Monday, August 30, 2010

What Comes Next?

Part of writing a blog, perhaps the hardest part of writing a blog, is coming up with stuff to write about every week. It should be something entertaining, insightful maybe, thought provoking hopefully. But mostly, any idea will do, and I guess I’m lucky that this morning is the first morning I’m a bit stumped.

I could write about the beginning of school, how it marks the start of autumn, except that in Florida it’s still about 95 degrees so I have trouble conjuring thoughts of pumpkin picking and fresh pressed apple cider.

I could write about what happens when a writer writes “The End” after the last sentence of a first draft, but the only thing to write about that event is to say that any writer who thinks that is an ending is most likely wrong. It simple marks the beginning of about 120 rewrites.

I could write about flying into New York City a few months after selling my book, looking up from the Harlan Coben novel I was reading to see the Statue of Liberty and starting to hyperventilate because it finally occurred to me that other people, strangers, would be reading my book one day soon. But I still don’t like to think too much about that fact so I’ll save that blog for another day.

Or I could write about playing tennis with twelve-year-old Daughter this weekend and about the sore muscles I have this morning, which are nothing compared to my bruised ego. Or I could write about how hard it is for me to keep my mouth closed now that Daughter is writing a blog of her own for school. She insists that Teacher said parents aren’t allowed to help. Teacher confirmed that at Back to School Night.

I could write about any of those things, but instead I’ll write this being the hardest part—trying to decide what to write and what comes next. Perhaps that is why writing “The End” after the last sentence of first draft feels so darn good. No more trying to decide what comes next.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Perfect Scone

The first day of school is all about setting the alarm clock. Once everyone is up, the routine comes back to us. It’s muscle memory, like riding a bike. Breakfast is prepared, backpacks stuffed and carline maneuvered, and then, because it is tradition, I go for coffee with an old friend. We’ll call her The Nurse.

The Nurse, working as she does in an Emergency Room at an area hospital, has many interesting stories to share and more than one has inspired an idea or two in my writing. But as we sat down to coffee on the first day of the 2010/2011 school year, she did more than entertain me with tales from her weekend shifts. She introduced me to scones.

Now, I’ve eaten scones before, or I thought I had. Never been much of a fan. They were generally hard and crumbled into marble-sized chunks at the slightest touch. Not much flavor although given that they took so long to chew, I never ate the whole thing and thus saved a few calories. There’s always a bright side. But on that Thursday morning—ahhhhh, that Thursday morning—I learned what a real scone was all about.

The first sign that this scone was unlike all others was the dollop of whipped cream resting in its center. I dipped the tip of my fork in the cream. Real. Another good first sign. The fact that it was served with a fork—good sign. The fact that it was served on terracotta stoneware thick enough that it wouldn’t break even if dropped—good sign. And then, the first bite.

I held up a hand to stop the conversation. The scone flaked. I didn’t know scones could flake. I took tiny bites, chewed slowly, sipped coffee between each mouthful, let The Nurse do most of the talking. I savored my first real scone and if I could have, I would have picked up that terracotta stoneware and licked it clean. Instead, I handed my crumb-free plate to the server, dabbed the corners of my mouth with a napkin, and said thank you. That was delicious.

From the first bite, I knew that the entire scone would be delicious. I knew I was in good hands with the chef who had prepared it. Trusted that every nut, bit of dried fruit and chocolate chunk had been carefully choosen and mixed in the perfect proportion. I didn’t need to eat the whole thing to know that every bite would be delightful. But I did.

I can say the same about a book I’m reading right now. From page one, I knew I was in good hands with this author. I didn’t have to read the whole thing to know the book would be wonderful, but I will. I’m reading it slowly, savoring it as I go. If you’re interested, the book is The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson and the scone can be found at Banyan Coffee and Tea at 689 MLK N in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Giant White Poster Board

I’m sitting at my desk this morning, staring down on a giant poster board covered with multicolored sticky notes. The board is divided into columns, each one labeled with a date, starting at June 8th, 1958. The sticky notes—pink, blue and lavender—each represent a different point-of-view character in the novel I am working on right now. I made the same type of board when I was nearing the end of BENT ROAD, except there were four colors and the dates began with August, 1967.

I started this board around the time I blogged about having reached page 300, after which I blogged about my ongoing struggle with plot. My plan was simple. The board would help me organize my scenes, confirm timelines, track details, visualize the story’s arch. I even spent a decent amount of time deciding which color sticky note to give to which character. Grace is sweet, innocent—definitely pink. Julia is stubborn yet surprising calm in the face of tragedy—blue. Ania is a bit crazy—lavender. Yes, the poster board would take command of my thoughts, show me the gapping holes in my plot, confirm the balance of my multiple points-of-view. Once upon a time, I was an accountant, and we accountants thrive in such order. Debits always on the right. Credits on the left. (Or is it the other way around. It’s been a while.) We tick and tie. We label our workpapers with red ink and reference our calculations with roman numerals. This tidy white board covered in tiny pastel flags would bring me the same order.

