What’s It All About, Alfie? It Being this Writing Thingamabob!

When I was little, I named my pet guinea pig after this song, even though I’m not sure I’d even heard it. Something about the title…

And it’s what came into my mind today, when I was thinking about this post. I spent part of the morning working on my WIP, alternating with popping on and off of Facebook to whine about working on that WIP. I’ve been reading an old favorite: Jean Webster’s Dear Enemy, and smiling & laughing on just about every page. Basically, I was feeling jealous of the “they” out there who are working on light, funny stories, with true heart, and wondering how much longer I was going to commit to digging deep into figuring out the dark, grim one I’m working on.

Yeah, whine, whine, whine. Instead of, you know, gratitude that I HAVE this awesome story idea to work on, that’s pushing me to explore my craft, my values, and my understanding of human nature & personality dynamics.

So instead of whining, I thought I’d look a little more closely at what’s going on with me today, and see if any of it sounded familiar to you guys, and check out what you do about it!

Okay, yes, I took three yoga classes in three days, which perhaps has made me a little extra tired. And I came back to my WIP after three weeks off to deal with my husband’s broken bones (healing well!) and my own NF deadline. And the days of this week have been pretty chopped up into small pieces, pretty much interspersed with me getting into a car to drive somewhere, getting out at that somewhere, getting back in, driving home, and a little later, getting back into that car. Which never does wonders for my mental state.

But…separate from that: the book. I think one of the big things getting to me is the time that this story is taking me to write. Longer than anything I’ve ever actually come close to finishing, so that question of Will/Can I ever finish does loom large on certain days. I have a weird brain that sees books I’ve read and books I’m writing as typeset fonts on physical pages, and this book looks light and sparse with short chapters, short paragraphs, and lots of white space. Which is cool, except that the physical reality of this book is, currently, long chapters, long paragraphs and yawning amounts of space covered with text. So…how long is it going to take me to make the reality fit the vision?

And the question always arises: Do I chuck this and pick up something else. I could revise that light, funny MG mystery that’s in the drawer (I know, bad idea!). I could do some plotting on the urban fantasy idea that’s been sitting in a file for a bit. I could take a look at that MG novel idea that has a little boy I am SO in love with. I could go back and spend a lot of time on the picture books. Lots of choices that would feel like real reasons to put this book aside.

But then I open that file, and I spent five minutes, and the questions I’m trying to answer catch me up again and shout at me and get my juices flowing. Even if I don’t get very far in answering them. The feeling of slog has that one sharp, bite of Yes! mixed in.

Backing up that Yes! is the strong feeling that there is a craft learning-curve involved here for me. A big one. Which is, of course, tied to the fact of how long this book is taking to write. And the almost-certainty that if I fool myself into letting this go, all I’m going to face are more story ideas that need me to learn that missing part of the craft.

So there you have it. Not sure if I succeeded in keeping the whine out of this post, but I do think I’ve come back again to the fact that the best thing for me to do is push on. Push on and push away thoughts of the calendar.

How do you handle this struggle: this battle between the I-Want-to-Finish and I-Want-to-Write-THIS-Story? Do you put things away for a while and work on other ideas? Do you play lots of loud music that shuts up that evil counting-down-egg-timer monster? Do you have a mantra taped to your computer?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you haven’t tuned into Debbi Michiko Florence’s posts on her Year of Writing, check them out here. They’re a good sanity check and reminder that this is a problem other writers face, that we’re not alone in the battle.


The Blog: What’s Coming in November

First, Happy Halloween to everybody!

I’ve been feeling like my blog posts are a little scattered of late–kind of “my life” focused and a little light on craft-talk. Hopefully, this month, I’ll get back on track with talking about fiction and the writing of it. I’m digging into a couple of projects that I think will get me back on track, both with my own writing (the emotional AND time commitment) and with blogging about the process, tools, and ideas that I really love talking about.

First, as you probably already know, I’m participating in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) over at Tara Lazar’s blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them).

I’ll be guest-posting over there next weekend, but I’m guessing I’ll also be talking about it here plenty–what it’s like mining for a new idea every day for 30 days, how those ideas are feeling, if I’m seeing serious potential in any of them for development into actual stories…That kind of thing.

And I’m pulling myself back to the YA historical that has been driving me nutso.

This is my copy of Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. No, you can’t buy it in a three-ring binder, but if you have a bandsaw in your garage, you can either bravely take the book to the blade yourself, or–like me–ask your husband to cut the edge binding off, then three-hole-punch the thing into a binder, thus leaving LOTS of room for all those extra pages of notes and scenes you’re going to create. Yes, it’s book mutilation, but in the best cause ever. Yes? Yes.

I’ve talked about this book before, well–about the prequel to it, Writing the Breakout Novel. And I used the workbook when I first got started on this WIP.  The story has changed so drastically, though, and I find myself struggling so much to understand the characters, that I’m going back to the workbook. Seriously, that’s the biggest compliment I can pay a writing book–that I return to it in times of stress, mind-chaos, or need-for-inspiration. I’m going to work my way through the workbook, and I’m going to do ALL the exercises. In some form or another.  Between Mr. Maass and me, we’re going to figure these people out! And, lucky you, you’ll probably get to hear about the process, and hopefully the discoveries, along the way.

So that’s what’s coming. A little more thinking, a little more writing.

And of course, there’s bound to be at least one post on…

November? Bring it on!

Reading for Writing: It’s Not Copying

Years ago, when I was working on a mystery novel, I read one of Lawrence Block’s writing books. (I can’t remember which it was, and, honestly, the list of his books is TOO long to go through right now!) The most important takeaway from that book, for me, was his instruction to pick a few of my favorite (as in, written well) mysteries, and plot them. I’m not getting this exact, because it has been a while, but the idea was basically to go through each chapter & write down the important turning points of the story.

