right now.  Because I need a haircut and a nap, not necessarily in that order.  It’s 9:15 in the morning.

What tidings will Winter bring?

The Slow Slog to Salvation

Standard

School is back in session.  The weather has turned with the abruptness of a quickly turned page.  Everyone is in “back to the grind” mode.  That includes me.

Aside from posting anecdotal blogs about our summer vacation, there is a virtual autumnal cornucopia of story ideas floating around my head.  On top of those, The Novel is close – make that very close – to being finished.  The Shitty First Draft, that is.  I’m already coming up with ideas on how to change it.

For the first time in  a while, I gave The Novel an entire days’ attention yesterday and it felt good, productive, worthwhile – like getting back to the gym does.  Sure, the muscles are stiff and reluctant but once they get warmed up, it’s like you never got off the elliptical or the stair-stepper or whatever.

The creative mind is a muscle that must be exercised regularly, given proper nutrition to build it, and proper rest to…well, rest it.  Believe it or not, sometimes the story needs to sit and stew awhile.  Having said that, I get ansty and cranky when I don’t “work out” the creative part of my brain – just like some people get homicidal when they don’t visit the gym regularly (I wish I was like that).

See – I’m trying to justify what a lazy ass I’ve been all summer.  I envy writers who can knock out a novel in sixty days.  At least, I think I do.  When I’m staring at the page wondering whether Aunt Alexandra should laugh off the latest tragic turn to her life or throw herself off a cliff, I envy writers  that seem to have it all figured out in advance, who can make snap decisions.

But, no matter.  It’s Fall, if not officially by the calendar then by every other indication.  It’s back to work time.  Back to the writing life that keeps me grounded, happy, and whole.

The truth is, I get grumpy when I take any time off from writing.  There is salvation in the telling of the tales.

Scriptura, Interrupta

Standard

Let’s face it, sometimes life gets in the way.  In typical fashion, I come screaming around a corner, trying to do two things at once and SMACK! I run head first into it.

It is now Friday and I’ve gotten nothing done.  Nothing. Zip. Nada.  The children have both been desperately sick with a nasty flu bug – high fevers, excruciating headaches, and other assorted symptoms too disgusting to talk about.  My brain is just a hunk of non-functioning gray matter taking up space in my skull right now.

The Novel lurks in a desk drawer like a restless demon.  In the middle of the night, I can hear it scratching and banging, begging for attention.  I ignore it. The sheer daunting nature of fixing what is wrong with it, imagining more things that might be wrong with it scares the bejabbers out of me.

At two-thirty in the morning, as I fill a glass at the kitchen sink, I contemplate killing the whole project.

In my gut I know I won’t kill it and then I wonder why the hell not.  As I place cool wash cloths on a child’s fevered brow, I carry on this internal argument.  At dawn I find myself asleep at the wrong end of our  bed, curled up like a small dog.

I need to give myself a bit of a break. I am tired, half-sick, and over-caffeinated.  I begin to doubt every single thing from my use of punctuation to my ability to construct a story to whether my voice is really mine.

The absolute worst thing any writer can do is ignore the natural voice.  It would be like Taylor Swift trying to sing an aria from La Boheme. I’m no opera aficionado but I know that the result would be…painful.  If anyone tries to tell Ms. Swift that she should cut a CD of operatic classics, she should take her hair and whip that person across the face with it.

My voice is pretty well-defined.  Good thing because I’m a lousy imitator.  I know its range and that’s what bothers me sometimes – is it too limited?  Can it ever be richly layered, complex – like a very good wine?  Wine, not whine…

My voice is sounding a bit strangled right now because I’m hyper-ventilating.  Taking a deep breath, I open a book I’ve acquired entitled, A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins.  There is a passage that shines like a lighthouse’s beacon through coastal fog.

When the Irish writer John McGahern was asked how to write good fiction: “he replied that first you write one good sentence, and then you must write another good sentence to follow it.”

