Archive | Fiction

Seven Years Down, Three to Go

I didn’t get much writing done last week. We’re in the final stretch leading up to my sister’s wedding, and I’ve been spending a lot of time on preparations. Last week, I was wrapping up plans for the bachelorette party on Friday (so excited!) and on top of that, it was my birthday.

I have mixed feelings about birthdays as of late. I’m not really one to dread getting older. I don’t even mind the wrinkles that have been slowly taking hold around my eyes or the gray hairs that catch my eye in the mirror. The thing that set me squirming last week was realizing that I am now 38, and I started working on my novel when I was 31.

And it’s not done. It’s not anywhere near done. I got some very thoughtful feedback recently, and it has made me realize I actually have a ways to go with it. So I find myself outlining, again. In my darker moments, like this morning at 5am, I seriously consider throwing the towel in. I mean, seriously, seven years. Who am I kidding?

In my more optimistic moments, I think that really these past seven years have been training. There’s that old saying that you have to put 10 years or 10,000 hours into something before you can call yourself an expert. I wouldn’t even know where to begin counting hours, but I have been a writer for seven years now, both professionally and creatively. And that’s not even counting all the dabbling and short story writing I did before I decided to take myself seriously.

After I’ve had my coffee, I can accept that maybe this first novel is training. When I’m not feeling like I want to crawl into a hole and never come out, I can see that maybe my next novel won’t take a decade, because of everything I’m learning on this one. And then I think – what if does? Would I quit? I just can’t fathom quitting. I’m a writer, this is what I do, and as much as I love my job, I am not a technical writer at heart, I’m a storyteller.

Trouble is, it’s hard to stay optimistic. I think for now I’ll forget about being positive, and just resolve to reserve judgement for another three years. If I’m ten years in and still haven’t finished a book I feel is worthy of reading, then maybe I’ll consider giving up. But for now, I trudge forward.

#writingishard

Here’s a photo I took on a research trip to the OK Corral Ostrich Farm (in 2009).

Ostrich Writing

 

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Comparing Prose

I recently re-read Lonesome Dove. I wanted to read it more critically this time, to really consider why it captivated me so excruciatingly the first time I read it. At nearly 1000 pages, the worst thing about it is that it’s not longer. I feel like I could live in that book. If I had to choose one story to take to a deserted island, that would be it. And it held up on the second read, just as it had on the first.

So I got to thinking, what is it about McMurtry’s writing that is so effing awesome? Well, down at the good old Silver Lake Public Library I found myself a few other books by the man and set to reading. What I discovered was that I don’t actually love all of his writing. I couldn’t even finish Leaving Cheyenne. But I couldn’t quite say why. This seemed like a tremendous opportunity.

I pulled a passage from Leaving Cheyenne at random:

When we got to Molly’s she bandaged my hand and we sat up in the kitchen, eating all the stray food and talking over old times. We were all in high spirits and Johnny told us a lot of stories about life on the plains. Finally me and him slept awhile on her living room floor, and about sunup she came in in her nightgown and bathrobe and woke us up and cooked the best breakfast I ever ate.

Then I flipped to a page of Lonesome Dove:

By the time she got to her back porch the rain was slackening and the sun was already striking little rainbows through the sparkle of drops that still fell. Pea had walked on home, the water dripping more slowly from his hat. He never mentioned the incident to anyone, knowing it would mean unmerciful teasing if it ever got out. But he remembered it. When he lay on the porch half drunk and it floated up in his mind, things got mixed into the memory that he hadn’t even known he was noticing, such as the smell of Mary’s wet flesh. He hadn’t meant to smell her, and hadn’t made any effort to, and yet, the very night after it happened the first thing he remembered was that Mary had smelled different from any other wet thing he had ever smelled.

In looking at these two passages, as a writer, the first difference I see is in the detail. The first passage just sort of tells what they did. The second has the most wonderful details: little rainbows through the sparkle of drops, the smell of Mary’s wet flesh. And I love the phrase “different from any other wet thing he had ever smelled.” It made me giggle, and it evokes the smell of wet things. Wet things smell different than dry things.

