A-Writing We Will Go

 

This is a photo of a very small bit of spider web on the outside of one of my office windows. I think it once held an egg sack. It’s been there a long time. I don’t clean my windows often.

As I was looking at it today I really noticed the points at which it attached to the glass. They made me think of synapses in the brain or a wild session of mind-mapping or brainstorming. They made me think of connections — the connections I’ve made and will strengthen with fellow members of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association as I pack my bags for our second annual writers retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which starts later this week!

Spider silk is incredibly strong, and the connections writers can make with each other as we discuss the craft, share business strategies, and just have a great time together are strong. They make what can be a solitary pursuit into the best kind of party — one with great food and drink, great company, and no pressure. You want to sit in a corner and just observe? Great! You want to have a deep one-on-one conversation? You got it! You want to bare your soul in a small group of sympathetic listeners? Go right ahead! You want to dance on the table? Er, fine…but you do realize you’re in a room full of writers, right? You don’t really want to end up in everyone’s next novel. Not that way.

When I got on the plane home last year, I was so happy to be coming back home to my boys, but I wasn’t really ready for that amazing retreat to end either. So I am thrilled to be going back again this year. Lists are being made, bags are being packed, rides are being secured…and I’d appreciate your prayers for good health (after battling food poisoning this weekend) and safe travels.

Can’t wait to share my trip with you in the coming weeks!

Welcoming the End of Summer Break

MSU students are flowing back into the city. My son went back to school today. We are falling back into routine. Earlier nights, earlier mornings, tighter schedules. And I’m okay with that. Summer has always overstayed its welcome in my life, and, as every writer (or anyone who works from home) knows, summer is hard on output.

Back in June, I finally got myself from 40,000 to 50,000 words in my newest novel manuscript. Each paragraph was a hard-fought victory over summer distraction, including having my son home for the summer (no day care) for the first time whilst also continuing to work full time. In July, I don’t think I wrote much of anything. I was busily working ahead in anticipation of camp and vacation, entertaining dear friends at our house, editing someone else’s novel, and then gone for two weeks, during which time I was surrounded by people and working fairly diligently on actually getting a tan.

In August, it was (intensely) back to work writing pages and pages of catalog copy for the Summer 2017 list. I began to think I’d been quite foolish to set a goal for myself of finishing the first draft of this novel before my WFWA writing retreat in late September. My yard and house had atrophied — badly — over the past two months of busyness. We’d been eating out most meals because no one had the time or energy to grocery shop or cook. The weight I’d lost in June by diligently tracking what I ate started creeping back on. And as an introvert used to working in the house alone for much of the day had about reached my limit of days-strung-together-without-a-decent-chunk-of-solitude-thrown-in-there.

Enter Guys’ Week.

My husband and my son had one glorious week of fun planned out for the end of summer, which included lots of time out of the house and two overnight trips. During Guys’ Week, they went to zoos and museums and the LEGO store. They rode carousels, water slides, and elevated trains. They ate way too many coney dogs and made it through a tornado. They drank $6 slurpees and stayed on the 50th floor of the Renaissance Center.

Me? I wrote 20,000 words. In one week.

I could have spent my non-work time that week cleaning the house, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, and all the other stuff that needed to get done. But I chose instead to focus on writing.

When he’s an adult, I’m sure my son will have memories of a very different type of household than the pristinely clean one I grew up in. He may remember that many nights for a while there was a bag or a box on the table rather than serving bowls. Occasionally, this bothers and embarrasses me. But I’m comforted by the thought that he may also remember that his parents pursued their passions every chance they got.

In four weeks, summer will be officially over and I will be in Albuqurque, New Mexico, with ninety other writers, women (and one man) who have become dear friends and fellow sojourners in the realm of writing and publishing. We’re all at different stages of our manuscripts and our careers. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one with a messy house and an empty fridge.

And I’m willing to bet that I’ll have finished my first draft before I step on that plane.

