Monday, March 31, 2008

Novel 101 and etc.

Singing "Flew in from Richmond V-A American Connection" just doesn't have the same ring to it as "Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC" (3 points to the first one to identify song AND album!), but those are the lyrics that've been running through my brain since I arrived home yesterday afternoon. I'm planning a post about my fun in Charlottesville later this week, with pictures, but until then, you can read Therese's account here. I'll just mention, very quickly, the grapefruit martinis rocked!

Last month I wrote about my buddy Laura Bradford and her efforts to raise awareness and money to fight Multiple Sclerosis. Many of you asked how you could help. Here you go . . . On April 13 I'm joining other friends and writers to walk with Laura--you can join us from afar by making a pledge to our team--we've nearly reached our goal of $2000.

Now, updates to my WIP, tentatively titled Spinning.  One nice thing--for a writer-- about traveling is the dead time/thinking time.  Waiting in the airport, killing time in the hotel room (I mean, you can't drink grapefruit martinis all the time!), sitting on the airplane after I've finished the crossword puzzles I brought with me.  I even had an 80+ minute car drive that gave me more pondering time.  As I've mentioned, I'm trying to think through the whole story arc as fully as I can before I hunker down for the bulk of the writing.  Here's what I've figured out/learned about my writing process:

~I'm not good at waiting when the characters start talking to me.  So, I've written a prologue (just 2 pages, but still) that's already been vetted and approved by a talented and brilliant writer (Hi Amy!).  I'm still committed to working out the story arc, but when the words come bubbling up I can't just shove them back down.

~Narrative Voice/POV is all.  I spent much of my "thinking time" rolling options around and trying them out.  First person?  But that's going to be complicated since I want to show this story through three different characters.  So, I'm leaning towards 3rd person for all three.  Next to work out . . . do they each get their own chapters?  Or will I just vary it by scene?  I even toyed with the idea of having each one tell a third of the story--first Maggie, then Jim, then Grandma, but I knew I needed to have a rationalization for whatever device I chose.  And I've decided since they are all in it together, growing, changing, learning, I'm going to let them tell it as naturally as I can, which to me means the POV will shift within chapters.  Stay tuned.

~Each book chooses the way it's going to be written.  Yesterday, in the airport, I did something I've never ever done before.  Sitting at the gate, waiting, I opened up my laptop and wrote 4 pages of chapter one.  Yes I did.  I know writers who say they can write anywhere.  I've never been one of them.  I like my talismans:  crisp new legal pad, new package of Uni-Ball pens, good coffee, a quiet house.  In cold weather I sit in the living room by the fire.  In warm, I'm outside on my front porch.  I write the first draft in long-hand.  But yesterday, I was in the airport (Gate A-1), announcements blaring out, a couple behind me bickering, no ink pens or legal pads handy.  But, earlier that morning an opening scene had been playing over in my mind.  And I didn't want to just jot down notes.  I didn't want to wait.  I wanted, no needed, to capture it.  Right then.  So I typed.  My fingers flew.  And while I know it's not yet where it needs to be, I also know where I'm going.  

~Don't throw too much away in the first draft.  I'm a good censor.  A good editor.  I can always pare away a scene, lop off an unnecessary paragraph.  You need to lose 20,000 words?  I'm your girl.  But I think I've often done too much pruning in the first draft which makes more work in the later drafts.  So, yesterday, on my drive, I'd thought of two competing motivations my character has to explain one action.  I examined each one trying to decide which one to go with, which one to throw out.  But then, I decided to be madcap.  Yup, you heard me.  Write it with both.  Start the scene with one, by the end, the other motivation prevails.  And it was more complicated, but so's the moment.  It gives more depth.  It explains things.  It's more human.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pop on Over

I'm headed to the airport in a few minutes for the Virginia Festival of the Book, but wanted to direct you to my post over at Mid-Century Modern Moms.

See you back here Monday!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

One Year Old

One year ago today, I debuted as a blogger. I had no idea how the whole blog world would work out, nor did I have any clue as to how much I would love writing each post (well, maybe not every single one, but 99% of them).

I worried that no one would comment. I worried that I'd run out of things to blog about (yeah, right).