Alistair MacLeod said basically the same thing.  He said he takes a long time to write because he’s careful with his sentences.  He writes one sentence.  He ponders it, speaks it out loud.  Then he writes another.  It is a slow, careful process.

This book by Hodgins also recommends throwing down a first draft quickly, with no editing or revising.  Ha!  I think that’s my problem.  I keep forgetting that The Novel is still in shitty first draft stage.  It’s not supposed to be pitch-perfect and it’s ok for parts of it to be horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, and foul.

There’s life: horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, foul.  In the next moment, it’s sweet, lovely, and deeply satisfying.  Writing is no different.  Sometimes, the writer must just slow down and take a deep breath.  And, some Advil.

Back to Reality

Standard

I feel a little bit as Dorothy must have felt when she “returned” from Oz – you want me to do whatChores?  Feed the chickens?  Five minutes ago I was wearing some damn nice slippers and now I’m back in my sensible shoes…

Such is the feeling of let-down and decompression since returning from the (brilliant, fantastic, awesome, inspirational – insert all that apply and they all do) writer’s workshop.  I didn’t fully appreciate how exhausted I would feel upon my return to normal life, no longer in the heady air surrounded by literary agents, editors, and award-winning authors.

Let’s just say I was a bit cranky this weekend.

I’m better now and yet I’m determined not to let this experience go to waste; it’s damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead! Dammit cat, get out of my way!  If only I could get my office chair into the perfect, comfortable position…

Two things are on my must-do list today (besides calling the plumber, mowing the lawn, and trying to get this damned chair to work):  follow-up with a literary agent that I met at the workshop and send a nice, handwritten note to the Program Director at Humber College.  My mama taught me that a handwritten note is far more meaningful than a typed one – she passed away before email was commonplace.  The poor man might just fall off his office chair when he gets it but that’s kind of the point.

I nearly made Alistair MacLeod fall out of his chair with the climax of my short story so why not the director of the Writer’s Workshop too? Alistair assured me he was fine and that the scene was “great!”  Working with him was the equivalent of wearing those ruby slippers.

The director sent us into the four winds on Friday afternoon with hopeful words.  He said he hoped that we found the workshop to be “rocket fuel for our writing.”  I share his hope; however, I feel time is of the essence.  I don’t want the rocket fuel to just puddle in my brain, unlit.  I want to ignite it and have my stories take off.

So, no rest for the weary.  I studied my notes as I drafted my email to the literary agent.  Later, I will sit a spell, give some thought to the theme of The Novel.  Careful thought.  I might try a trick that Alistair uses:  writing the last line of the entire thing.  He calls this his lighthouse – it helps prevent him from getting lost in the dark.

You could hear a pin drop as we listened to him describe how he writes.  He said he thinks.  He thinks about this and he thinks about that. He wool-gathers and it sounds so easy.  I sit, thinking and staring out at the busy Toronto streetscape. I picture my mentor who is no doubt back in Cape Breton.  I see the old gentleman perched on a bluff overlooking the deep blue ocean, his tweed cap at a jaunty angle.  He sits, quietly, listening to the distant roar of the sea, weaving thoughts and words into a rich tapestry.

Or, as he also said, stringing the words and thoughts like beads on a string until a necklace appears. It should always be so.

 

 

The Red Chair

Standard

I have a dream that is far smaller than getting published or having famous writers line up to get a signed copy of my book (Bono, George Clooney, and Colin Firth are in line too).  It is…

I just want a real desk and a comfortable chair.

About a year ago, my husband and I were talking about my writing.  Such discussions are like walking through an unmarked mine field at the best of times and this was no different.  We were in our  bedroom and he was sitting in the Red Chair.  The Red Chair is crammed into a corner by the window.  It is exceedingly square and boxy, large and ungainly.  The chair doesn’t really fit but because we need somewhere to toss our clothes at night, we have it in the bedroom.

(Picture this in bright red.)

