Deadlines

I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines.

If you make me wait to finish something until just before a deadline, then I hate them. Sometimes this plays out at my day job, when I need some final information from someone else before I can submit a grant proposal. I accept that others are busy and that this is my reality, but it Drives. Me. Crazy. Me, a control freak? Whatever do you mean?

If you let me plan and organize and beat my deadline by a couple of days, or a week, then I am happy. And, in that case, I love deadlines. Because they make me get things done, let me check a task off a to-do list, give me a feeling of completion and satisfaction. While I was doing the at-home-mom, working-on-my-own-fiction thing, I essentially had no deadlines. Oh, sure, yes, you have 18 years to get your kid Ready to Move Out, but guess how quickly you realize that is very much out of your control? And you want to publish a book SOMEDAY, but someday is not a deadline.

August 31, 2017 is a deadline.

That’s the date when I find out if I get into the writing program I applied for. It’s a mentorship program, and they decide based on your first 20 pages and a couple of other items. If they reach out on August 31 and tell you that you’re accepted, then on September 1st, you send the whole manuscript.

I’d been working on this book for a while, had a couple of complete drafts, and was in the middle of another, and I pretty much knew the bare bones path to the end. But I had been waffling around that middle, spending way too much time on deciding whether my hero was going to do X or Y and whether I was going to bring in this side plot rf that one or neither, things like that.

With the deadline, I stopped waffling. I spent approximately two minutes thinking about any decision, then I made a choice. Doubts, fears, nasty little voices–I pushed them aside. Questions about what should happen in the next scene got answered by what taking one more look at what happened in the last one, and moving on. Sometimes that meant picking up the next scene five minutes after the last, sometimes it meant skipping forward some days. When the You-Call-that-Pacing? demon raised its head, and, oh, it did, I pushed it back down. I basically played Whack-a-Worry and kept writing.

And I met the deadline. I met it the way I like best, three weeks early.

Is the book good? Oh, h*ll, I have no idea. Is it better than the last versions? In terms of telling a story from beginning to end, coherently and in a comprehensible sequence? Yes. In terms of depth and writing and impact. Probably not. Are there holes and missing layers and characters who showed up too little or not at all? Definitely. Is my hero active enough and driving himself forward with a character-driven plot.  Not yet.

Did I get more work done and make more progress in the past few months than I had in the past two years?

I did.

And that’s the power of a deadline. That is the love part of my love/hate relationship. And the reminder is the first gift (hopefully not the last) that this writing program has given to me.

My 100 Best Novels. With a Few Memoirs. Plus Other Things.

Okay, Nathan Bransford said this was hard, and I believe him. But it was also fun. It has made me very clear that there are some books I want to go back and reread and some books I should be putting on my never-read-and-whyever-not? list.

Nathan had his caveats, and I’m going to have mine. They are:

  1. The books will be ones I’ve actually read, all the way through. There are probably many books out there that I have never picked up that would totally qualify.
  2. Some of these books I literally haven’t read in decades and are on the list because of the impact they had on me when I did read them. If I reread them today, they might not make the list. Others are recent reads that are foremost in my memory–in 10 years, they might not be here. Some are books that I know I won’t choose to read again, because they were brilliantly written, but I don’t want to repeat the experience of being in the world they portray.
  3. As I look at the list developing, I realize that it is a very white, heterosexual list. I am working on this, trying to read more widely and more diversely. But these are still books I fell in love with or was at least blown away by, so–for now–they make up my “best.”
  4. They are in alphabetical order, obviously, not order of favoritude.
  5. I’m not going to argue about this list. I welcome all comments and discussion, but I won’t be defending anything I’ve put here. That’s why it’s my list. You should definitely make your own and, if you want, leave a link in the comments!
  6. Because some of my favorite books are memoirs, I’ve included some of those. And I cheated a couple of other times, to get in some other books that are short stories or, in one case, long essays. Because these books are The Best.

Here we go.

