Taking A Moment To Celebrate

I finished my first draft on Tuesday. It weighs in at 247 pages, and I almost can’t believe I did it. When I sat down in August to start this process it seemed so far away, but five pages a day (on average), five days a week, for ten weeks landed me right where I wanted to be.

To be honest, I haven’t so much as opened the file since then. I gave myself last week to celebrate, by not working on it at all. Instead I caught up on some reading (you have to read good fiction to write good fiction), and worked on some other projects.

Today is when it really gets interesting. Today I start taking those 247 pages, and molding them into a really good story. This is not to dismiss the work that I’ve done, but as I mentioned in a previous post, I never edit as I’m writing, and the story morphed considerably as I went along. Certain themes presented themselves, while elements that seemed critically important in the beginning now seem superfluous.

The trick is, I’m not sure how to take this next step. I have a feeling that the best thing to do is outline the whole story, scene for scene, then step back and really consider what it’s about. As my thesis advisor is always pushing me to consider – what question am I trying to answer with this story?

Yikes. I think I’m more daunted by rewrites than I was by those first pages, ten weeks ago. If any one out there has any words of wisdom – lay ‘em on me.

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Two Pages

On Thursday I drove to Beverly Hills for my meeting with the Fancy Hollywood Agent (FHA). His office was buzzing with assistants. The man at the front desk told another that I was there, and I could hear word being passed back through the office that I had arrived. I would like to say that it sounded like a nervous, conspiratorial “she’s here,” “she’s here,” but really it sounded more like “who?” “oh, yeah.”

Once inside FHA’s office, the walls lined with dark wooden bookshelves exploding with tomes of all kinds, I told him my new ideas for my story. We talked about what makes a novel sell (and by correlation makes an agent interested). He said he liked my ideas, but was serious when he told me a book like mine would have to be exceptionally well written.

After about ten minutes, we said our goodbyes, and he told me to send him the first two pages when they were ready. “Two pages?” I asked.

“Ah, make it three,” he said.

This is the biggest lesson I took from my meeting with FHA. Nothing short of brilliant writing will be considered, and don’t dick around with the small talk. If the story isn’t juicy by page two, you’re not going to get anyone’s attention.

This stirs up a whole new batch of questions for me. Do we write to get attention, or do we write what we love and hope people pay attention? Is there a middle ground? How much can a writer tailor her writing to appeal to an audience and still consider herself an artist?

Right now I’m going with the theory that I am not a unique snowflake. I am, in fact, one of over 6.5 billion people living on this planet. If I write a story I love, and write it well, odds are that there are other people out there in the world who will love it too.

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Enter: Fancy Hollywood Agent

“The Feathered Tale of Talula Jones” is my thesis project for USC’s Master of Professional Writing program. It’s been an awesome experience, and to top it off, I’ve been fortunate enough to have writer/net-worker extraordinaire Gina Nahai (author of “Caspian Rain”) as my advisor.

In Gina’s class a few weeks ago, my classmates and I had the chance to pitch our stories to a fancy Hollywood agent (I’ll call him FHA, for both privacy and brevity). Off the top of his head he tossed some interesting and unique ideas back at us (that’s why he gets paid the big bucks). The whole experience got me thinking about a few key elements of my story. After just one five-minute exchange with this guy I’m toying with some exciting changes – nothing that would a require a total rewrite, just a slightly different, more magical framing.

After letting these ideas roll around in my head for a few days, I emailed FHA and asked if I could have a few more minutes of his time, and what do you know, he said yes. So this Thursday I’m going down to FHA’s fancy Beverly Hills office to pitch him a revised outline for my story.

Would I be totally grateful if he were willing to read my manuscript when it’s done? Absolutely. Would I dance down my street singing the “Fame” anthem if he actually decided he wanted to rep me some day? Um, hell yeah. But for the time being I’m just excited to get feedback from someone who knows this business so well.

Now I just need to get a revised version of my new outline ready to pitch succinctly, so I don’t get nervous and screw it up. My mantra this week is “be cool, girl, be cool.”

Tune in next week and I’ll tell you how it went.

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A Large Red Drop Of Sun

As it turns out, the best teacher I’ve had on the topic of avoiding cliché was my high school art teacher – Mr. Miller. He used to talk about the difference between symbols and art. A symbol, he said, is something like a stick figure. It conveys a basic idea, and keeps us from walking into the wrong bathroom at the movie theater, but that’s about all it does.

To create art, you have to work past the stick figure. Art shows you a unique person – the scar on his hand, the wrinkles around his eyes, the hunch of his shoulders. The details, and how you depict them as the artist, are what make it art.

In writing, that stick figure is what we call a cliché. It gets the idea across, but lacks any artistic inflection.

I have been thinking a lot about Mr. Miller lately, and not because he was super dreamy (though he was). The fact is, setting my story in the desert gives me a specific and sometimes limited pallet. It is hot, dry and dusty. Browns and yellows dominate. The sky is usually clear. So telling my story in this fairly monochromatic setting is a challenge. How to describe this specific place, not just a symbolic place?

As inspiration I decided to reread “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, because it too sets down in an environment without a lot of variation. Opening in the dust bowl, Steinbeck had to dig deep to paint a picture of the place, to find the words to make it real. Check this out:

“A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the dusk.”

And this:

“Ahead of him, beside the road, a scrawny, dusty willow tree cast a speckled shade. Joad could see it ahead of him, its poor branches curving over the way, its load of leaves tattered and scraggly as a molting chicken.”

That is some juicy description. No linguistic stick figures here.

What I’m learning is that it’s not easy. Writing descriptions like that is like painting a picture. You can’t just drag a dark line for the horizon and blob a yellow circle for the sun. You have to really look at it, and then chose your words carefully so as to tell exactly what it looks like. It takes attention and dedication. No dark stormy nights, no girls as thin as soda straws.