My husband stood up and wondered aloud if perhaps my desk couldn’t go into the corner.  I was aghast!  I was indignant!  I was insulted!  Nobody puts Banshee in a corner!!  Imagine being creative with your face stuck up against a wall – a wall that isn’t even painted a nice colour!

It would be like writing in a time-out corner.  What am I, six?

I’m reconsidering…

I need a private place to work.  If I can’t have a room of my own, then I’ll take a corner in a room where at least I can close the door.  At this very moment I am in my cluttered kitchen at a laminate peninsula which is the wrong height.  No matter how I adjust my (uncomfortable) chair, my arms are not at the right level or angle.  I hurt from stem to stern.   Being in the kitchen in an open concept house means every noise hits my ears.  I can hear the kids, I can hear the cat scratching in her litter box downstairs (not an inspirational sound, let me tell you).

Here’s what the corner has going for it:  It is private. Even though I know it’s bad feng shui to have one’s back to the door, I’ll take that over writing in the middle of a freeway.  I would also be close to a window which has a pleasant aspect to it – right now there’s a lovely maple tree making soothing rustling sounds and providing visual interest.  However, I need a desk and because the corner is small, the desk would have to be petite. 

We  don’t own such an item.  I don’t know if the right desk exists.  How do you find something exactly the right height, depth, and feel?  I don’t know any carpenters who could whip one up for me.  It doesn’t need drawers (although one for pens and paper would be nice).

While on my lunch break today, perhaps I will scan  IKEA and Craigslist.  I will cruise by little antique places  this weekend to see if there’s anything out there. I would put it to good use.  I would write as best I can on it.  I would give it acknowledgement in my book.  “And, I would like to extend a special thank-you to my desk…” 

But, what of the Red Chair…what of any chair?  Excuse me, Ma’am…could I test drive your chair?

Wool Gathering

Standard

This post will be badly written.  I warn you because I am normally a rather careful writer but this post has a mission.  First, is to illustrate how messed up my brain can be when deprived of caffeine (which I’m trying to cut back on with an eye towards total elimination) and second, to write as fast as possible in order to jump-start my brain. Clear the sludge out, as it were.

My husand is worried because I am working hard.  It’s a sight he is not accustomed to seeing, apparently.  Little does he understand that I work quite a lot even when I don’t look like I’m working.  I can understand his befuddlement.  He works in an office.  My work involves wool-gathering which does not look like working.  Wool-gathering, oh how I love that term!  Daydreaming sounds so…lazy.

Wool gathering conjures the following picture:  it’s a sunny warm afternoon.  Dust and bits of straw fly up in columns of golden air.  Somewhere, in a pen, an indignant sheep is being sheared.  A little girl picks up the wool as it falls.  That would be me.  She goes from pen to pen, gathering the wool into an enormous basket set on a cart pulled by her beloved donkey, Morris.

Ok, see what happens?  I could write an entire story right here, right now about the little girl and her donkey, Morris.  I would look up and the clock over the stove would say 2 pm and I’d have to jump off something very, very high.

Every night this week, I’ve been at my laptop when my husband has come home.  Piles of papers occupy every table space.  After dinner I fall into bed, exhausted (ok, that’s not different than any other time).  I worked last Sunday.  I never work on weekends.  Ever.

I’ve given myself a deadline to finish The Novel:  it has to be completed by July 7.  That is the day the summer workshop I’m attending begins. (Yes, I got accepted – yay!)  I don’t have time to stress about that or who my mentor will be for that week. I don’t have time to worry that if my mentor is Alistair MacLeod he might read my submission and say, “Girl, how did you get in here?”  No time.

Novel. Must. Be. Done.

I’m stressed because I’m in the middle of a major “fix.”  The fix isn’t finished. I’m making good progress and I can feel the essence of the story but my problem is, I write like gangbusters – until my fingertips literally ache – and then I do a quick re-read.  NO! I’ve done it again.  I’ve gone off, writing endless sentences describing how the sunlight hits an ancient stone wall as it divides a field.    I have classic writer’s ADD – I go on a tangent, chasing butterflies – sometimes off a cliff.