NOVELS

  1. 84 Charing Cross Road
  2. All Creatures Great and Small
  3. Anne of Green Gables
  4. The Ark
  5. Artemis Fowl
  6. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
  7. Between, Georgia
  8. The BFG
  9. Bitterblue
  10. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
  11. Breakup
  12. The Brothers Karamazov
  13. Bluecrowne
  14. The Bluest Eye
  15. Busman’s Holiday
  16. Caddie Woodlawn
  17. Captains Courageous
  18. Charlotte’s Web
  19. Cheaper by the Dozen
  20. Cloud and Wallfish
  21. The Color of Water
  22. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
  23. The Flame Trees of Thika
  24. Flygirl
  25. Frindle
  26. A Good Man is Hard to Find
  27. Great Expectations
  28. Half Magic
  29. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  30. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  31. High Hearts
  32. The Haunting of Hill House
  33. The Hobbit
  34. Holes
  35. A House with Four Rooms
  36. I’ll Give You the Sun
  37. Inkheart
  38. Island of the Aunts
  39. Jo’s Boys *
  40. The Jungle
  41. The Left-Handed Fate
  42. Life of Pi
  43. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  44. Lionboy
  45. Little Men *
  46. Living with Jackie Chan
  47. The Long Winter
  48. The Magician’s Elephant
  49. Matilda
  50. The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  51. The Metamorphosis **
  52. The Mouse and the Motorcycle
  53. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  54. My Antonia
  55. My Father’s Dragon
  56. My Most Excellent Year
  57. Not a Genuine Black Man
  58. Okay for Now
  59. The Only Ones
  60. The Boy Most Likely To
  61. Persuasion
  62. The Penderwicks
  63. The Penderwicks in Spring
  64. Perverse and Foolish
  65. The Phantom Tollbooth
  66. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  67. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle
  68. Pippi Longstocking
  69. Pride and Prejudice
  70. The Princess Bride
  71. And Quiet Flows the Don
  72. Reflecting the Sky
  73. A Ring of Endless Light
  74. A Room of One’s Own 
  75. The Scarlet Pimpernel
  76. The Secret Garden
  77. The Shepherd’s Crown **
  78. Speak
  79. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
  80. Tea with the Black Dragon
  81. The True Meaning of Smekday
  82. The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode
  83. The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax
  84. Travels with Charley
  85. Villette
  86. War and Peace
  87. The Water is Wide
  88. The Watsons Go to Birmingham
  89. We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea
  90. The Wee Free Men **
  91. When We Rise
  92. Wintergirls
  93. Winnie the Pooh
  94. Travels with Charley
  95. The Water is Wide
  96. The Wolf Wilder
  97. The World According to Garp
  98. A Wrinkle in Time
  99. Wuthering Heights
  100. Zooman Sam

* Little Men and Jo’s Boys reach “best” status when you read them both, in order.
*** Make sure you read all the Tiffany Aching books after The Wee Free Men BEFORE you read The Shepherd’s Crown (the last in the series).

 

Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park Doesn’t Have Cell Service

I spent the weekend in a gorgeous place in the middle of the desert, learning about abandoned mines and the Nevada State Fossil–the Ichthyosaur. We had originally picked Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park as a place to basically get away from home, do some Vanagon camping, and not deal with Life Stuff for a few days.

It may have worked a little better than I expected.

I knew our cell service might be a little spotty on the trip, but I will tell you that Nevada has way better service in what I call their “boonies” than California does in ours. Maybe because there’s more of it? I can’t get connected basically anywhere in the Sierras, but get me across the state line, and…boom! I can do google searches and play with social media as much as I want. And I had kind of figured that in the State Park, there would be rangers, so there would be service. Nope. From Friday night to Sunday late afternoon when we left–not a sign of the Internet or anything from or about the outside world. So, seriously. Zero. Life. Stuff.

It was a little weird. I didn’t actually miss it; there’s a lot about the world these days that I don’t mind tuning out from. But I did notice how often my brain would, just in any moment of silence, drop into that groove that had me almost reflexively reaching for my phone. A gap of ideas as I was working on a chapter, a question of trivia that my husband and I didn’t know the answer to, a picture I wanted to share on Facebook. It was, honestly, a lesson in the mindfulness part of well…mindfulness–Wow! Look how often I’m doing that.

And can I tell you how fast I was writing? I know–we all know–how distracting the internet can be when we’re supposed to be putting words on a page. I get that, but I also tell myself some version of the “I can  handle it, and I can quit anytime” storyline. But both Saturday and Sunday mornings, while my husband was out on his bike, I draft or revised an entire short chapter in about an hour and a half. Seriously. We woke up really, because the Vanagon has no curtains, and the sun comes right in the windows. I don’t move really quickly, but by 7:30 or so, my husband had hit the road (not literally, thank goodness–been there, done that!), and I was writing. By 9:00, I had the chapter done. And I hadn’t noticed the time passing, not at all. I would think, okay, that’s a chapter–it must be 11:00 or even noon. Nope. Not even close. I wasn’t looking up, I wasn’t looking around, I wasn’t looking beyond the pinyon pines at the edge of our campsite.