Let me just say, I'm having a blast. I've chatted about my kids, my worries, my dad, my WIPs, revisions. I've been able to recommend books and writers. I've been able to mention causes that matter to me. I've found support in the face of tragedy. I've found friends.

One year ago, I was blathering about my upcoming trip to New Orleans (which totally rocked!); I'm now getting ready to head out for the Virginia Festival of the Book where I'll finally meet--face to face-- my blog pals Carleen and Therese and Jenny. It doesn't seem possible that I haven't "officially" met them, and lots of others, before now because, through this whole cyberworld of e-mails and blogs, and through good old-fashioned phone calls, I already feel as though I've had coffee with them. As though we've commiserated over a carton of good ice cream, celebrated with some good Chardonnay.

In looking over all 75 of my posts in the past year, I think the one I wrote in July about my dog who howls expresses it best.

I want to thank all of you for stopping by, for joining the conversation, for leaving your comments, for letting me know you're out there. The world might be vast and sometimes crowded, other times isolating, but, because of all of you, it rarely feels cold.

So, one year down, many more to come!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Novel 101--Prep Work

So, I've spent the past week working on my next novel. But I haven't added even one word to the document. No, I'm not outlining; I haven't gone over to the darkside or anything, and I am thinking about my characters and their story (because, that's who it belongs to. Them not me.). But, I'm trying to do some prep work, so that when I do sit down with a new pen and a stack of fresh, crisp yellow legal pads, I can leap into the ZONE.

So, with no further ado . . .

1.) Planning Backwards. In my previous life as an English teacher, I learned to approach each new unit with the main question: what do I want my students to know/understand/be able to do at the end of this unit? And once I had that answer(s), I knew where to start and how to plot out my lessons. When I started All the Numbers, I knew I had to get Ellen to that dock at the lake, tossing James' ashes into the wind and letting go of her grief and rage. So, I've spent lots of time thinking about my main characters--where do I want them to be at the end of the book. I'm not worrying about the nuts and bolts of how I'll get them there, that'll happen as the journey progresses, but I want an image to write towards. Last night I came up with a "controlling question" which is, Who are Maggie and Jim and Grandma Foley going to become in a world without Rosie? As I think about that in the days to come, I have to believe their characters will fall into place.

2.) Taking my Waking Slow (with apologies to Theodore Roethke). Some of my very best writing comes when I'm still in bed and barely awake. I love it. I'm still in somewhat of a dreamlike state and my mind wanders freely. Total stream-of-consciousness. And I've learned to embrace that time--whether it's 5 minutes or a half hour. It's a time when an idea will pop up and I'm able to let it float to see if it has legs. This morning the image formed of Jim walking the dark streets when he can't sleep, walking for hours in the middle of the night. And I realized that Maggie had been adopted and suddenly is curious about her birth mother. Now, I'm not sure where these musings will lead, but I've jotted them down in my notes. And in mornings to come I know these snapshots will either become more fully developed or fade away. But I get to practice before I sit down to write. And because of it, when I do put pen to paper I'll much more easily slip into the zone, that wonderful rhythm in writing when the story and characters lift me up and take me to their world and I'm simply recording their story rather than directing it or forcing it.

3.) Starting at the Very Beginning. In July 2004, I attended a week-long workshop on "Your First Twenty Pages." Along with directly leading to my being offered representation and ultimately selling my manuscript to Random House, I finally understood the importance of those first pages, that all-important first chapter. Amy made mention of this when she commented about my last Novel 101 post. This is your reader's entry into the world you've created. Characters are introduced, conflicts are hinted at, voices are established. If your reader, reviewer, editor doesn't make it past the first chapter, your book is dead in the water. With that in mind, all week I've been pulling books off my bookshelves and reading first chapters. Reading slowly. Reading to take notes. These are all books I've read and know and love. So I'm looking to see what is suggested or insinuated in those first few pages. How am I pulled in without my even knowing? And how might I do the same in my first chapters. What needs to be told? What can wait?

Here are the books currently stacked next to me on the sofa--Judith Guest's Ordinary People, Elizabeth Berg's True to Form, Anna Quindlen's Blessings, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster, Anne LeClaire's Entering Normal, and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

So, that's where I am right now. Planning, reading, and falling in love with these characters.