Why Write Fiction When the World Is Going to Hell?

In the past couple years, my son has been keenly interested in learning about natural phenomena, and particularly natural disasters. It’s a universal human impulse to want to know how things work, why things happen, what conditions must be present to form a cave or create a diamond or spawn a tornado. This desire to learn means we watch a lot of documentaries — old National Geographic VHS tapes from my own childhood, DVDs given as gifts or bought from the video rental place going out of business, online streaming programs found on Netflix and YouTube.

You won’t find me complaining about this. Documentaries are generally my genre of choice when scrolling through Netflix. Before streaming, I used to say to anyone who would listen that if they let me customize cable service so I got the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet and nothing else, I’d be pleased as punch. But I have noticed that my experience watching disaster documentaries as an adult is far different from it was when I was a child.

As a child, I watched clip after clip of the aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods with a sense of detachment. I didn’t know any of these people. I’d never been to these places. I didn’t know anyone who had been to any of these places. The often grainy and sometimes black and white footage put distance between the disaster and me, in my real life, placidly going to school and eating dinner and squabbling with my sister. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and so I didn’t consider that it could.

But as an adult, with a husband and a child and a home with my name on the deed, I watch these documentaries with a lump firmly lodged in my throat, my hand hovering around my mouth. I say out loud, “Oh, my,” and “Oh, those poor people.” Because I imagine what it would be like if it happened to my family. I imagine the unfathomable grief at losing a loved one, the terror of an unstoppable force bearing down on us, the brokenhearted relief of surviving in body yet losing the entire contents of my home.

I feel much the same way when I read memoirs or diaries written by survivors of war, or when I see pictures of despondent refugees trying to get their children out of harm’s way, or when I read articles about the few doctors left in Syrian cities under siege, desperate for supplies and forced to prioritize patients who have the best chance of living while they must let others die.

I look at dates and try to recall what I might have been doing at that time when people were suffering. When this city was burning, was I up in my apple tree, wrapped in its pure white perfumed blossoms? When that city was underwater, was I filling the tub with more hot water because I didn’t want to get out yet? When this woman’s husband was executed, was mine bringing the steaks in off the grill? When that woman’s child died in an explosion, was I kissing mine goodnight?

We are not guaranteed happiness. We are not even guaranteed the time to pursue it. Sometimes my own blessings weigh on me because I know it is nothing I have done that makes me deserving of an easy life, just as there is nothing the victim of a natural disaster or a war has done to deserve a difficult one.

The world is broken and the consequences touch every corner of humanity. I wish this shared plight caused us to look to each other more often as brothers and sisters, fellow sufferers, fellow sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration. Instead it too often causes us to look upon each other as rivals in a zero sum game for power, prestige, and possessions, as though for some to win, others must lose.

Every good and perfect gift is from above. A blessing is a gift. It is not earned. It is not a gold medal awarded to you because of your years of dedicated practice. It’s not something you are competing with other people in order to obtain. It is a gift from a Giver with an infinite store. It is a manifestation of grace. And it’s something we can pass on to fellow bearers of the image of God (i.e., everyone on the planet).

What can I give the one who is suffering? My time, my listening ear, my prayers. A blanket, a stuffed animal, a note of encouragement. My love, my understanding, my care. A ride, a hug, a job. I can volunteer for the relief effort. I can help a newly settled refugee family understand their mail. I can teach English, invite the new neighbors to church, make a hot meal for the guy under the bridge.

I can raise a child who has great compassion, who thinks of others far more than I ever did at his age.

I often go through periods of wondering if writing fiction is a waste of time in a world that needs so many more practical things. Why contribute a novel when what is needed is potable water, enough healthy food, more medical supplies, and safer buildings? What is the point of fiction when reality is so pressing?

