Feedback Loop

February 3, 2010 Comments off

Holding myself to a strict daily regimen of writing is producing results. A week and a day into my little experiment, I’ve written the first 5,000 words of a young adult novel. The prologue is done, and I should finish chapter one by the end of the week. At this pace, it’s plausible that I’ll have a novel by June, before the school year is out.

That’s an exciting prospect for me. I’ve written on and off for the last few years – more off than on – but have never had anything to show for it. Actually producing a readable manuscript will be rough, but it is now seeming doable.

When I realized that, I started to have some people I trust read what I’ve written so far. This may have been a mistake. Part of what I’m doing is just trying to hammer out a manuscript, so there are some very rough edges. My two readers both see flaws in the work – structural, grammatical, stylistic flaws – and I agree with most of their concerns. They know me, and when they see me writing something inconsistent with myself and my capabilities they are both very adept at pointing redirecting me. I value their voices, and make the changes they suggest. But at the same time, I don’t want to get hung up right now on minutia. I have a very real sense of needing to let this novel just happen – to get it out on paper.

It’s not all that different than painting a room. After the first coat, the walls look worse than before the Dutch Boy was poured. But a second pass makes all the difference. When my wife (who, by the way, is my most frequent and honest editor) and I redecorate a room, we don’t invite the family over to see it until it’s fully complete. We share in the creation process together, addressing small problems and inconsistencies of design as they arise. The end result is a cohesive, comfortable space that we’re proud to share.

I’ve mimicked that process in my writing. The project is mine alone, but I’ve allowed two people – my wife and my best friend – into the inner circle to see the process as it unfolds. They provide me just enough support to keep me on track, and they understand that at times I may need to ignore their voices altogether. (An interesting side note – their aesthetics are both so different that a sentence one loves is trash in the other’s eyes. Either I’m hitting the mark, or I’m so far off it there’s no audience whatsoever for my work).

My hope is that by June I can let a larger crowd in on the action – extended family and more colleagues at work. Who knows, maybe some day what I’m doing will be on full public display.

I sure hope so.

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One Hell of a Truck

February 2, 2010 Comments off

It’s a concern for me that my writing seems plausible, natural, organic. I enjoy reading most when it transports me and allows me to be pulled into the story. When a detail is overly contrived or a turn of phrase does not ring true, the magic ends, I’m an editor again, and the story loses any sense of flow.

Something that’s been central to my life in the week since I’ve started writing in earnest is that I try to be observant. I try to note the details that can define a person: the food in someone’s shopping cart at the grocery store, the body language as a couple waits in line at the movies, the car someone drives. This awareness of the people around me has helped my writing. I’ve been able to adeptly define my characters by showing, not telling.

That’s not to say that I have complete confidence in my use of those significant defining details. I strive to avoid being trite and I make it a point of emphasis to avoid clichés, but second and third readings still raise more red flags than I’d like. That chips away at my confidence.

My confidence got a bit of a boost today, because of my new observational practices. A white Chevy Silverado raced past me as I was driving my son to his piano lesson. The truck swerved in front of me, caking my windshield in a layer of muddy, salty February road sludge. I cursed under my breath as I flicked on the wipers. A glance at the offending truck once the windshield was clear turned my anger into amusement, though. The truck had a custom vanity license plate that read simply, “SATAN.”

I couldn’t help but smile. Even the worst of writers would shy away from a blatant character sketch such as a “SATAN” license plate. The world truly is stranger than fiction. A good faith effort on my part will produce a plausible and readable story. I need to have faith that there are readers out there for me.

Web of Procrastination

February 1, 2010 1 comment

On Saturday night, I wrote for an hour, and came up with four words. Four. That’s not even a tweet.

I tried. Really, I tried. I added a few sentences to the novel I’ve begun, and they were such tripe that all I could do was delete them. I couldn’t think while I stared at the screen, so I closed the file, and opened a blank document. I titled it (it’s a short story that I want to submit to a literary journal), and stared again. I knew the direction I wanted the plot to go, but I couldn’t find a hook that would make the premise plausible.

Ultimately, I spent the hour on the Internet, digging around on Google maps of Northern Italy and reading about the intricacies of the Columbus, Ohio city council. By the end of my 60 minutes, I had found a plausible way to present my short story, and the plot started to blossom in my head.

Lesson: 60 minutes of writing does not necessarily equal 60 minutes of typing.

But there’s a caveat. When I sat down to write today, the inspiration didn’t immediately flow. I almost threw it in again – I got so far as to open Firefox and start typing in the url. I stopped myself. I didn’t want to allow myself to get in a rut of distraction and non-productivity. The end result: I got passed the linguistic morass that was slowing me up, and hammered out a good 650 words. Another day down, another 1/150th of a novel written.

Weekend Update

February 1, 2010 Comments off

I found that writing on the weekend was a bit of a challenge. My thinking was that the weekends would be no problem. There are always a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays that are not occupied with errands and household minutia, so I thought that fitting an hour in midday would be simple.

As it turned out, I never ended up sitting down during the day. Those down times – times spent lying on the couch with my wife or reading or watching a show with the kids – are not pieces of the day that I’m willing to surrender. I need to remember that part of the point of trying to become a writer is to find an occupation (NB I don’t yet think this might ever actually turn into a profession, but it will certainly occupy me) that allows for flexible and meaningful connection with my family. Finding the time to write during weekend days means removing myself from that part of my life that I value most. While writing has become an interesting motif for me over the last few days, it has not reached a level where it’s important enough to justify ignoring my family.

