All Work And No Fiction…

Makes April one cranky writer.

Last week I complained that I only wrote six pages on my novel. This week I can’t even say that I did that. I’m busting my ass to get this sample chapter of my non-fiction project done as soon as possible, and it just hasn’t left any room for my fiction.

This is true physically and mentally. While I have very little spare time, I feel like if I really wanted to I could make the space to work on my novel. After I put my girl to bed, for example, I could write a few pages.

But one of the things I never count on with writing projects is just how draining they can be. After writing for six or seven hours on the non-fiction project, I just don’t have it in me to do any more. Especially since shifting to my novel would mean a complete brain wave modification. Different characters, different structure, even the basic style of my writing is different when I do fiction.

So I’m trying to be gentle with myself. The chapter is coming along well, and should be done in a day or two. Then I can set all this non-fiction aside and focus on the novel for the foreseeable future.

The really juicy dilemma will be if I do get a book deal for the non-fiction project. What then? Do I set aside the novel indefinitely? Do I make Mondays Talulah Jones days, and devote the rest of the week to non-fiction? Do I toughen up and start writing pages after dark?

I’m not going to worry about it just yet.

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The Balancing Act Continues

I considered writing out my to-do list as this week’s post. Ultimately I decided against it, because really – how boring would that be?

In a few weeks I move in to the Skidmore dorms for their Summer Writing Retreat, and I am so excited. Sure, getting ready to check out of my life for two weeks is partly what has my to-do list growing like a colony of bacteria on nutrient-rich agar, but once I’m there – it’s all about my fiction.

Just me and Talulah. Ahhhh….

Right now I feel like a neglectful parent. I only wrote six pages last week, and the worst part is, I know exactly what I want to be writing, I just can’t seem to find the time to get it down. In order to get the non-fiction proposal ready to go out I’ve been prioritizing that work to the top of my list, and Talulah keeps getting bumped. I wish I could tell her to hang in there. “I’m not abandoning you, I swear.”

Anyhow, I’m keeping the post short and sweet today. I’ve got s**t to do….

ps – I know the photo for this post has nothing to do with its content, but I’m feeling stressed and it always makes me giggle, so I thought I’d share.

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Multitasking

For anyone who may not know, in March I took on a project I called the Month Without Monsanto. For the whole month of March I did my best to avoid all Monsanto products. It was ridiculously hard.

I blogged about it on my other blog www.monthwithoutmonsanto.com. Since finishing the project at the end of March I have been working on a book proposal called “Nonsanto,” and on Friday I met with an agent who is excited to work with me in putting together a proposal to take out to editors/publishers.

I am absolutely thrilled to say that I have an agent. She is smart, savvy, and genuinely interested in the project. She has asked me to write one more sample chapter (I already wrote an introduction that we will use in the pitch), and I am working hard to get it done in the next two weeks.

What’s the hurry? Well, in addition to the material being pretty timely, I am also headed to Skidmore in July for a writing seminar – a fiction writing seminar. And here is where the multitasking comes in. In the coming weeks I have to not only bust out a kick ass chapter for the proposal, but also keep moving forward on my fiction. It’s a wonderful dilemma. My first instinct is to just drink a lot more coffee, but…. I’m pregnant! The good news has just been rolling in lately.

I’m feeling a little daunted, but super excited. I have so much work to do, and anything that doesn’t get done before mid-December (my due date is Dec 15 – which is awesome, since our insurance deductible resets on January 1st) is going to be pretty much put on hold for a while, so there’s a serious fire under my booty. One cup of coffee a day simply isn’t enough. I wonder if my OB will understand. Probably not.

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The Writer’s Notebook

I’ve kept a journal for as long as I can remember. Traditionally I fill one a year and buy myself a new one on my birthday. It’s a fun tradition, but what I learned last fall is that a journal is different from a writer’s notebook. Learning to keep a writer’s notebook has changed how I see the world. It has challenged me to become a better writer, and supported my story telling in ways I never really believed it would.

It was Janet Fitch who taught me to keep a writer’s notebook. When I took her class last fall she insisted that we all have a small notebook, and that we keep it on hand at all times. She pushed us to write in it every day, if not multiple times a day. Every day we should note the weather, pushing ourselves to describe it in a way we have never heard before. Every time we hear or see something that catches our attention we should write it down – in a way we have never heard before. And that (“a way we have never heard before”) changed the way I write.