Invariably I am reminded that stories have power. Because it’s not just our physical needs that need to be met in this life. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to be reminded that restoration and redemption are possible. We need to remember what hope feels like. We need to believe that there is another future for us beyond our current situation. We need to dream. We need to encounter the divine.

Fiction can be an escape, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing reality. When we dream our mind is working to process bits and pieces of our waking life, to categorize and make sense of all that we experience. In the same way, fiction processes the experiences of all of humanity. It collects and observes, it arranges and interprets, it posits and enacts. Fiction is the REM sleep cycle of real life.

So, writer, whenever you or others are tempted to dismiss your creative work as a pointless extravagance, a waste of time in a world that needs concrete help and boots on the ground, remember that human beings are not flesh alone. We are flesh and spirit, living souls, created by God as part of his grand story and pre-wired for storytelling.

What can you do for the suffering person in addition to all the humanitarian efforts I listed above?

You can tell their story.

“So how’s the writing going?”

I don’t know about you (if you’re a writer) but I find that question rather difficult to answer sometimes. The people who ask it mean well, whether they are asking because they really care about the answer or they’re asking because it seems like the mannerly thing to do.

In anticipation of my August 3 workshop on beating writer’s block, I’m over on the Capital City Writers Association blog talking about why my feelings about the “how’s the writing going” question are so very bipolar. Join me there and find out why, sometimes, writers just don’t want to answer that seemingly innocuous and polite inquiry.

Digging Up the Dead: When What You’re Writing Hits Too Close to Home

A couple days ago I got over the 40,000 word hump on my newest project. That’s a great feeling. If you’ve ever been involved in a big, multi-stage project, like designing a new garden or renovating a kitchen or building a suspension bridge, you know what it’s like to know what you need to do in the beginning, and know how you want things to turn out in the end, but be just a wee bit fuzzy on how the middle will work out. Well, maybe that’s not the best analogy, because probably most of you plan your big projects. Measure once, cut twice, etc. Wait…that’s not right.

But me? I’m not a big planner. Not when it comes to writing and not when it comes to projects. Sure, I’ll start sewing a dress with a pattern, but I usually buy fabric in various lengths without a solid idea of just what I’ll make with it. It always works out. And I’ll start a major garden rearrangement with one solid idea — that one plant will go here — but the rest is just keeping up with the dominoes as they fall. It always works out.

We’re thinking about redoing our sunroom and making it a more masculine room that will serve as a cigar lounge. That will take some doing. It will mean finally installing a railing on the roof, painting the girly wicker furniture with all-weather paint, moving all that up on the flat roof with an outdoor area rug and maybe some plants in the warm weather. It will involve redoing the flooring, painting the walls, installing a good ventilation system, getting new furniture, moving some books around, trading out my natural decorations for some that fit better with the manly, mid-century black leather look. It will be a big project. I can see the beginning and the end…but that middle bit is hazy. Knowing me, we’ll dive in with these vague plans, figure out the muddy middle, and it will all work out.

Writing a novel is more of a mental project than a physical one. Beyond the words and sentences and paragraphs stacking up in your Word document, writing a novel involves going deeper and deeper — into characters and conflicts, into settings and subplots. And into one’s own experience. Even if you’re writing about a world very different than your own, you will be writing about yourself, your thoughts, your struggles, your memories.

In the book I’m writing right now, I’m delving into some deeply confusing and sometimes painful experiences from my own childhood friendships and encounters, and using those things to propel the plot and affect the development of my characters. I’m dredging up the friendships that ended (why?) and the things that happen to us that we’re too young and inexperienced to process. I’m remembering the insecurities and the rugs being pulled out from underfoot. I’m remembering the things I got wrong and the things I didn’t even know were things.

By the middle of the book, with the tension and conflict ratcheting up, I’ve written myself into a place that I must go through, that I can’t put off any longer. I have several options for which way to take the story, to take the characters. There are cop-outs to avoid, there’s melodrama to avoid, there are wrong steps to avoid. Somewhere ahead is the right path for the story. And I know it runs right over a dead body.