The writing then got bumped to the late evenings, which is no real solution. Sitting up well past midnight to write is not ideal, even though I am at my most creative late at night. I want to spend that time winding down my day, talking to my wife, sipping a glass of wine. Occupying myself with writing late at night cut into all those valuable pieces of my weekend routine.

I am beginning to realize that 60 minutes a day will end up being like training for a marathon. I will get a lot out of the experience, but I need to be aware of the potential strain that the exercise will place on the rest of my family. To be fair to them, I need to modify my routines so that I can write when it will not negatively effect them. If that means early mornings or less TV, then that’s going to have to be the case.

I joked that this whole idea might drive my wife nuts before it makes me crazy. In truth, that can be no joke. I can only write about what I know, and I don’t ever want to write about lonliness.

Categories: family, marriage, night, time Tags: , ,

The Name’s the Thing

January 30, 2010 Comments off

I have a problem. I’m loathe to even write about it, because it feels very much like a rookie mistake. A mistake that any half-decent literary agent who happens to stumble upon this blog will see and will instantly use as an excuse to label me as a no talent hack.

I can’t name my characters.

I sit down to write and get moving along and freeze up as soon as a new person walks on stage. No one has a name that fits. A big part of the problem, I think, is that I’m a teacher. Any name I think of I immediately associate with some past student. I project their traits out onto my character, I fear that they’ll actually somehow read what I’m writing some day and will see that I’ve written them into the story.

The same thing happened when my wife and I had to name our children. The problem then was doubled; she was a teacher too. Names we had long thought of as not being all that bad – maybe names we would have settled on for our son – were forever spoiled because of that one kid with ADHD that I had third hour two years ago, or that girl whose mom never blinked – not once! – during parent/teacher conferences.

In the end, we were able to name our kids. People like our kids’ names. They fit. The problem for me is that finding a name for them was a months-long process. I’m nowhere near as attached to the characters I’m writing about as I am to my own children of course, but naming them is proving to be just as hard. I ask my wife about it, I try to project different names onto my characters as I go through the day. I can’t take months on this process.

I keep going back to the idea that writing breeds writing. I have settled on opening a website and using the first name I see. If I go back and change the name later, no problem. But maybe the characters will grow into their names.

Maybe it’s not worth all this fuss.

Nocturne

January 29, 2010 Comments off

An hour a day didn’t seem like much when I cooked up this scheme. There are plenty of ways each day that I waste an hour, I told myself. I can watch Manchester United and Arsenal not score any goals for 60 minutes without even feeling the time pass. I can read 50 pages of “Twilight” (143 adverbs) in 60 minutes. Hell, I’ve spent an hour standing in front of the pantry convincing myself not to eat another spoonful of peanut butter with chocolate chips.

If I can waste hours that easily, I should have no trouble finding time to make this plan work. An hour a day is not that much time. Yet, here I sit at 1 a.m. having just wrapped up writing for the day. I didn’t sit down to write until after 11:30 p.m. The day disappeared on me. I worry that this will happen too often. I might lose a lot of sleep in the next 12 months.

But I wrote well tonight. An hour seemed like too much time when I booted up the laptop at 11:30, but it flew by. If I didn’t have to get up in five hours to teach, I’d still be going strong now. I have long thought that I was a nocturnal being, and tonight is further proof. My mind is focused, my ideas are clearer, and the words come more easily when I work late.

This is something that I’ll need to remember as I move forward. If I ever hit a wall, a simple change in schedule might be enough to get the creativity flowing again.

But for now, it’s late. I need to sleep. I will turn off this laptop. I will put my head on the pillow. I will re-write tonight’s last three pages  16 times as I try to nod off.

Categories: night, success, writing Tags: , ,

Backspace

January 27, 2010 1 comment

Reading what I wrote yesterday was a painful experience. What was I thinking? I am embarrassed that some of those phrases came out of my head. Re-reading it made me see what a huge task getting to a finished piece will be. It’s the reason there aren’t more writers.

I’ve made a resolution to do this, though, and I’m sticking to it. So, I embraced the delete key, left in the stuff that wasn’t total crap, and pushed forward. I’ve read that writing breeds writing, and I started to feel that about 40 minutes into the hour today. I had gotten beyond the horror of seeing how awful I can be as a writer, and I found the flow again. If what I generated in that flow was any good still remains to be seen. There’s a definite sense of two steps forward, one step back.

The good news is that I was just as excited to get writing today as I was yesterday. It’s a good feeling, to have produced something tangible each day. Even if the product only lasts until I open the document tomorrow.

That feeling of productivity is not something I get as a teacher. Completed school work is a stack of graded essays that I give away or a lesson plan that is never anythinig more than an idea. There is nothing concrete, nothing in my hands, nothing that makes me want to laugh or puke the next day.

Writing as a craft is, to me, fast becoming a valuable pursuit. It’s slow, but not agonizing. It keeps me intellectually engaged. It makes me more aware of the life around me. It’s fun. I know this because I talk about it and think about it and dream about it and it’s only day two.

It’s also probably going to drive my wife nuts.