Describing things, weather or people, in a way that is uniquely my own, over and over again, is hard. It takes training. I am getting better at it all the time. And the great thing is that every couple of months I take a few hours and type up everything in my journal and store it for future use. Now, should I need to describe Los Angeles in October during a sudden down pour, I don’t have to try to remember it – I just go to my file on weather and pull something out:

“The rain sounds like an argument. Insistent an imposing. I try not to hear, but it keeps getting louder. Reflected droplets splash up and hit my shins making me cold. Everything is shiny in this dim light and I can see the outline of drops clinging to the underside of the railing as if they too are trying to hide from the downpour, trying to stay dry.”

I may or may not use all of that, but it’s a great start, and it was written in the moment, looking at the rain, feeling it, hearing it – not just trying to remember it. It’s the details that make a story memorable, and the more you push yourself to notice them, and exercise your ability to describe them well, the better writer you will be. At least, that’s what Janet Fitch told us, and I for one believe her.

So if you are a writer, invest in a little notebook – something small enough to fit in your pocket or purse, and carry it with you always, and don’t forget a pen (there’s nothing sorrier than a writer without a pen). When you have an idea or a thought on how you would describe something – stop and write it. Pull over to the side of the road, make the checkout lady wait, ignore the kid’s request for juice for a minute and just get it down. That’s what being a writer is all about.

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Arbitrary Deadlines

Back in school I learned about this study that some scientists did on motivation. They took two groups of Marines and made them walk twenty miles. The first group was simply told to start walking. The second group was told how far they had to go before they could stop. I’m sure I’m getting the details wrong, but the point is that the first group suffered a lot more. They were tired, cranky and angry. The second group marched the twenty miles without a hitch. They were ready for more – boo ya!

We all do better when we know what the task ahead of us is, and roughly how long it’s going to take us.

I’ve been working on this novel (actually typing pages) since December of 2008 and I’ve got quite a ways to go yet. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much more time this project will take, it’s important to me to know how far I have to hike, and so to keep sane, I break the whole “write a novel” thing into chunks.

My new goal for a finished second draft is November 30th. Yes, it’s arbitrary. No, I don’t have an editor begging for pages, or a publisher anxiously awaiting my newest work, but it’s important for me to know what’s ahead and when I will get there.

Having a deadline (even an arbitrary one) keeps me moving forward.

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Distractions

I’m writing these words sitting in the Los Angeles Superior Court Jury Assembly room. It’s my first time, and I have to say that I’m actually kind of excited. Ot at least I was when they gave us the orientation about what the day would entail. Today I am an active participant in our judicial system.

Little did I know that being an “active participant” would entail sitting in a large room with a hundred or so slightly smelly individuals, all of us waiting to have our named called. Down time like this makes me anxious.

Today was supposed to be a writing day. Even heading in here this morning I figured I could use any sitting-around time to get some writing done, but I’m finding this environment very distracting.

There’s a guy in the back who keeps singing operas in a strange falsetto voice. Every half hour or so there are announcements from the people running the show. Every person in the room has a newspaper or lap top and the rustling and tapping of keyboards around me seem much louder than they really should be.

I don’t think of myself as easily distracted, but what I’m realizing is that I’m just used to the distractions I deal with regularly. I can handle constant inquires from my daughter without hardly slowing my typing at all. I can suspend the narrative in my head for as long as ten or fifteen minutes should my guy call to say hello. These are the bits of my life that I have managed to integrate into how I write.

The opera singing hipster in the back is not.

So I’m trying hard to focus. I am pushing myself to put in the extra effort. I read and re-read pages and do seem to be making slow progress with minor tweaks here and there. By the end of the day I will know if I am assigned to a case and have to come back tomorrow. I’m hoping not. If so, you better believe that tomorrow I will arrive with ear plugs in my pocket. Even if I only get to write during my lunch break, it’ll be a more productive day than this one.

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On My Own

In the seven month history of this blog I’ve never missed a week of posting. Please accept my apologies, dear readers, for leaving you hanging last week.

In my defense it was a big week. I finally graduated! Yes, I am now officially a Master of Professional Writing (so says USC). In addition to being a master, which is fun to say, I am also now totally on my own – which is a lot scarier.

No more professors giving me their wise guidance, no more weekly classes to force me to change out of my pajamas and go somewhere to hold a conversation, and no more blaming my complete lack of income on the fact that I’m a student.

Yipes.

Luckily I have a small group of writers (former classmates) who get together once every other week, but I wonder if this will be enough to keep me sane. As much as I love working alone, I need to interact with people. I am a social creature at heart.