The second thing I notice is the passing of time. Both passages cover the better part of a day, but the second has more context to the passing: the water dripping from his hat on the walk home, laying on the porch half drunk thinking of this woman. Compare that to “me and him slept a while on her living room floor.” I guess you could chalk that up to details as well. Maybe that’s why Lonesome Dove is so long. It’s all the details. But I’ll tell you, it’s those details that make it absolutely delicious.

The third is the narrator. Lonesome Dove is third person, jumping from character to character (to character – there are a lot of them), while Leaving Cheyenne is first person, which is inherently limiting. You just can’t tell as grand a story from first person. The main character in Leaving Cheyenne would never notice rainbows in raindrops. It just wouldn’t fit.

My novel is in first person, but I really feel like it needs to be. It’s a personal story. It’s subjective. It does limit perspective a bit, but I think the lesson here is to bring the details, make it visceral. My character is not above noting details, so I think there is reason to aspire to the heights of Lonesome Dove.  Not that I could ever write something as genius as that, but a girl can dream…

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Making Use of Discarded Pages

It’s official. I am way too old to be staying up all night partying. It took me about five days to recover from my adventures in the desert last weekend. Not that I even drank all that much. I was just so freaking tired. But whatever

I REGRET NOTHING!

That said, my writing did take a hit last week. It was Wednesday before I actually got up for my usual 5am writing session, and even then I was so foggy I couldn’t really concentrate to write. So I decided to take advantage of the time by culling some old pages that got cut from the last draft of my novel and see if maybe I could turn them into a short story worthy of submission to a journal or two.

When I started this story, it was all about this sassy girl named Sunday. Then, as the story evolved Sunday’s appearance in the story got pushed back, and then pushed again, and finally, at some point, it stopped being her story at all. In fact, she didn’t even belong in the story anymore. I was deeply reluctant to cut her, but as soon as I did, the story opened wide up. It was like I finally saw what I wanted to do with the narrative.

But the Sunday pages (as I’ve starte calling them) are still pretty good pages, and I have a lot of them. So on Wednesday morning I pasted them all into their own fresh Word doc and took a rough pass at trimming anything that referenced the larger story. When I was done I had 24 pages, which I promptly emailed to my writing group.

My hope is that with their help I can figure out a framework for Sunday’s story that will allow it to stand on it’s own. A little chocolate, a little wine, and five kick-ass story tellers brainstorming should produce at least a few ideas.
It would be nice to send something out into the world again. Having short stories published is a good confidence booster, and won’t hurt any when it comes time to start sending out queries to agents.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Layers of History at the Mission San Carlos

For those of you who don’t know me, let me begin today’s post by saying that I am a big lover of Northern California. I grew up in Sonoma County, on the edge of wine country, and as soon as I got my driver’s license I spent full days driving all over, exploring every deserted road and back country highway. I took my little CVCC hatch-back down roads it was really never meant to travel. I even recently wrote a book on Northern California for a travel series called Guide For the Eyes. With any luck that will be coming out soon.

Anyway, I love, love, love Northern California and this last weekend, I happened to be visiting family up there for Easter.

My next novel, which is coming along slowly but surely, opens in 1784 at the Mission San Carlos. So this last Saturday, while were within driving distance, Daniel and I loaded the kids into my in-law’s minivan and made the hour and a half trip to see the place in person.

The thing that struck me immediately upon arrival was that the place is not a museum. I mean, it is, in many respects, but it is also an active place of worship. They were rehearsing their Easter services when we arrived and as we strolled around the grounds I was struck over and over by the fact that the place is nothing if not layer upon layer of history.

mission San carlos

Chatting with a docent I learned that many of the walls are, deep underneath the white wash and layers of adobe, the original brick and rock of the first construction, but it’s impossible to tell from looking how old any one thing is. I had been hoping to get a sense of what things would have been like back in the 1700’s but it’s just not that simple.

For instance, they have rebuilt Father Junipero Serra’s living quarters, and in looking through the bars at the room, it is easy to believe that it looked much the same 200 years ago, but just outside the door is the entrance to the gift shop – presumably NOT there in Serra’s time.

