In the quiet lulls between my son’s vomiting,
when he sleeps, the sweet relief of oblivion,
my mind wanders through impressions vast
and heavy-laden with possibilities,
and I write the first pages of a new work
that bloomed in the petri dish of influenza.
Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oates. Neil Gaiman. Amy Tan. Jhumpa Lahiri. J. K. Rowling. Truman Capote. Vladimir Nabakov.
What do all of these people have in common? They write/wrote their works longhand, with paper and pen or pencil, before typing them up on either typewriter or computer.
There are several reasons to eschew the computer when writing a novel. There are no online distractions or rabbit trails. It is easier to write forward rather than getting stuck in an endless and premature editing cycle. You don’t have to make sure you’re seated by an outlet. Paper and pen are more portable and are not a pain in the TSA screening line. It’s far easier to write outside where the sun might completely obscure a laptop screen. And we know that looking at a screen all day is not good for our eyesight or our sleep cycles.
Recently I read an article about how taking notes longhand improves recall in students (this despite the push to get laptops in schools). I had a laptop in college and I never brought it to class. I didn’t need a study to tell me that physically writing notes on paper helped me remember what I was learning. If I don’t write it down, it’s gone, baby.
I enjoy writing on paper. I have been journaling for about a year and a half in an unlined notebook. I always write my poetry longhand, scratching out verses and changing words and drawing lines on the page before typing them up. But when it comes to fiction, I really haven’t tried it.
Some people can’t imagine writing a novel that way because they write scenes out of order and it is easier to manipulate the document on the screen than it would be on paper. I always write chronologically, starting at the beginning and writing straight through to the end, though I do sometimes go back while drafting and edit what I’ve already written. In revision, I often add entire new scenes earlier in the story, but that could easily be done in the first typewritten draft.
Anyway, this past weekend I got it in my head to try it with whatever I’m writing next. It will mean I won’t be watching word counts rack up (at least, not until I type the second draft) but I have to wonder if I might benefit from it.
Sunday evening I bought a pack of four .8 mm black uni-ball pens and a pack of three narrow-ruled moleskin journals, 120 pages each, for a total of 360 pages, pre-divided into a three act structure. The pens are pink on the outside, distinguishing them from all my other many pens, and will be used solely for writing in these notebooks.
Now, I do have terrible handwriting, especially when my mind is on a roll. And there may be times when my handwriting cannot keep up with my thoughts like my typing fingers would. But I imagine there will be fewer typos (fast typing means fumble fingers sometimes for me) and I won’t feel the need to go back and correct the ones that do occur because I know I will get them in the second, typed draft.
One benefit I can count on is this — because I won’t want to “mess up” these notebooks, I won’t actually start writing the next story until I’ve done a lot of preliminary work with character arcs and plotting and feel fairly confident that I know the story I’m telling before I put pen to paper.
I’ll be sure to let you know how the experiment pans out.
My most consistently popular post on this blog is 7 Favorite Movies about Writers and Writing (and Reading). Last night I finally watched Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy and now I find I must add it to my list.
To me, a movie makes the cut in the same way a book does — if when it ends there’s a little ache in my heart, a little place inside that now feels empty and full at the same time. This was such a film. When I turned off the TV at midnight last night, I found that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes even though the room was dark, I was in bed, and it was certainly time to retire for the night.
If you’re a fan of Jane Austen’s novels or of their film adaptations, you should pop over to Netflix and watch Becoming Jane, either alone or with a sympathetic companion.
I don’t read genre romance and I don’t write genre romance, nor do I aspire to. But I do like romantic elements in book or a film. I have, in the past, viewed the writing of romantic plots or characters as perhaps too common, not quite literary enough. I don’t know why — perhaps simply because the books one reads as an English major (other than Austen and Shakespeare) don’t tend to be terribly romantic.
Perhaps it is also because a lot of category romance in our day is overtly sexual. I’m not interested in stories like that. I am of the mind that sexual tension is far more interesting to read about than sex, and once characters get together, whether by marrying or sleeping with each other, the story is done in my mind. Think about it. Wasn’t The Office far more fun to watch before Jim and Pam got together?