New Blog for Your Perusal

I'll be back later today with my next installment of Novel 101, but I just wanted to announce the official launch of Mid-Century Modern Moms, a group blog for moms of teens and beyond. It's an eclectic group of ten women, all moms, all in the "prime of life" (sounds so much better than middle-aged!), all wending our way with kids who are savvier, taller, and more challenging than we ever imagined. Some of us are novelists, some not. Hop over and check us out.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Wanna Read Like a Pulpwood Queen?

Since I love passing on book suggestions, and since I had such a blast at the Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend in January, I'm tickled to be passing Kathy Patrick's Pulpwood Queen picks for the next few months. Grab a book and start reading!

January 2008
The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life by Kathy L. Patrick, Grand Central Publishing

*Bonus Book
The Stylist: A Novel by Cai Emmons, Harper Perennial
From the Heart: Seven Rules to Live By by Robin Roberts, Hyperion

February 2008
Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home by Kim Sunee, Grand Central Publishing

*Bonus Books
The Sweet Life by Lynn York, Plume
The Big Beautiful by Pamela Duncan
March 2008
The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson, UnBridled Books

*Bonus Books
God Said Yes by Heather Hornback Bland, Berkley
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs, Simon & Schuster

April 2008
Mermaids in the Basement by Michael Lee West, Harper

*Bonus Books
One Fell Swoop by Virginia Boyd, Thomas Nelson
All the Numbers by Judy Larsen, Ballantine Books

May 2008
A Model Summer by Paulina Porizkova, Hyperion

*Bonus Book
the memoirs of a beautiful boy by Robert Leleux, St. Martins Press
Women of Magdalene by Rosemary Poole-Carter, Kunati Inc.

June 2008
The Schooling of Claybird Catts by Janis Owens, Harper Paperbacks

*Bonus Book
My Brother Michael by Janis Owens, Pineapple Press
Myra Sims by Janis Owens, Pineapple Press

July 2008
The UnLikely Lavender Queen by Jeannie Ralston, Random House

*Bonus Book
Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag by Michael Tonello, William Morrow

August 2008
Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall & Denver Moore, Thomas Nelson Publishing

*Bonus Book
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafo'n, Penguin

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Real Quick

I posted today over at my group blog Mid-Century Modern Moms. Stop in for a visit.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Novel 101

I'm going to try something new here. In my last post, I chatted about starting a new novel. And it occurred to me that it might be interesting to "track"the process every week. Not just word count but explore what I'm doing and why. It's also a distinct possibility that it will turn into sausage. You know, the whole idea of everybody likes it but no one wants to see how it's made. Time (and your comments!) will tell, I guess.

See, with All the Numbers, I had the whole story arc in mind before I even started writing it. I knew Ellen so well because she was quite alot like me. I stole people from my own life to use as characters. So, even though the first draft was only about 1/3 of what it would eventually become, I had all the bones.

I thought I knew how to write a book. Ha.

Then I sat down to write Unexpected Grace. I had a general idea. Told as almost two narratives, through two different voices, one worked from the start, the other was much tougher for me to discover. I finally realized why--with one, I felt like I was bubbling up out of her soul. The other one, I knew what happened to her, but I was always outside of her. That one didn't work. It wasn't until I'd crawled inside of not only her world, but her skin, that her story became compelling.

So, with each book I'm learning.

With Spinning (the working title for my WIP), as I mentioned in my last post, one of the characters nagged at me until I started writing her story down. But before I dove in any more, I've spent the last few days thinking not only about Rosie, but her mom, and Jim and Maggie. I've thought about how I want to tell their stories. I've identified the focal point, the pivotal event that sets their stories in motion. This week, I'm going to try to write out a very loose outline or synopsis. I find that if I know what I'm writing toward, it's much easier for me to get in the zone. The characters seem to let me in more if they know I'm listening.

So, that's my plan for the book. We'll see.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Listening to my muse . . .

So, I'd thought I was going to give myself a rest, a break. I was going to be, as folks in Hollywood say, on hiatus. I'd just finished a major rewrite of the novel I started in January 2007. I haven't even heard back from my agent about whether or not she deems it "submission ready." My sons will be home for spring break later this month (and one of them is getting his wisdom teeth out, so I'll be wearing my little nurse hat). Then I'm off to the Virginia Festival of the Book. The following weekend my husband and I will be in California celebrating my dad's 80th birthday. We're stretching out the long weekend even more to see Springsteen on April 7.