Mission San carlos junipero serra

The square the mission is built around has a cross erected where the church was officially first founded, so you know you’re standing on a spot of deep historical significance, but is that the same cross that appears in the old drawings? Does a wooden cross stand for hundreds of years? Or is it replaced as it degenerates over time?

Mission San carlos

There is a tiny little graveyard that was created in memory of the native people who lived and died at the mission, but nowhere on the signage for this lovely little site, with its twenty or so graves, do they mention the hundreds of Native Americans who actually died at the mission. There is likewise very little mention of the exceedingly hard lives they lived under the leadership of the church. I’ve been doing a lot of research on the topic and I always have to check my sources, as I have noticed significant differences in reports made by those sympathetic to the church, and those seeking to relay an accurate historical rendering of events.

Mission San Carlos Native

When we left the mission, we drove down to the ocean. I wanted to see what the coast line looked like right there. I have read many accounts of where and how ships would set anchor, and I wanted to get a sense of what it would have been like to arrive in the bay, see the short beach leading to twenty-foot cliffs and the rolling hills beyond. What a thing that must have been.

Mission San Carlos

I don’t know how much of this will make it into the novel. It’s not historical fiction. It’s a love story. But it’s important to understand the setting, even if few of the details ever actually appear in the prose.

All I can say for sure right now is that I am very much in love with this story. I look forward to working on it every night as I set my alarm. How lucky am I?

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Getting Feedback

I finished the draft of Tallulah Jones!

I’m calling it draft 6, but really, it’s been partially revised and rewritten so many times, that’s just an estimate. Daniel, prince among men that he is, read it in five days flat so that we could talk about it on our drive to Morro Bay this last weekend.

As I’ve said before, I think most people should be skeptical if their spouse thinks their work is great, and I don’t doubt that Daniel is at least a little biased, but he is also a creative professional. He works on screenplays and story development all day every day. So when he tells me the work is good, I feel inclined to believe him.

We went camping this weekend with some old friends in central california. It was about four hours to get there, so we downloaded some Roald Dahl books for the kids to listen to, and we talked story. We often take advantage of long drives to give each other feedback, as we don’t get too many opportunities for long, focused conversation these days.

The main push of Daniel’s feedback had to do with ways to emphasize themes, and really think about the overall motivation of characters, specifically my more minor characters. This is very encouraging, as it points toward the rest of the story holding together well over all. The words “page turner” were used.

So that’s exciting. We will need to make a date to go over the specifics of his notes, but it’s nice to feel like I have finally figured out this story. It is shaping up to be a solid debut novel. I don’t think it will ever be the brilliant work of art I had hoped to create, but it’s solid. And I’ve learned so much. It gives me real hope that this second novel, this story I absolutely love, could get up over that hill of greatness. I would be satisfied with that.

Anyhow, we had a lovely time camping, spent some time exploring, and then hanging at the beach on Saturday.

On the drive home we talked out a sticky spot in Daniel’s screenplay. I can’t wait until I get to read it. For all the challenges of being two creative people building a life together (financial, emotional), I feel so very lucky to have a partner who actually gets excited to work with me on a project, and who is such a talented writer in his own right.

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When To Call a Book Done

office 1I started the new job last week, on Tuesday. In case you haven’t been following along, my new position is with a civil engineering company. I’m doing technical writing, and working 80% full time, so I have Mondays off (which so far is awesome). You can see the office needs a little decorating (I already asked them to move all those filing cabinets), but the simple fact that they got the accent right on the name plate made me feel very welcome.

It looks like I’m going to be doing a lot of work relating to the drought. The company I work for does a lot of water storage and management projects, and now, with the passing of the water bond last November, there is a lot of work coming down the pipeline (so to speak). It feels like a sweet spot for me, where my interests and abilities have come together in a way that actually gets me paid.