Not literally, of course. I’m talking about those incidents you had long gotten over, had put to rest in your mind years ago, but now must dig back up because they were never wholly dead. You buried them alive, hoping, I suppose, that in doing so you’d smother them and all the questions they’d raise in your mind. And now, after 40,000 words, you have to dig them up, examine what’s left of the evidence, and come up with some answers.

It’s a tough place to be. It makes you start searching for people on the internet, looking for clues as to whether what they did or said to you all those years ago have had any effect on their lives. Often you come up with results that can feel incomprehensible but at least positive. Maybe you find that the girl who was so mean to you as a kid is now a sweet-faced fourth grade teacher. Maybe the kid who stole your bike is a now police officer.

Other results might be more troubling. Maybe your friend’s older brother who molested you is now married with two little girls and you wonder, had you said something way back when, if his life would have gone a completely different way. Maybe the friend you unceremoniously dropped when cooler kids came around ODed or committed suicide. And you find yourself wondering if her troubles started with her losing her close friend.

All those little childhood incidents — could they have had lifelong consequences? The little cruelties that were convenient at the time…what unknown repercussions might have been echoing for the past twenty-five years?

The lovely thing about writing fiction is that you can make things more or less consequential as your story demands. You draw upon those experiences, mold them, and let them propel you toward your conclusion. Yes, the writing of a novel in which you draw deeply from your own experience can be emotionally taxing. You might dig up that half-dead body only to find you still cannot understand it any more than you did when you first buried it.

But maybe you’ll finally be able to put it out of its misery and put it back in the ground for good.

And now, I must get back to writing. A hard scene is staring me in the face, daring me to write it. And that’s my only way forward.

Answering Five Questions about Writing

I’m over on the new and improved Capital City Writers Association blog today answering questions about writing and I’d love to have you join me there!

Capture

 

Click here to read more and if you’re in the Lansing area tomorrow evening head on over to the Eastwood Schuler Books & Music off Lake Lansing Road for my workshop on making the most of your first five pages (Wednesday, June 1, 7:00-8:30pm).

 

 

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something…True?

Remember in this post how I mentioned I’m neither plotter nor panster while writing, but a planter? Imagine my amusement last night as I flipped through the May/June issue of Writer’s Digest (which came in March) to find they had a fairly long article talking about plantsing. Great minds and all that…

Well, I’ve found myself busy planting again. Not in the garden, though that time is drawing near, but in a fresh document on my laptop. And frankly, I’m a bit surprised at myself. I don’t tend to start writing something new as spring supplants winter. I’ve done most of the drafting of my novel manuscripts during the dark and snowy mornings and evenings between November and March. Then I set things aside for a bit as I tend to the yard and the gardens — you know, real planting. And once that’s all under control and busy growing, I pick literary things back up in early summer to revise.

Yet this year I find myself ready and excited to draft a new project as March rolls into April. To be fair, I did start it at the very beginning of autumn last year (though because I was in Albuquerque at the time, it felt like summer). I had to put it down a while as I worked on edits for The Bone Garden for my agent and then worked on a big revision of I Hold the Wind, which I’m hoping to send my agent’s way in the next month or two. But now that my mind is off those projects, I find I’m itching to get back to this new story.

Except, it’s not exactly new. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m taking parts of an old concept and changing up the plot and characters into something new. I’m borrowing the old setting, a few characters, and part of the conflict, but combining them with new characters, new conflicts, and new, more personal themes. I finished the first chapter this morning as the birds sang and the sun rose. And though I had to stop and get to work, the next chapter is coalescing in my mind.