There’s also a stereotype that women who write romantic stories are trying to fill some void in their own lives. But why should that have to be so? Doesn’t everyone want romance? Doesn’t everyone enjoy that lovely, terrible, desperate feeling of being utterly at the mercy of another person’s glances and smiles? Why do otherwise sensible people jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Because we like the feeling of falling. And that’s why we like romantic stories — we get to fall along with the characters.
There is some truth to the notion that writing romance can be wish fulfillment for an author. It was for Jane. And that’s what makes her story so beautifully sad. But it isn’t in every case.
When my husband first read the manuscript for I Hold the Wind he commented that it was a far more romantic story than I’d written before. I hadn’t thought about it, but I had to admit he was right. My initial reaction to this comment was to be a bit defensive. I didn’t write a romance! And then it was to worry that he might be a bit offended, that he might think I’d written something romantic because I was lacking romance. After all, we had been married for more than fifteen years at that point.
Of course both reactions were wrong. I didn’t need to be defensive. I should rather be glad that he thought it was romantic. That means it made the reader have a bit of that feeling, that feeling of falling. Zach likes romantic stories, especially when people get back together after a falling out.
And I didn’t need to worry about the writing being some unconscious wish fulfillment. I was simply following the story and the characters as they developed. I didn’t set out to write a romance — I set out to write a story about the books that stick with us. It became a romantic story naturally, because a guy and a girl were sharing and discussing books, which can be an intimate exercise.
It also became a romantic story because our relationship to the books we love can be like a romance. We fall for books like we fall for people. There are books we will never fully get off our minds, just as there are crushes in our youth (whether on a person we actually knew or a popular musician or actor whose poster we had on our wall) that we’ll always remember, no matter how many years we’ve been happily married. I know I have nothing to fear over Rebecca St. James and Zach knows he has nothing to fear over Donny Wahlberg (Mark Wahlberg, maybe). We don’t love those old crushes, forsaking all others. But we’ll never completely shake them. They are part of what makes us us.
Same thing happens with movies and actors. Zach and I have discovered recently that we have some mutual celebrity crushes (Jake Johnson, Chris Pratt, Zooey Deschanel). And because we’ve been watching movies with each other for 22 years, we love many of the same films and TV shows. Sure, we have our own separate flings — I will never understand his attraction to Burn Notice and he will never understand my attraction to Under the Tuscan Sun or The Last Unicorn — but by and large, we fall for the same shows: Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey, Gosford Park and The Boondock Saints.
I doubt he would fall for Becoming Jane, though I won’t tell you why. Maybe that film is just my little affair. But I do know this: I shan’t shy away from the romantic in my writing if that is where a story wants to go. Because we all like the feeling of falling, our characters included.
Sunday afternoon I managed to type out two very important words on the novel manuscript I have been drafting on and off for the past year or so: The End. Always a good feeling.
A few days before that I was on the phone with my agent discussing submissions and what I’ve been working on and what might be next. I had thought that at the WFWA retreat in September I might work though a new novel concept in Lisa Cron‘s Story Genius sessions, which I would then start drafting during National Novel Writing Month (November). The one I had in mind would be a follow-up/sequel to a novel that hasn’t even gone out on submission yet. We both agreed that it would be premature to start working on it since we don’t know anything about the fate of the one that would come before it. Who knows if and when book one will get published, and if anyone would even want a book two?
And so, I’m left with the task of choosing what to focus on during the rest of the year. I’ll be sending my newly completed draft out to various readers over the next few months, getting feedback, and making revisions before turning it in to my agent at the end of the summer. But in the meantime, I want to be working on the next thing. Always the next thing.
I have three projects in mind, all quite distinct and requiring different skills. First, there’s my poetry chapbook. Second, research and outlining for a historical novel that I’m not sure I’ll be ready to start drafting in November. Third, a new collection of short stories that would tell an overall story over the course of the collection.
This last one is what most interests me at the moment. I first got the idea when I went to Albuquerque for the first WFWA retreat in 2015. All of the stories would take place in the same hotel and characters from one may appear in another in a different role (i.e., the POV character in one story become a supporting or background character in another, or even an antagonist).