Then there’s the work I’m not getting paid for (yet). I’m still working on finishing a draft of the first novel, “The Feathered Tale of Tallulah Jones.” It’s getting close. This might be the week. The thing I’m struggling with now is when to call it done. I have a lot of writer friends, as you might imagine. Some say make it as good as you possibly can before you send out query letters, which makes sense to me, but others say that no matter how done you think it is, your agent/editor/publisher will have edits they want you to make, so you should make it good, and then go ahead and start sending it out.

Of course, those writer friends have friends who are agents, which gives them a foot in the door. They have agents who will read their work and pass on to their friends. But, if I’m an agent, and some friend of mine says “hey read this” I’m not going to get very far if I don’t love it, so it still seems like, as the author, you would want your work to be great.

I heard an agent at a panel discussion once describe her thought process. She said that she starts manuscripts in her office, and if something grabs her attention she will take it home and read it in bed. She said something to the effect of, “as a writer, you have to make me want to take your work to bed.” Because isn’t that what the end readers are ultimately looking for too? When I’m reading a good book, I can’t wait to crawl into bed with it each night.

That’s what I’m hoping to create: something that people can’t wait to pick up. It’s getting close. I’m working to print a copy for Daniel (always my first reader on anything) this weekend. I’m also considering hiring a professional editor, some objective professional to give me their opinion. But then again, I might have a few more friends read it first, and my writing group. They’ve already read it twice, but hopefully they’ll read it again. It has changed quite a bit in this last revision.

I’ll let you know next week if I’m successful in finishing the draft.

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Life As a Full-Time Fiction Writer

Okay, okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. I’m not a full-time fiction writer. Yet. But I still have one more week until I start my new position as a full-time technical writer, and for these two short weeks between jobs, I am happily pretending that I am a professional novelist.

I get up at 5am and do my usual hour and half of writing to start the day, then take the kids to school, come home, get some exercise, take care of some emails, eat something, then write for 3 hours or so before running some errands and picking the kids up from school. There are some variations, depending on the errands that need running, but all in, it’s an awesome life. And it’s all mine for one more week.

Don’t get me wrong, I am actually super excited to start the new job. It’s a perfect match for my skills. I even get my own office, which I’ve never had. I like the people, and they’re doing really interesting work with water management in California, but still…

Still, the dream remains to be a full-time fiction writer.

The novel is coming along well. I made some good progress last week. I don’t think I will be able to finish it this week, but it’s not that far off. I am going to give it all my attention until I get to the point that I can hand it over to Daniel for a read. Then I’ll be back to working on Novel #2. I’m not sure how to refer to Novel #2 here. I have a working title, but it’s not good. I’ll just stick with Novel #2 for now.

So that’s what I’m doing this week. Just loving the life of a writer, for a little bit longer.

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Two Weeks

glendale stationFriday was my last day of work. As I have been working remotely all this time, I had to make my way down to Orange County to return all my company-owned gear: laptop, cell phone, back-up drive, various cords, company credit card, etc. And since it was Friday, and traffic is horrendous heading north into LA on Friday afternoons, I took the train. It was kind of awesome.

Daniel dropped me at the Glendale station, which is a surprisingly lovely little piece of antiquity in the heart of Los Angeles, and instead of cursing my way through four hours of traffic to make the 100 mile trip to Orange and back, I sat back, relaxed, and started re-reading the latest draft of my novel (before I launch into rewrites during my two weeks off).

And that leads me to this week, the first of two weeks where I am unemployed, but don’t have to be looking for work. It’s a first for me. I love it. And, of course, I have totally overbooked myself. I have a whole list of things I hope to get done with this time, from finally finishing a family photo album, to taking the Pilot in for an oil change, but the most important item on the list is to work on the novel.

I’m about half way through reading my most recent draft. The beginning is good. I’m happy with it, but around page 70 it slows. That, I know, is largely due to the fact that I have rewritten and reorganized the middle of the book so many times that the whole middle section is almost like an outline, but at least now everything is in the right place. I hope.

I have struggled so long with this novel. The only real up-side to those struggles is that I have learned an enormous amount about how to actually write a novel. Never again will I just dive in. I have wasted literally hundreds of pages writing down the wrong path. Thus the fifty page outline for the new project. I never thought much of outlines, but I was wrong.