!pinyons.jpg

The other thing that happened was that I ran out of books. I know, right? Catastrophe. Partly, it was because we were both doing a lot of laying around and reading, and partly it was because we ended up with a minor charging problem, and I couldn’t get to my kindle for a few hours. Know what I did? I sat in my beach chair under the shade cover, head back against one of the pillars, and–for an hour or two–either stared out at those trees and thought, or closed my eyes and dozed. I didn’t even have my phone with me.

I know. No big revelations here. There’s enough talk on the very Internet we should spend less time on, about how we should spend less time on the Internet. And they’re right. But maybe, after this trip, I know just a little more deeply that they’re right.

So…what am I doing about it? No promises about how long this will last, but for now and maybe for a little past now, I’m going to disconnect a little more. This is going to be a challenge–in part, just because I’m trying to take apart a habit. Also, though, as toxic as all the crap in DC is, I believe it’s important for me to stay in touch with it, to know when it’s my turn to dial my Senators, to call out the idiots and say, “We see you.” But my new mantra is going to be, “Right now, I’m doing X,” meaning, I’m doing one thing, and being on my phone simultaneously, in whatever form, is doing two things. I’m going to put it away more frequently, turn it off, delay checking in with whatever my brain thinks I should be checking in with.

And I’m going to see–when I’m not in the desert, when I’m not on a weekend, when I’ve gone longer than two days–how it feels.

Peter Brown’s THE WILD ROBOT: Seeing Yourself in a Book that is Totally Not About You or For You

I just read Peter Brown‘s The Wild Robot. By the time this post is live, I’ll have discussed it in a virtual book club this weekend, but we come at our books as writers looking at the craft and I don’t think that discussion and this post are going to overlap much. Because, as good as it is to learn from the books we read, it’s also good (or at least important to me) to simply have an emotional response, fall in love, and share that love.

Honestly, I am intrigued by The Wild Robot. I said to my husband, explaining why the book is going to land on his nightstand once I’m done with the book club chat, “It’s a different little book.” He is not a big reader of children’s books, although–of course–he reads more of them now than he did before he met me. 🙂 But I think he may like this one–I’m sure in a different way and for different reasons than I do. But I think this book, in its pretty unique little package, might have a broad appeal–it might be intriguing for a lot of people other than me.

It’s a wonderful adventure. It’s great science fiction, it’s a coming of age book, it’s a nicely woven social commentary. Okay, now I feel like whoever wrote the trailer cards for the original Miracle on 34th Street, but I really do think the book is all those things.

For me, it’s a lovely little story about being a parent.

I know, right? Because Peter Brown sat down in his studio one day and said, “You know what? I’m going to do something different from a picture book. I’m going to write my first novel, and you know what else? I’m going to write it for and about a middle-aged woman, her journey from being the inexperienced mother of a newborn baby all the way up to the time that baby reaches young adulthood and departs for his first season of college.” Peter Brown so totally did that.

He so totally did not. The Wild Robot is a middle-grade novel, written for middle-grade kids. In some sense, I think it targets the young end of that spectrum–Roz the robot is super cool, Brightwing the gosling and his friend Chitchat the squirrel are engaging and entertaining, and the other animals act at once true to their animal natures and completely fantasized as a community that would never coalesce in real life. This book is written for kids, and I think many kids would love it. It’s a much more complex story, with many more layers than Ruth Stiles Gannett‘s My Father’s Dragon, and ‘yet something about the voice and the clarity of prose remind me of that book (which is an all-time favorite of mine).