Having this mix of writing activities, ranging from research to outlining to drafting to writing poetry to formatting and producing a book, will keep me plenty busy and also allow me to switch from one thing to another as the muse inspires.
Through it all, I intend to continue to paint and to build my freelance editing and writing base.
To some, this might feel scattered. Lots of people like to have one big goal rather than lots of smaller projects. But I’m definitely a project girl. I do have an overarching goal, of course: publish my work. Even bigger? Earn my living from writing what I want to write. Lofty? You bet. Attainable? With persistence and a bit of luck.
Only I don’t actually believe in luck. So how about persistence and Providence? Yep. I’ll take it.
In the second episode of Mad Men, Roger Sterling walks into Don Draper’s office and says, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”
As both a professional copywriter and a novelist, I knew exactly what that meant. Creative work, whether you’re coming up with sales angles and headlines or plot twists and character arcs, requires marination — periods of time in which the writer looks like they are doing nothing at all when in reality there is a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, as it were.
Whether lying on the fabulous mid-century modern couch in your swank NYC office, taking long walks in the woods, or just staring into space at your desk, “doing nothing” is important. It looks to all the world like idleness — laziness, even — especially to those with more visibly active jobs. But it isn’t.
I was recently talking with a friend whose kids are intensely scheduled — school, music lessons, sports, and other extracurricular activities, one right after another, nearly every day of the week. I felt exhausted just listening to her list them all out. When I commented on how that seemed like a lot for a kid to do, she responded that otherwise her son got bored. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that her son will do something amazing with his life (and knowing his parents, I’m sure of it) but that thing will not be becoming a writer.
From my earliest days, I was a “lazy” child. After having had an extremely active (maybe even hyperactive) first baby who climbed and ran and tumbled all over the place, my worried mother actually asked the pediatrician if there was something wrong with little Erin, who spent most of her time sitting and staring off into space.
“She’s just thinking,” was his wonderful reply. And I guess I was.
As a kid I spent a lot of time drawing and reading and sitting in trees, all activities that allowed me to do a lot of thinking. Sure, I played sports and acted in plays and played an instrument as I got older, but most of the time, I preferred to just observe and think. I was never bored. I was never looking for more to do. In fact, I was really good at doing nothing at all, which, as I grew up, I realized not everyone can do.
My childhood talent for idleness came from my father, who loved nothing more after a long day at work than to turn the stereo up loud, sit down, and listen with eyes closed, drink in hand. He wasn’t someone who always had a bunch of projects going. He wasn’t going off to parties or performances. He liked being home and relaxing by himself. I can’t imagine him ever feeling lonely or bored during these times.
I certainly didn’t get my talent for doing nothing from my mother, who couldn’t sit down to watch a movie without also ironing or folding towels or cleaning out her purse. She was the list-maker, the errand-runner, the shopper, the one making dinner and cleaning the house. She was always productive in a way my father and I were not. Nowadays she’s learning to enjoy relaxing with a book (though I suspect she still can’t watch a movie without a sewing project in hand).
As a teenager, my sister jumped at the chance to get a job and earn money that she could spend while out with her friends. I resisted getting a job for as long as I could. I didn’t care about earning money because I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t care about having a car, going to movies at the theater, going to the mall. Everything I liked to do, I did by myself and none of it cost more than I could earn doing chores around the house (which I would always put off until the last possible moment).
I was lazy and content.
Then at some point, perhaps once I was done with college, I turned into my mother.
With just a job and no school, I suddenly had a bunch of empty time to fill and a bit more money to spend. I began making lists and thinking up little projects and shopping for stuff I didn’t need. I started hobbies — scores of them — and filled my time with stuff to do. I still didn’t care to do the stuff that actually needed doing — like cleaning and laundry and grocery shopping — but by golly I made a lot of cards and jewelry and quilts.
