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!

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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.

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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:

 

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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…

A Whirlwind Weekend at WOTRC

Write on the Red Cedar 2016

During the past week of blog silence I have been preparing for, participating in, and recovering from Write on the Red Cedar. It was a great conference, starting Friday afternoon with a four-hour workshop led by Bob Mayer, a quick bite at the State Room bar, and a fun mixer that evening.

Much of my time Saturday was taken up with manuscript reviews. I had read portions of eight manuscripts during the past week and made revision suggestions, then met with each writer at the conference to discuss what I thought was working and what I would work on next to bring it to the next level. Those meetings seemed to go very well, and the hope the writers who took advantage of that conference extra found it worth their while.

I also gave a workshop talk on taking your writing to the next level as part of CCWA’s Finish the Damn Book track. The room was packed and I managed to get through a lot of material in an hour (though that particular talk should really be at least 90 minutes, I think).

At the end of the day I ran an author/agent panel, had an intimate little dinner at the State Room with other presenters and volunteers, and then a swanky VIP party with wine, fancy hors d’oeuvres, and a six-foot wide gas fireplace flickering. And all throughout I ran to and fro chatting with conference goers, ecstatically greeting those I had invited from far-flung Michigan cities that I hadn’t known were really coming until I’d stuffed conference folders Thursday night and saw their names, and trying  to be helpful in general.

All of the talking, shaking hands, rushing around, and very little sleep for two nights in a row meant that by Sunday morning I was definitely coming down with something. Sunday afternoon I napped on and off for a few hours in front of a roaring fire at home, had dinner, watched Downton Abbey, went to sleep promptly at 10:30, and didn’t get up until 9 AM this morning, feeling a bit better, but not 100% just yet.

And so now it’s another week. The last week of January. I have a few little things left to finish up in the renovation of the Heritage Room at church, an article to write for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and some editing to do. Come February 1, though, it should all be finished and that, my friends, will be my New Year’s Day.