To see how it was done. How it was done right.

In other words, read to find out what the hero did, what happened to the hero to get in their way, what events increased the tension, and how the story–with all its problems–resolved itself in the end.

I still do this, and not just with plot. I talked here about Sarah Ockler’s brilliant management of the passage of time, in Fixing Delilah, and–when I get to that stage of revision–I plan to study how she did it. What she did. It’s not copying, folks, it’s dissection. It’s finding the craft behind the art–a craft the writer may or may not be conscious of, but that I do believe is there, present, for us to find and learn from.

I find myself recommending this technique to editing clients all the time. I’ll do my best to explain how goals & obstacles create tension, how middle-grade voice differs from young-adult, how dialogue beats add to the layers of a conversation or argument. And then I’ll find myself typing this: “Go by the bookstore, or your library, and pick up some books.” I tell them to look at the books they love best, to scan the New Books shelves at the library, or ask the children’s librarian for help. Find a passage (or three) that does what they’re trying to accomplish…and read it. Then reread it. Then reread it again.

One of the “downsides” of doing a lot of critiquing is that, yes, I am more critical of the books I read. In my thirties, I pretty much finished every book I started, no matter what. Now, honestly, you have to catch me in the first two pages, and I will put down a book 3/4 of the way through if the characters or story are letting me down. (And, yes, I do take it that personally!)

BUT…the “upside” of that is that, when a book stuns me, and many do, I have a resource, a tool, for my own writing. My reading eye has sharpened enough so that, as I’m being carried away, a little voice inside is saying, “OMG. Look at that scene structure!” or “That hero is totally taking the lead!” or “Do you see how that dialogue is moving the story forward?!”

I know, weird. But helpful. And, honestly, I think the resource is there for all of us, even if we aren’t realizing it the first time through. It’s why I keep the books I do keep, even with continuously shrinking shelf space–because I will reread them, and I will learn from them.

And doing so will make my writing better.  This Lawrence Block says, and this I know.

Thankful Thursday: What IS a Writing Path (Part 1)

This month, I came up on my 1-year blog-versary for this website and blog. I’d been blogging at LiveJournal for a while longer, but started this site when I got the contract for The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. I decided I wanted a blog that was more tuned into my professional self, a blog that might, hopefully, be a bit more helpful to other writers.

Since then, I’ve let go of the LiveJournal blog, because, well–TWO WAS CRAZY, but also because I realized I can’t really split off the personal and professional parts of my writing path. Not very well, anyway, and definitely not helpful.

Anyway…in mulling over what I do here, etc, I took another look at the title and thought, okay…what does that mean? I have a sense; we probably all have a sense, but I realized I’ve never talked about the title here and what it means to me.

Until today.

Off the top of my head, there are two elements to my writing path–the craft lane and what I call the profession lane (not much liking to get into success/non-success talk!). Today I’m going to talk about my craft lane. Then another day, maybe next Thankful Thursday, I’ll move to the other side of the road and talk profession.

Because, it is, for me, about being thankful. My writing, wherever it came from, is one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever received.

Here are some of the steps/stages I’ve taken on the craft path. See if any of them sound familiar to you!

  • Writing what I read.
    I’m not talking here about writing in the genre we love, but rather that all-important first step of mimicry, flattery-by-imitation, derivative work. For me, this stage started when I was young and mostly took the form of starting a different fantasy story every week, pretty much based on whatever novel I was immersed in at the moment. You can see more about that here. This is a stage I think most writers go through, at some point, and it’s not a matter for embarrassment or shame. It’s part of learning the craft.
  • Writing for assignments.
    This is what I did in school. I chose a college that had a concentration in Creative Writing and I wrote short stories and novel chapters and poetry. A teacher would assign a topic, and I would write. This was the stage in which I found out about writing for deadline and writing on task, and when I learned that I could do that. Creatively.
  • Committing to a project.
    For many, many years I was a mystery writer. I was writing a mystery. I started it when I was living in Los Angeles, brought it with me when I moved to the Bay Area, added a toddler character after my twin nephews were born, and dumped that character when they were teens. I took this mystery to critique group, I revised and rewrote, and I honed my skills on writing scenes, developing characters, planting clues, and creating tension. And then I got a better idea.
  • Falling in Love.
    I took a workshop from April Kihlstrom about writing a Book in a Week. While I was there, I was jotting notes about a new idea, a kids’ mystery with a hero and a sidekick that kept interrupting my focus being inspired by April, and telling me to write about them. Which I did. That book got written and revised and dispatched to look for a home.
  • Stretching and Growing.
    Up until this stage of the path, I was a one-idea writer. I had one idea, I wrote about one idea, and I pushed down the panicky voice telling me that this limit said something bad about my creativity/my ability as a writer. Then, I got a chance at nonfiction, a young woman told me she HAD to have a fictional role in a certain historical moment, a mythical creature said it was finally time to put him into a picture book, and that old fantasy love reared its sweet head again. And I find myself wondering not just when I’ll fit it all in, but–more importantly–about where on the craft part of my writing path all these projects will take me.

Because I do believe that I could not be taking any of these steps without the ones that have come before. Maybe path isn’t the right word. Maybe bridge would be better. (I’m SO not changing the site title!). As much as we want the superhero cape and powers that would let us leap those tall buildings and smash through the brick walls, we don’t have those. Thankfully, though, we have brains–incredible tools that grow new synapses and zap out new electrical connections and let us grow in ways that are, frankly, unbelievable.

Think back. What have you done that’s led you to today? What steps on your writing path have brought you to this curve, this fork in the road that you’re just starting to peer around?

To quote one of my favorite heroes, “The road goes ever on and on.”  Thank goodness.