I also tend to over-plan things. I’ve had to crush the urge to start up another five writing groups so I have something to do every night of the week. I do have one other group I’m hoping to get rolling – to fill in the holes on my current group’s off weeks, but I have to stop myself there and see how things develop before I go crazy with more writing circles than I can handle.

It’s exciting and scary being out on my own now. I’ve had my training, now I have to make good on it and keep writing. As always, that’s really all I can do.

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Back Story

I learned to tell stories in the film biz. The school of thought that shaped my education was pretty firm that flashbacks are (usually) unnecessary, that everything the viewer needs to know should come out in dialogue between the characters, or in their actions.

Novels are a totally different beast. When I’m reading a story and dialogue is used for exposition (example: “you know I hate sea food”) I cringe. If it happens over and over I’m likely to put the book down and forget to pick it up. Likewise, flashbacks in fiction writing are not at all frowned upon. Most stories are structured around a current through-line, interspersed with scenes from one or more character’s back story/history.

My story has three main sections of backstory, let’s call them A, B and C. A takes place when Talulah is 13, B when she is 15 and C when she is 18. Here’s the questions I’m struggling with – do they need to come in order?

Right now my draft goes like this:
Current day story, C, current day, A, current day, B, current day resolution, end.

I like the way this unfolds, but I wonder if my readers will be irritated that I jump into the back story near the end. Should I tell it chronologically? I just don’t know. I have a bunch of cards up on a cork board, with all the current day scenes in blue and the flashbacks in yellow, and I keep switching them around, over and over, trying to decide. I think, given that this is my first novel, it might make sense to keep it simple and tell the back story in order. I might be biting off more then I can chew by mixing it up.

Should I go the humble route and lay it out real simple-like?
Or be bold and tell it in what ever way seems right to me?

I’ve never been one for simple.

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On Genre

My new edition of Writer’s Digest arrived and it’s all about genre. I’ve been hearing a lot about genre lately and it’s got me questioning my own categorical preferences. How do I want my own story to be classified?

I think of “Talulah Jones” as literary fiction. The stories that I love, and that have influenced me so far in my writing of this particular tale, are other works of literary fiction such as The Secret Life of Bees, A Thousand Acres, and Winter’s Bone.

Second to literary fiction comes magic realism – Jitterbug Perfume, House of the Spirits, the short stories of Gabriel García Márquez’s Leaf Storm. I find my self absolutely swept away by the whimsy of these works. I strive to incorporate subtle magic and almost-impossible angles into my own story because I love the dynamic they add.

Third, since my story takes place on a farm in the American southwest, the genre my story could be stuck into is (eep) western. I love GOOD westerns. My favorite book of all time is Lonesome Dove. The reason I dread the label of western is that most genre western, with the cowboys and the fainting women on the cover, are filled with tired cliches and predictable stories. Believe me, I know. When I first realized that my story is western-ish, I forced myself to read a bunch of the westerns from the rack of the supermarket. Ug. At least they taught me what not to write. While I guess I have to accept that on some basic levels my story is a western, there will be no whore with a heart of gold, no misunderstood Chinese man who saves the scarlet fever-stricken child with acupuncture, no tall, handsome stranger who rescues the town from El Guapo.

If I had to label my novel (in its current, uncompleted state) it would be “a work of literary fiction with touches of magic realism, set in the American Southwest.” When agents ask, I simply say “literary fiction.”

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AWP

I just got back from the AWP writer’s conference, which was held this year in Denver. For three full days I went to panel after panel about publishing, writing, and making a living as a creative professional. At night I went with my friends to the AWP sponsored reception where folks let loose. If you’ve never seen a room full of writers dance their asses off, you’ve missed out on one the worlds most ridiculous and fun occurrences.

As much as I learned about the practical elements of writing (grant writing, cover letters, etc.) what I took away from the experience was how much I love the writing community, and how we as writers have to actively nurture it.

What we do is a solitary endeavor. We sit at our keyboards, typing furiously day after day, hoping to pay the bills while creating art, but with our heads down and our fingers tapping away, it’s easy to forget that there are so many of us out there doing the exact same thing.

What I come away from this conference really cherishing is the community that I am so privileged to be a part of. I am seriously lucky to work on the staff of a literary journal, have a kick ass writing group, and know other fun-loving writers who will not only give occasional feedback, but also celebrate with me when there is cause to.

I may not be any closer to finishing my novel then I was five days ago, but I’m loving being a writer, and somehow that makes the journey all the more fun.

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