What hurts right now:  My fingers, my neck , my forearms, my head.  Who knew writing was a contact sport?  I stumble through the house, walking into walls because my eyes can no longer focus on anything but a computer screen.

I’m gathering wool as fast as I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blinders and Earplugs

Standard

A baby raccoon peered through my kitchen window this morning framed in a wreath of grape-vine leaves, his little masked face dripping with rain.  I wanted to pinch him he was so cute.  His expression said, “Make it stop, this incessant rain, so I can dive headfirst into your garbage bin and turn your backyard into an open landfill…please!”

I declined his pitiful request, cute as he was.

I suffer from heat induced orneryness.  I sprained my ankle playing soccer with a creature with more legs and talent than myself (a dog not the raccoon), the air is tropical-rainforest-humid and my furniture is either melting or my glasses are.  It’s only June.

No central air yet though we are reduced to walking slowly, living almost naked with curtains and windows open wide to catch any semblance of breeze (my apologies to our neighbours).  One by one our neighbours have surrendered and the steady thrum of air conditioner compressors can be heard up and down our street.

We will only surrender when our refrigerator threatens to go on strike.  But as I walk the dog I fret about the humming coming from the other houses.  I think, “You know, maybe it’s time.  Maybe an algae bloom in the dog’s water dish is not a good thing.  We could sleep under the duvet again…how I love the duvet…”  And then, the ultimate:  our neighbours are, quite literally, cooler than we are.  Ya, that worries me but still, I resist.

I feel the same when I’m up to my elbows in writing – either on The Novel or any other project – and I hear, “Oh, I’m writing a book.”  [Irrational Banshee Response or IBR for short:  How dare you type words in the my universe There’s only room for MY epic struggle!]  Or, “So and so is having a book launch this weekend…” [: How dare she take up a book editor’s time with cheap hors d’oeuvres?] and, “So and so’s memoir got picked up by a publisher!”  [IBR:  well, shit.]

Yes, they’re called Irrational Responses for a reason.  When my peers pull ahead, I get more irrational than usual.  (You don’t want to know how bad that is).  I think:  Jesusmaryandjoseph, I’m not finished yet!  I have no agent.  I have no publisher. I wonder if I should mail this thick wad of paper off to someone – anyone!  I descend quite quickly into a sloppy panic attack.  I get caught up in a race that has millions of runners and I’m at the back of the pack.  In reality, I run only against my over-active imagination           It makes no difference that these other writers might have started their projects years before I did.  It makes no difference that one of them might have 6 months to live and so is in a bit of a hurry.  I don’t think of that.  I just think:  oh, shit!  I’m late, I’m behind.  I must have been left behind at some point in my childhood.  Maybe in a pub.

IBRs are a common malady among writers.  Peer successes are hard to take.  It’s much easier to pat a peer on the back (either in person or via a nice email) and say, “There, there.  I know, honey, I know.  It’ll happen.  Just keep writing.”

Blinders and earplugs are needed to block out extraneous sights and sounds.  That way, when my neighbour turns on his air conditioner prematurely or writes a sordid memoir about his relatives faster than I’m writing mine, I can type away in blissful (albeit sweaty) ignorance.

To Be or Not To Be…A Mystery

Standard

Being a surgeon is a lonely business requiring the stamina of a marathoner.  This is true especially if the surgeon is operating alone with no nurses or assistant surgeons. The operating theatre is cold and necessarily sterile (although I admit to spilling coffee on the patient this morning). I feel like I’ve been at the operating table a long time and I’m not through yet.  The Novel’s internal organs are spread out all over the place.  It’s kind of messy but I feel that good progress on the inner workings of the story is being made.

But.

Something strange is happening.

The timbre of the story is changing albeit in a very subtle way.  There’s an air of anticipation, of…dare I say it…suspense.  The arc of the story is more complex. I’m excited to see where it goes.  I’m enjoying dropping hints, toying with my (imaginary at this point) readers as to what will happen next.  It opens up the question of what is this story turning into?  Is it just a drama with an air of suspense or is it a mystery involving two families?  I have no idea…yet.