But…

  • When Roz first finds Brightwing the baby gosling: “The robot gently cradled the fragile thing in her hand.”
  • When the other animals start to lecture Roz about how to take care of Brightwing: “Yes, I do want him to survive,” said the robot. “But I do not know how to act like a mother.”
  • When Brightwing can’t go to sleep in his new nest: “Roz held him. The robot’s body may have been hard and mechanical, but it was also strong and soft. The gosling felt loved. His eyes slowly winked closed. And he spent the whole night quietly sleeping in his mother’s arms.”
  • When Brightwing has his first swimming lesson, and Roz can’t go in the water with him: “Roz pointed to the flock. ‘I cannot swim. Go have fun with the other geese. You will be safe with them.’…Roz spent the morning watching her son swim around and around the pond.”
  • When pre-adolescent Brightwing flies away to a place Roz has told him he is too young to go: “Brightwing had never run away–or flown away–and suddenly Roz was computing all the things that could go wrong. A violent storm. A broken wing. A predator. She had to find her son before something bad happened.”
  • When Brightwing leaves to migrate for a season with the other geese and Roz stays behind: “The island was quiet. The migratory birds had all left, the hibernators were asleep, and everyone else had begun their simple winter routines. Everyone but Roz. Now that she was alone, she didn’t know what to do with herself.”
  • And there’s one more at the end, but that would be a spoiler. Plus, it might make you cry.

Now, of course, I had friends before I was a parent, but I made new friends when my son was born, and some of them are still the best friends I had. I never covered myself with leaves and twigs and learned animal sounds to fit in better with the bears and the birds and the badgers, but if you’ve ever carried a relatively new baby into a pre-arranged playdate with other moms you’ve never met–it’s really not all that different. And while Roz’ limits of understanding and abilities come because she is a robot who’s programming wasn’t designed to parent, oh, wait–that’s exactly what being a new parent is like.

I do believe that Roz is the hero and the protagonist of the story. She steps out of the normal world of her crate, and she adapts and learns and grows and makes that world better-for herself and those around her. And, at the end…oops, never mind, spoiler. And I think kids will see her as a hero and love her, and I think that most will connect with the mother/robot-child relationship. But I do think they will connect with the coolness of the robot, too, in a big way.

Me, I connected with the uncoolness of the mother, the mother who had to parent and learn about parenting all at the same time, who–despite making the choice to raise the baby–went into it with no knowledge, no experience, and no preparation. And who stumbles, goofs up, worries, and frets. Brown does a beautiful job of showing the learning possibilities of artificial intelligence. He also does a beautiful job of showing the learning that we parents of “real” intelligence just hope we succeed in doing.

Back to Writing: Working STORY GENIUS into the Middle of a Revision

Yesterday, I finished reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. Somethings in the book worked better for me than others, but–overall–I am very impressed with Cron’s perspective and the exercises she uses to help us strengthen our stories.

For a while I was doing the exercises as I read through them, but this weekend turned out to be a good time to just curl up with a book, so I finished the last few chapters. And now I’m thinking about how I want to do the last exercises.

If you are just starting a novel or are even just thinking about it, I think I would recommend doing all the exercises, straight through, as Cron advises. She gives you a good base and then helps you build on that, and I find her logic and processes make sense. But that’s not where I’m at. I’m on the third draft of my WIP (although, honestly, it feels like a second draft), and I was struggling to get across the middle with anything that felt like effective scenes, when I heard people talking about the book. I started it, and then I was caught, but…honestly, I don’t want to back up and start this draft all over. And I don’t want to jump ahead and skip to the next draft, because I’m still going to have to deal with that middle that sent me looking for help. So, for Chapters 11 through 15, I’m going to pick and choose a bit.

  1. I’m going to create an Idea List out of all my existing scenes, in the order they currently happen.
  2. I may or may not do one of Cron’s scene cards for each of my existing scenes. On the one hand, I think it would be good to get something set up for each one, so I’m thinking about the her scene card questions–which I think are excellent. On the other hand, I already feel a bit as if I procrastinated myself away from my WIP to work through Cron’s book, and I don’t want to add too much more time onto that procrastination pile. So I may just do a quick card for each scene and give myself persmission to answer all the questions on it later, before the next revision.
  3. I’ll start adding to the Idea List, as I take my first strong look back at that middle where I got lost–looking for new scenes to bridge that chasm.
  4. I’ll test the new ideas against some of Cron’s questions: 1) Why does my plot need this to happen?, 2) Logistically, why can this happen (is it actually possible)?, 3) Why would this happen, given my protagonist’s inner struggle? and 4) Why would this matter to my protagonist’s inner struggle? I actually think 3 and 4 may be the same question, and Cron just phrased it differently in a couple of places, but it doesn’t hurt me to look at this all a little bit more closely?
  5. I’ll do a scene card for each of the new scenes I want to work on to cross that middle. On these, I’ll push myself a little further than on the cards I may do for my existing scenes. I really like how Cron  uses these cards to connect what has happened before to what will happen later, and I think that making those connections will (hopefully) make the middle of the story less of a big, dark hole that I can fill in.
  6. I’ll continue to do a scene card for the scenes past the middle, ones I already have some idea about and have, at some level, worked into my overall plot. I don’t want to back up and do any scenes over, but I want whatever I write new for this draft to be as strong as it can be. And I think Cron’s system can help me get there.