So, with all of that, it didn't make sense to immerse myself in starting a new novel. I mean, I wouldn't be able to establish any writing rhythm, and I might still have to make changes on the MS I just sent off. Giving myself a clean break would be good. Clear the decks, so to speak, so that on April 9 I could dive in. Spring is the season of new beginnings, after all, and we're still mired in winter here in The Heartland.

But you know what? All week, I've had this woman nagging at me every morning when I'm first waking up (my husband can insert his own joke here). And yesterday, the harping continued throughout the day. She poked at me when I was trying to read the paper. She followed me around the kitchen when I was putting away the groceries and loading the dishwasher. She even bugged me when I was in the shower.

So I opened a new document on my laptop. And I was her steno. I took dictation. She's got quite a story to tell. I'm just trying to record it. And I'm hoping the muse who brought her to me will keep her talking and will also introduce me to some of the other people in her life: her mom; Jim, her husband; and Maggie, her daughter. I figure they'll help me understand how she ended up in a parking lot on a hot June day about to pull the trigger.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What a Tangled Web We Weave . . .

I just don't get it. I mean, didn't we learn this as kids? Didn't we teach it to our own children? I'm not talking about little white lies ("No, that doesn't make your butt look too big.") or convenient ommissions ("Um, no, I hadn't heard that."). I'm talking lies. Mendacity. (Do you still swoon when Brick yells at Big Daddy about mendacity?)

Do people really think they're not going to get caught? Apparently so, but, not to be crass or anything, how flipping stupid are they? Or, perhaps, how stupid do they think the rest of us are?

Here's a newsflash to all the job applicants, memoirists, coaches, plagiarists, resume padders out there--you're going to get caught. In this whole world-wide-web life we live in, somebody's going to hear your lie and think, uh, whoa, I think not. Your sister, your ex-whomever, that guy you were rude to, the original writer. Somebody is going to take a second look at that resume and call one of your references. Somebody is going to see that article about the amazing, stunning book you wrote about your wretched/difficult/gang-filled life and say, um, yeah, I knew him/her and it's not true. And they're going to be able to prove it. See, there's this new-fangled thing out there. It's called the internet. Google. YouTube. Myspace. Colleges have websites. So do newspapers. And corporations. The military.

You're going to get caught. Bank on it.

And think back to that time you were five and your mom or grandpa or neighbor lady caught you in a lie. Didn't you feel lousy? But you were little and cute. You're not little and cute anymore. You're an adult. You're supposed to know better.

Monday, March 3, 2008

New Paths

For the past five weeks I've been immersed in the life of a woman coming to terms with the twists and turns and vagaries of her life. At times, she's felt like a pinball, simply trying to brace herself for the next blow before it smacked into her. She had thought for years, things were following a certain path, that her choices were leading her in a specific way, that she was in control, and that she was happy.

What did John Lennon say? Life's what happens while you're making other plans.

Well, that's what happened to Kate and to me.

I'd thought I had her figured out. I'd believed I knew her. I'd been sure I could tell her story. And, I'd been so busy being right I didn't take the time to listen, to really get to know her. Kind of like when a friend needs to talk and I am too quick with advice or counsel. I get so busy helping I forget to hear what she's really saying or asking for.

Well, in the past five weeks I finally let myself meet her. I finally quit my yapping long enough to listen. To discover. To toss out all the clutter that got in the way.

And, I let myself find Kate. And in the process I learned so much about myself as a writer. It was all pretty cool.

So, my manuscript--re-visioned, revised, rewritten--is back on my agent's desk. Did I get it right? I'll find out soon. It certainly feels as though I did. But if it isn't there just yet, I know to trust Kate to show me her world. And she trusts me enough now to let me into her heart. She knows I'll listen before I start writing.

In the meantime, I intend to get caught up with my blog posts. I've also got a project waiting for me on the dining room table involving lots of frames and even more family photos. I've got a stack of new recipes to try. And I've got a whole new set of characters whispering to me, wanting to let me into their lives, their fears, their hearts. And this time, I've promised to listen more carefully than I did with Kate.

P.S. I also have a new blog post up at the group blog I belong to. It's not about writing, but if you have kids applying to colleges, you might want to check it out.