There are layers – layers that have formed after countless hours of daydreaming.  You don’t often hear of daydreaming surgeons (thankfully) but writer-surgeons are different.  The daydreams are making the difference.  I always knew my teachers were wrong for criticizing my penchant for getting lost in thought.

Focused contemplation is something I often don’t relax enough to do. My mind wanders a lot but this is different.  It’s concentration that requires relaxation – an odd dichotomy.  Oh, wait.  Sounds like meditation (which, historically, I suck at).  It’s different from dithering – which I’m quite expert at.  Call it disciplined dithering if you like.

The whole exercise is like walking on eggshells.

During the concentrated, relaxed focusing, I try not to worry the story too much (meaning interfere, nag, drag down with my own paranoia).  In other words, I can’t mother it too much.  Every time I find myself nagging it, I get up from the table and walk away.  I do my worrying away from the keyboard.  To the casual observer, I am an aimless wandering daydreamer.  Not true.

There is nothing aimless about this strangest of processes,but how to explain to those who aren’t in the operating room with me? It seems I spend equal time justifying my characters actions to myself and justifying my own actions to others.  No wonder my brain gets tired; by the end of a day I can’t speak or write.

In spite of the balancing act, the story is strong; the prognosis is good.  I only wish I had a nurse or assistant to fetch cappuccino for me while I operate…

Scalpel, Please!

Standard

Have you ever noticed that most surgeries happen very early in the morning?  I’ve always wondered/worried about that.  Is the surgeon really awake?  Has he had his coffee?  A good, nutritious breakfast?  Did he have an argument with his teenage daughter right before he backed the Mercedes out of the garage?

I should talk.  Here I am, in the wee hours of the morning (well, not really but it sounds so much more dramatic) with no caffeine in my system, contemplating surgery.  My victim patient is already well under anesthesia which isn’t really necessary as it’s just a bunch of words.

Ah, yes.  Time for a little cosmetic surgery on The Novel.  Cosmetic surgery like…you know…some celebrities have had.  In other words, a lot.

I’ve been walking around the patient for a couple of days now.  In truth, I have been walking up to it then scurrying away, frightened to death about what to do, what I must do.  I truly hope real-life surgeons don’t behave this way.  I’m sure they’ve got everything all mapped out before they pull on those snappy latex gloves.  Well, pretty sure.

I’ve been keeping some distance between me and the patient for other reasons besides naked fear.  I’ve been contemplating the best place to begin.  I’ve been contemplating whether it needs just a nip and tuck or an amputation.  I’ve wondered if perhaps a transplant would work – after all, there are at least six versions of this same story on my computer.  I’m quite fond of some of them; not so fond of the whole thing.

Yes!  That’s it! (Cue really horrendous German/Transylvanian accent)  I have come up with an ingenious plan (cue crazy laughter).  I will build a literary Frankenstein!  It will be a masterpiece!!! (cue more crazy laughter)

Ok, you know what this is going to look like, don’t you?  Like the result of a failed quilting class.

Maybe the Frankenstein idea isn’t so good.  More thought might be required.  It’s just that I’m impatient.  I want to get this thing fixed, sewn up, and back in action.  I don’t want to spend all summer in the operating room listening to the incessant beep of the heart/lung machine as it struggles to keep the patient alive.

Kids, this is what happens to a novel written without a plan.  A clear case of trying to run before walking (see word “impatient” above).  Because this story has been in my head for so long, I thought all I had to do was wave my hands over the keyboard and it would materialize magically. Some of it did.  Some of it didn’t.  It now has three eyes, fifteen legs, and it can no longer breathe on its own.  Hence the need for surgery.

I’m wondering if it needs more sophisticated care than I can give it?  I wonder if Dr. Sanjay Gupta is available…he’s a neurosurgeon and adorable to boot.  I’ll just make some coffee and call CNN…