So I hope to finish reading the draft tomorrow. I might have been able to do it today, but I’m taking the afternoon to go to the spa. In addition to celebrating a new chapter in my life, I am rewarding myself for hitting the writing goal I set 4 weeks ago – six mornings a week, 500 words a morning, for four weeks.

Once I finish reading it, I’ll jump into edits. I don’t know how far I can take it in two weeks, but time will tell.

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Wrapping Things Up

full moon
This should prove to be an interesting week.

My company (for five more days) takes today off, so I don’t have to work, making my last week with the company a short one, and frankly, I’m totally fine with that. I’m working to transfer all my files to a new (to me) computer, so that I can return this lap top to my employer, along with my backup drive and my phone. So there’s a lot of logistics to deal with.

But not today. Usually, when the kids have a day off, we’ll do something fun as a family, but Daniel has to work, so we went ahead and signed the kids up for a gymnastics camp. It’s the first time they’ve ever done anything like this together. Due to the 3.5 years between them, he usually isn’t old enough for things she wants to do, so it’s kind of an exciting milestone. Even more exciting (for me) is that I convinced Daniel to take the morning off and lay around in bed with me. It was awesome. Just like when we were first dating. We even watched a movie and ate popcorn in bed (among other things I won’t be discussing here).

I plan to spend the rest of the day working on my fiction. The challenge I set for myself a few weeks ago (to get up every morning, six mornings a week, for four weeks) is going really well. I haven’t missed a day. This is the final week. The coolest part is, when I set that goal, I had no idea I would be accepting a new job, and that the end of this week would also mark the end of my work with my current employer. So assuming I can keep it up for another 5 days – I get my reward next Monday. I’m going to a spa near our house because it’s lovely, and has a sauna and nice spaces to lay around. I will get a massage, but I’m also going to lounge for a bit on either side of the massage, really embrace that fact that I hit my goal, and have a little time to spare for a change.

Writing 500 words a morning, even during all the chaos that has been going on, has been really good for me. The new project is up to about 13,000 words. However, starting next week, I’m going back to the other novel for a bit. While I have two weeks between jobs, I really want to make some progress and see if I can’t get a new draft ready for a read. So it’s back to “The Feathered Tale of Tallulah Jones.” I’m a little daunted to get back to it, but I also see these coming two weeks as a great opportunity to pretend I’m a full-time fiction writer. Not on retreat, not carving out some time, but actually writing for three or four hours a day, working around all the other things that still have to get done.

I suspect I’m going to love it.

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A New Look for My Blog

So long MojaveLovely readers, it’s been too long.

About a year ago, I posted that I was feeling overwhelmed and that something had to go, to make space for my top two loves (family and fiction) as well as work (boo).

Since that last post, I’ve found myself writing blog posts in my head. Very clever little things, believe me, you would have loved them, but the point is not all the wonderful blog posts I never wrote. The point is that I was missing my blog.

So I am very pleased to announce, here in this post, that it’s BACK!

Yeah!

I have redesigned it, as you can see. No more desert images. I still love the desert, but I am working on a new project, one more broadly based in California, and I wanted a design that wasn’t as locked into a theme.

And as for what I’ve been writing, it’s been an interesting year. I spent the first six months of 2014 outlining a new project. I’m very excited about it. It’s about parenthood, and love, and what it means to grow older. It took me six months to outline it because I did three rounds. At this point the outline is over 50 pages long, but then, in June, I had to set it aside and come back to Tallulah Jones.

I just couldn’t stand that I had abandoned my first novel, so close to the finish line. Taking six months away from it allowed some much needed breathing room, and I’m so I’m back to it again. It is getting close, but wasn’t quite as close as I thought. I am giving it my full attention (that is to say, this is what I’m working on from 5:00 to 6:30 every morning), but I’m getting sick of it again and I find I’m just itching to dive into writing the new project.

As a compromise, I am taking the next couple of weeks to continue working on it, but as of January 1, I am setting it aside again to start drafting the new novel.

I’m finding that I rather like having two larger projects in the works. It feels like I have options.

So that’s that haps. It’s good to be back.

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