Archive | Fiction

Taking the Leap to Fiction

I have long held to the idea that the greatest tragedy in life is that it is so short. This world is so big, and so full of strange and wonderful things, that I am often struck with a sense of overwhelming loss at the idea that I will only experience a minuscule portion of it. It’s the reason I exercise and why I quit smoking. If I can buy myself even a few more years on this planet, to explore the vast array of sights, sounds, and tastes it has to offer, I’ll do whatever it takes.

This has often lead me over-commit myself. I take on too many projects because I get excited about new opportunities. I know I do, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. Ever since I took this new job, freelance jobs have been coming out of the woodwork – go figure. Good, high-paying gigs have just landed in my lap, and I’ve had to hand them off to other writers I know because I simply don’t have time to do the work.

This has made me think seriously about going back to freelance. I like the flexibility and the diversity of the projects. I even took one of the jobs, writing for a new phone app that I can’t really tell you about yet except to say that it aligns with my travel writing. (I’ll tell you all about it once they launch.)

This little side gig is fun. It’s interesting. It’s a break from the norm and chance to try something new, which is always a draw for me. But it was due two days ago, and I’m going to spend all day today wrapping it up (today, which was supposed to be a day of fiction writing), and in the end, for the amount of time I will spend on it, the pay is a lot less than I’m making at my job.

Freelance work can be great, but it requires constant hustling for the next job, and it often doesn’t pay for shit. And all that has shifted my thinking yet again. The question came to me: what if I never go back to freelance – ever? What if I just put that out of my head entirely? What if I get up in the morning, write, go to work, maybe even write on my lunch break, and use my Mondays to write my novel instead of dicking around with little freelance jobs? That was why I negotiated to have Mondays off in the first place. I wanted more time for my fiction, but I keep getting distracted, and then frustrated because I’m not making more progress on the novel.

When I look at it like this, it feels stupidly simple. Focus. Cut out all the distractions and just focus on what matters most to me: time with my family and time to work on my fiction. It would be foolish to quit a job that pays me so well to do what I love. I think now is a time to stay the course and focus on my fiction.

One time, when I was in grad school, Janet Fitch said to me: “If you’re thinking of writing anything but fiction, just stop.” At the time I smiled and thanked her for the vote of confidence, and even though I wrote that on a post-it note and stuck it over my desk, I kind of ignored it. I don’t know why. I think it’s because it’s kind of scary committing to fiction. It’s an art, and being an artist is hard. It invites criticism, and requires vulnerability in a way that being a travel writer does not. Honestly, nobody is ever going to critique my work on this travel app.

So this is me, the fiction writer, deciding to make the leap. If you are in need of a good freelancer, please feel free to drop me a line – I know lots of good writers, but as for me, from now on, I’ll be writing fiction.

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Back From Portland, Writing Again

I don’t know who I was kidding, thinking I would have time to blog on the day before my sister’s wedding. There were nails to be painted, napkins to be folded, family to be picked up from the airport and so, so much more. We were busy well into the night, and then, because I am a saint and offered to watch my sister’s kiddos the night before the wedding, I was up at 5am with the baby. But I regret nothing! (This seems to be evolving into a catch phrase for me.)

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It was such a good time. My sis looked stunning, and she and her hubby were so happy.  I’m so grateful to all the friends and family who came together to make it a grand affair. Thank you all!

And now I’m back. It’s Monday. I woke at 5am to try to get back to my regular schedule – it’s always really difficult after a break, but I am wrapping up a final polish on the short I’ve been working on – the twenty or so pages I cut from my last draft of the novel. It still needs an ending, but it’s close. I’m hoping to wrap that up today and send it off to the writing group for a fine tooth comb review.

Then it’s back to the novel. I don’t know if I’ve shared where I’m at with it. After getting feedback on the last draft I’ve decided to add about 100 pages to the beginning, so I’m working on an outline of those new pages. And by “working on” I mean I’ve been doing anything but for the last two months. It’s time to get serious. The good news is that the pages I have won’t need to change much. We’ll see. I’m feeling a little daunted, and a lot tired, but this is what separates the real artists from the amateurs, right? Hanging in there for one more pass, because it’s not done and I know it, even though I’m totally sick of it and really, more than anything, just want to declare it done and move one.

Lastly, before I say goodbye, I promised an update on how things are going with my effort to ditch the laptop and go all iPad, all the time. After about a month, I have to say the jury is still out.

Pros:

  • Portability
  • Speed (this baby is way faster than my ancient laptop)
  • Cost (the $90 I dropped on the keyboard is way cheaper than a new MacBook)

Cons:

  •  I’m still getting used to the tiny keyboard (though it’s getting easier and easier, I don’t feel relaxed using it yet).
  • Compatibility (I still haven’t figure out how to easily share things I write in Pages or Google Docs – at least for things like submissions to journals, where they need a pdf of the doc).
  • Ease of navigation, both in any given document (anything over 20 pages is a pain to navigate) and also between apps. I’m the kind of person who keeps a lot of windows open for research while I’m writing. With the iPad I have to close out of an app to open another, and there is a lag time.

So I don’t know. This little experiment may yet flop. I may be forced to bite the bullet and buy a new laptop. But I’m not giving up yet. It may just take a little more time to get used to a new way of operating.

Well see…

 

 

 

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Storytelling 101

Okay, so I had a slightly more elaborate post in store for today, but I’m just swamped with last minute preparations for my sister’s wedding, so instead I will simply share this little gem, made by a certain kindergartener two years ago. It’s such a perfect summary of what story is:

storytelling 101

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Somebody wanted, but, so, then, finally.

Wish someone had taught ME that 33 years ago.

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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.

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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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