Except sitting here at my desk this morning, my coffee having gone slightly cold, I remember that the board didn’t help me with BENT ROAD, and it won’t help me now. While my accountant brain may have slurped up the eight column ledgers, my writer’s brain does not. I wish I could outline. I wish, before I wrote the first word of a novel, I could begin with an outline, each main idea headed up by a roman numeral. I would indent the subtopics and label them with capital letters, and the next level with regular numbers and the level after that with small letters. I would use Excel so that my columns would be evenly spaced and I would format each column with “wrap around text” so that the short phrases would not invade the next column. I have tried. With every novel—I wrote a few bad ones that I never tried to sell before writing and selling BENT ROAD—I have tried to outline. I recommend the practice to anyone who asks. But even after the fact, even after the novel is nearly complete and I am attempting to outline what is already written, my brain just doesn’t work that way.

I’ve come to this realization before and I come to it again now. As we speak, lavender, pink and blue stick notes are sailing around my office like tiny pastel colored birds in flight. I have torn them from my board, crumpled them into tiny balls I can later throw at my kids when they finally get out of bed and flung them in the air. My white poster board is again white. Maybe I’ll try an excel spreadsheet next and divide it by characters instead of dates and chapters. I won’t call it an outline. I’ll leave it unnamed. I’ll think with a landscape view instead of a portrait view. I’ll use a red font for things that need to be fixed and italics for things that need to be deleted. My new spreadsheet will show me the arch of each character’s story. I’ll be able to identify where the tension dwindles and isolate repetitive scenes. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. That’ll work for sure.

A bit of news - the audio rights to BENT ROAD recently sold, so should you prefer an audio version, it will be also be available.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Writer's Office

It’s raining this weekend in west central Florida, and because we don’t get snow days down here, I use these wet, dark days as my “clean something out” days. Today, I will clean my office.

I begin with the papers stacked a foot tall on top of my filing cabinet. Okay—there’s two stacks. All of you writers know what I find lurking there—old rejection letters. Most of them are from literary journals, rejecting my short stories. The story most rejected is the one that inspired me to write BENT ROAD. Not too much sting associated with those rejections. Another highly rejected short story, PAYDAYS, led to the novel I am finishing up now. Probably best that this short story never sold. Lastly, I file away a few rejections on the story GOOD ENOUGH. That one ultimately sold to the Chattahoochee Review. You’ll find it in their current edition.

So, what else lurks in a writer’s office? The writers in crowd know—research on literary agents. We all have it, stacks of it, mounds of it. Most of us do this research long before we’ve finished a novel worth selling. About midway through the stacks that no longer teeter, I find the binder where I stored my notes on various agents. Names, agencies, websites are scribbled on sheets of paper that I three hole punched and stuck in a blue binder. Some names are scratched out, other highlighted. I find the spreadsheet that I created to track the agents I queried when I finished BENT ROAD. I contacted nine agents before signing with Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency. I toss out the binder, the notes and the research. I keep the spreadsheet.

I find two year old report cards, pictures from Daughter’s pre-school days (she is a seventh grader now) and Husband’s original Social Security card. Not sure where that came from. Lastly, I find a few treasures. Again, the writers in the crowd can see this one coming. I dig up three small spiral notebooks where I’ve jotted down story ideas, listed character traits, drawn maps of imaginary towns. I find outlines in various states of completion, an article about earthworm hunting that I clipped from the newspaper, random scenes that I wrote out longhand and have no memory of writing. It’s like stealing someone else’s ideas, except they’re my own, and so they are fair game.

I finish the day by tearing up one of the 127 versions of BENT ROAD that I have read and edited over the past few years. (Just kidding about the 127.) I’ve already kept a few early drafts of this novel, so don’t need another. Then I gather up the two garbage bags that I filled with paperwork and stand back. This is when I realize that the state of my office mirrors the state of my writing. My early drafts are a bit haphazard. Ideas are cluttered, things stack up, plotlines teeter near disaster. As does my office. But then, after a first draft, a second draft, a tenth or twelfth draft, the storylines have been tidied up, the stacks have dwindled, most everything is where it should be. This is where I am as I near the end of the novel I am working on now. So I’ll enjoy this clean workspace until I start writing a third book, at which time I’m certain my office will slowly but surely deteriorate again into utter chaos.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Who Knew - Another Hemingway House

Last week, I wrote about the many miles I have traveled over the years to visit the Hemingway house in Key West only to realize that, unbeknownst to me, he once lived in a house a mere few miles from where I once lived in Kansas City. So, today, after visiting with some fine folks at Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas, Husband and I set out, mapquest in hand, to find this house.

Husband did the driving while I studied the directions. After much debate about which side of the road the house would be on based on its address, we decided to read the addresses stenciled in black on the curb. We found it—the only house in the neighborhood not visible from the road.

While awaiting the birth of their son in 1928, Hemingway and his wife, Pauline, lived here as guests of family friends. During this period, he worked on A FAREWELL TO ARMS. And while Husband and I were unable to wander through the halls of this house as we were the house in Key West, it is still a nice bit of history, and I am happy to have seen it. Below are a few pictures that I snapped.