More recently my teacher Janet Fitch (amazing writer of “White Oleander” and “Paint It Black”) told our class that anything you’ve ever heard anyone say before is cliché. It’s the way you tell it that makes your story unique. The more I pay attention, the more I notice stick figures in my writing and have to erase them, stop, and ask myself, “what does it really look like?”

So, this is what I’m shooting for. Nothing short of Steinbeck. A girl’s gotta have goals, right?

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Never, Ever, Go Back

Usually I write like a shark – always moving forward, never stopping. To stop would be death. If in the beginning of the story a character has blond hair, and half way through I decide she’s a brunet, I just start writing about her luscious dark locks. I never go back until the first draft is done. Only then do I allow myself to review, nit-pick and obsess until I can’t see straight.

But this project is different in that it is just so much longer than anything I’ve done before. I got distracted. I broke my own rule. I (eeep) went back.

At page 140ish, with my protagonist fully into a grand adventure, I decided my story needed to start earlier. Way earlier. I jumped back about forty years to figure out her family history. It seemed to me that this was vital to understanding my character. I was wrong. And what’s more, I completely derailed the forward momentum I had gained with my main character.

What’s more than that, the few things I did learn about my character enticed me to go back into the pages I had already written and start chopping. A few days later I had a butchered manuscript that I had hacked down to under 100 pages and filled with bulleted notes about what needed to be edited. And that’s when I realized what I was doing: editing.

What the hell was I thinking, trying to edit a story that was only half done? All it did was stress me out, and make me feel like the whole endeavor was so pointless that I might as well quit right now. I had turned myself from a shark into a lobster (and for those of you who may not know – lobsters can only swim backward.)

I didn’t know what to do. Every time I opened the doc on my computer I honestly didn’t know where to start. My head was all wrapped up in the first half of my story, I needed to keep moving the main character forward, but I had dug myself in deep.

I decided to go back to basics. Using a stack of note cards I began outlining the scenes of my story. I made little notes of the revisions I didn’t want to forget, and forced myself to push through the whole story as I knew it, to the very end. Then I picked up the card that signified the point in the story where I jumped away. I stacked up all the cards that came before it and put them in a safe place. With that magical card I have managed to refocus myself. Anything that belongs on a card that comes before that one will just have to wait until I finish a first draft and start in on revisions.

There will be no more going back. Never. Ever. (Cue the “Jaws” theme music.)

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Research Or Procrastination

Whenever I hit a wall with my writing I feel a powerful urge to go out to the desert to do research.

“The Feathered Tale of Talula Jones” is set in the California desert, and the last time I spent a day among the sand and sage brush, I had a major story revelation. The narrative, which had been unfolding in incongruent parts and pieces, finally found a through line.

Last week I again got the feeling that my story was falling apart, that I was losing the thread of what it was really about. As a direct result, I avoided working on it. I started outlining a paid assignment, I sent out a short story to a few journals, I even cleaned my desk. Then I had the bright idea that maybe going out to the desert would again bring clarity to my process.

But it’s an all day endeavor to go out to the desert for inspiration. If I leave as soon as the nanny gets here I spend a couple hours driving, a few hours soaking up what ever it is that I’m trying to soak up, and a couple more hours getting back before the nanny leaves. So the question immediately arose: do I really need to go out to the desert? Or am I just procrastinating?

I think the answer to both questions was yes, and I was successful on both fronts. I managed to not write all day for a very good reason, and I found the inspiration I was hoping for. The trick was to acknowledge that there was a part of me that was avoiding the work and to do my best to stay focused. I left the music off as I headed up Interstate 15 and methodically auditioned solutions to the problem I was having with my story.

By the time I was headed back to Los Angeles, after sitting for two hours on the hood of my car and writing down everything that came to mind, I had solved my plot issues.

Whether this was the solution I was looking for remains to be seen, but at least for now it has me back on track and at the key board.

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Of Deadlines And Cookies

I have heard many writers say that they love deadlines, that they don’t sit down to write unless they have one. I am not one of those people. I don’t like pressure, and I hate all-nighters. (If I’m going to be up all night there better be loud music and a fair amount of whiskey involved.) Last Friday, however, I learned just how powerful a motivator a deadline can be, even for me.

That afternoon I was looking at my calendar and was shocked to see that a deadline I thought was on the 15th, was actually today (Monday the 12th). I immediately called my guy at work to cry about how I was never going to make it. I was supposed to turn in 100 pages, and I had only written 65. This left me three days to write 45 pages. It was impossible.

Thankfully, I called the right person. He gave me a pep talk, and said he would entertain our toddler all weekend, so that I could just sit and write. I hung up and got right to work. I managed to write five pages while our girl took a nap that day, and another 5 after she went to sleep that night, leaving 35 for the weekend. I was still skeptical that I was going to make it, but 35 was better than 45.

I sat down Saturday feeling the effort was futile, but that I had to try. I wrote five pages and then took a cookie break. I wrote five more. Then I laid on the floor, ate some cookies and stared at the ceiling, not believing I was only half way to my goal for the day. Then I got up and wrote another five. By eight at night I had written twenty pages – almost twice as much as I had ever written in one day before.

On Sunday I followed the same schedule – five pages, cookies, five pages, cookies… and what do you know, I hit my goal before it was even time for dinner.

This morning I printed out the 100 pages to turn in, and I feel good. I still can’t believe that I managed to write that many pages over one weekend. They will need a lot of re-writing, but there will be plenty of time for that later. Today I go back to my five-pages-a-day, totally sane writing schedule so that I can meet my next deadline on November 16th with a little less drama.

Stay tuned.

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