This is the thrilling, intoxicating part of the very long and arduous process of creating a novel — where the premise you’ve been nurturing in your head begins to take the form of written sentences and paragraphs and pages, like watching the slow, steady growth of the spring bulbs in the back yard. First they are just scattered points of green among last year’s rotting leaves. Then they are the length of your fingernail, then they reach to your first knuckle. Slowly, each day, they gain ground, press up toward the warming sun. And finally they flower. And that’s the point you know spring is here, this story is going somewhere marvelous, and you’re dying to take others along with you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

What’s in a (Website) Name?

Friday night I finished a big revision of my WIP, I Hold the Wind, which I first drafted during National Novel Writing Month in 2014. Monday I began writing a new novel, which is at the moment called One Last Summer. It’s a complete reboot of an earlier manuscript, which lent its name to the blog you’re reading right now (A Beautiful Fiction). I initially decided that when I wrote a new story that happened in the exact same setting with a few of the same characters (though they would all be much changed) it ought to have a new title. The original story of that name had been sent out years ago to agents but ultimately didn’t work. (And they were right to reject it.) I didn’t want anyone to get confused or have their reading experience of the new story tainted by the old.

However, the more I think about it, the more I think that old title still fits. And I obviously liked the sound of it, or I wouldn’t have wanted to save it and use it for my website. And let’s be honest, agents read thousands of submissions each year, and by the time this new story might possibly be published, eight or ten years may have passed since they had seen it. And of the handful of agents who actually read the manuscript in its entirety, how many would read this new book (after all, I am no longer querying agents). And let’s not forget the most important thing: an author’s title is rarely the title that makes it to the final product and it’s the publisher’s prerogative to change it. A Beautiful Fiction may be deemed too literary, while One Last Summer has more obvious commercial appeal (beach read, anyone?).

I’m sure as the writing progresses, my thoughts on this will go back and forth a number of times. In the end, who knows if One Last Summer will even make sense? Maybe it won’t be the last summer at all. That’s half the fun of writing for someone who tends to have a loose idea of where a book is going but not a completely drawn-out plot — you don’t quite know where you’ll end up.

In the writing world, those are generally called pantsers, people who write by the seat of their pants. But I’m not sure I’m a true pantser. And I’m certainly not a plotter, at least not in the same way someone like my husband is (his outlines run into the tens of thousands of words — no, that’s not an exaggeration). I’m a hybrid. A planter, if you will. I have the seed and I know what it needs in order to grow, but I don’t have complete control over its growth. Then at some point I get out my pruners and start revising.

At any rate, all of this thought about titles made me start thinking about this website. Is it time to consider un-naming my blog and simply naming the whole website ErinBartels.com? That is the URL, after all. And it would be wise to have my name in the header so you see it right away (or so every branding expert says) whether or not I use A Beautiful Fiction on a book someday.

What do you think, reader? Did you even know this blog had a name other than mine?

Edit: So, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed right to change the website name from A Beautiful Fiction to simply my name. So, welcome to ErinBartels.com.  ;)

 

Government Documents Make Maeby Feel C-

When I began writing a book about the books we read over and over again and a quirky little used bookstore in peril, I had no idea I would end up mired in research about the federal criminal court system, reading documents like Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (which has a foreword by the current chair of the Committee on the Judiciary, whose delightful last name happens to be Goodlatte–seriously, it is) and perusing websites with colorful maps of Circuits of the Federal Judiciary and flow charts about how cases move through court.

And yet, here I am, hunched at my desk, squinting through it all and trying to figure out just how a couple cases in my novel’s backstory would have gone.

Imagination, if you let it, can take you to places you’d never expect (or go on purpose). This is not the kind of research I enjoy. I love reading well-written books about history or biographies of fascinating people. But reading dry-but-necessary material put together by the government makes me feel a little like this:

 

BoredEmmaStone

And this:

BoredEdwardNorton

And this:

BoredJamesMcAvoy

And occasionally this:

MaebyNoSense

So if there are any federal judges or district attorneys or lawyers out there who want to help me out with this, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. Sometime in the future you may get a free book with your name in the acknowledgments out of the deal.

Now don’t everyone all jump up at once…