Obviously, I’m not positive this is going to work. There’s a little voice calling to me to back up and start all over, using Cron’s full system, but there’s a louder voice basically shouting at me to keep moving forward. So I’m going to give it a try–I’m going to flex and adapt Cron’s tools to my need, right now, and see what happens.

Fingers crossed!

Cirque du Soleil: Luzia

Last night, my husband and I went to our first Cirque du Soleil performance, Luzia. David has wanted to go for years, decades even, but we just haven’t ever gotten our act together and bought tickets. Until this month.

We’ll be keeping our act together a lot more in the future.

I had some impressions (totally false) of what I thought it would be like. David used to watch performances on TV, when we had cable, and I would sit in for a few minutes and watch, but I could never follow it. I thought I had to understand the storyline (writer, much?), and I was always struggling to do that. Then the camera would either zoom in on one person (who might or might not be doing the most fascinating thing, from my pov), or would pan out and be showing you the whole stage, and–I’m sorry–that is nuts. There is NO way to follow what’s going on across the whole stage and up in the air. David is much more visual than I am (really, if there aren’t written words in front of me, I often just don’t get the point), so I always figured that my non-visual brain wouldn’t really get it. I bought the tickets for my husband, because, yes, I’m that nice.

Last night, when the show was done, I thanked HIM for coming with ME. 🙂

At some levels, the show was simply amazing. The things these people could do–the guy who spun on a strap above a water pool, with one shoulder “in” the strap, flipping (with that shoulder as the pivot point) over and over and around and around. While I wasn’t just staring, I was (I’ll admit it) thinking about all the shoulder surgery waiting for him down the line. The young man who was essentially a contortionist, getting into yoga-like positions where you honestly couldn’t tell which way (for him) was up and which was down, left or right.  The acrobats flipping from swinging platform to swinging platform, doing spins and somersaults in the air. If it was supposed to help my stress levels that the platforms were relatively close to the ground, then they shouldn’t have let their acrobats jump so high before coming back down!

At another level, I loved the parallels to a more traditional circus (although I can’t honestly remember if I’ve even been to one of those). The guy with the shoulder was doing all his flips and twirls over and around a puma, I think, a puma “costume” that had been built for the show, then placed on top of the shoulders of performers, who made it walk and growl and purr and ask to be scratched in a totally cat-like way. This were the big-cat show. The hair was long and straight, and he swung it around in the way a “regular” lion-tamer would crack his whip. This was SO much nicer than seeing that whip and real animals being “tamed.” And there was a clown. Not a scary clown, not a clown with a red nose and big feet, not an irritating clown. But a clever, funny clown who had all the kids and all the adults laughing in sympathy with him whenever he showed up on stage. When the rainfall that was coming from the ceiling kept moving around so he couldn’t catch any water to fill his canteen, the little girl next to me kept saying things like, “Over there! Get it! No, over there!” That’s how engaged she was.

But the best level? The one that I needed so much last night and hadn’t even realized I did need. The utter delight. When I wasn’t gripping my husband’s arm and holding my breath until somebody landed safely, I was grinning and smiling without even realizing it. The rhythm of the dancers as they flipped through rings on the big treadmill, the energy of the two young women who spun themselves in big hoops for minutes on end, the grinning musicians with their tuba and their accordion and their guitar, the people wearing costumes that simulated animals from Mexico (oh, the woman’s cape that spread out to be an iguana!), the movement and the balance and the grace and the joy. My hands kept moving to cover my mouth–my husband thought I was scared the whole time, I think (although that’s just silly, because scared=gripping his arm!), but what I was, was happy.

There has been so much crap lately, we are all so stressed, and we all know it’s going to go on for a while. Stay aware, stay committed, stay active. But, oh, yes, schedule times to bring joy and amazement back into your life. Step out of the anger and worry and find something that will fill your brain with energy and smiles. Maybe it is a Cirque du Soleil performance. Maybe it’s something else. You know best what it will be–just go get some on your calendar!