I kept busy and I somehow got the notion into my head that any recreational time I had should be productive. That there should be some visible result or product of anything I did. Something to show for my time. I have no earthly idea where this notion came from. It certainly wasn’t a concept I was raised with. My parents never told me that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
Maybe it was just the natural result of reading DIY magazines. Maybe I spent too much time at Michael’s and Jo-Ann’s. Maybe it was just living long enough in a frenetic, get-ahead-or-get-left-behind culture. I have no clue. But somehow I had lost the white space in my life. And while my twenties may have been extremely productive years in terms of things created, they were barren years in terms of creative thinking. They were years I thought about how I’d like to write . . . and yet didn’t write a word worth reading.
Lately I’ve been reclaiming my down time, from both responsibilities to others by quitting a few activities and from the arbitrary busyness I have tended to create for myself. I’ve spent entire afternoons reading and not felt guilty about wasting time. I’ve spent entire days closing myself off in a room to write. I’ve spent entire weeks off work without checking my email. I decided that it’s okay for my garden to just be pretty and not productive. It’s okay to binge-watch The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. It’s okay to amble through a park and watch ducks and collect pretty leaves.
Nothing has to come of it all. It’s just pleasant idleness. It’s just enjoying myself, my family, and my world.
And in rediscovering the idleness I was so good at as a child, I find that I am recovering the “empty” time I need in order to write.
“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing,” Roger Sterling said to Don Draper. But he wasn’t doing nothing. He was doing his job, and doing it in such a way that he made his company quite successful.
At the end of our super busy months of September and October, I told my husband that I was not going to say yes to any invitation to go somewhere and do something on any Saturday in November. And except for one Saturday in December, the same conviction holds true. I don’t need the time to do anything specific at home beyond rake the leaves and do the laundry. I need that time to just do nothing.
I know that to a lot of people this seems kind of rude and selfish and antisocial and lazy. But it really isn’t. My 9-5 job is writing. My avocation is writing. And my writing well is not filled by engaging in activity for activity’s sake. It’s filled by reading, walking, observing, thinking. It’s filled by things that look like nothing.
Writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Henry Miller, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and many others understood the importance of giving the mind room to work by simply taking a walk, and this article has a lot to say about why that is. I heard a speaker at a recent conference relay some advice she had drawn from another writer (whose name escapes me) that “If you aren’t reading so much that you feel guilty about it, you aren’t reading enough.”
“It is in our idleness, in our dreams,” said Virginia Woolf, “that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” And if I, as a writer, intend to be about the business of discerning and presenting truth, I need the time that I need in order to discern it and present it in such a way that the reader experiences it in the most fulsome and lasting way possible.
If you are a writer or a painter or a poet or some other kind of artist who has been feeling guilty about the time required to do your art well, I invite you to join me in recovering and relishing your “idle” times — which of course we know are anything but. Others may not understand, but what they don’t realize is that every time they read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song that speaks to them, they’re enjoying the result of someone else’s strategic idleness.
If we’re connected on social media beyond the confines of this blog, you may have noticed I’m kind of quiet lately. I’ve taken the past two weeks off Facebook and plan to take one more. It was mostly because I found myself mindlessly scrolling through the same old stuff, not getting much joy out of it, and wasting my time. Plus, what better time to take a break than during the weeks leading up to and the week of a contentious election?
What have I been doing with that extra time? Hiking, of course, plus cleaning my office, doing yardwork, recovering from the fall crud, watching movies with my boys, and doing the groundwork needed to revamp a story line in a novel manuscript I had long since considered done.
That’s right. Instead of using National Novel Writing Month to work on my newest manuscript, which is what I had been planning, I’m taking two huge steps back to rework part of the story on The Bone Garden. I’ve mapped it all out. Now all that remains is the execution. Some characters will be combined, some will be altered, some will disappear, one will be brought out from obscurity and into an important role. It will be a big, complicated job, but I can already tell it will make that story line so much stronger and more compelling. And all the answers to my problems were right there in the text itself, waiting for me to discover them.
I wrote the first words of this book nearly three years ago, and I started the research for it four years ago. If I’m lucky and it gets contracted next year, it might be out by the end of 2018, nearly six years since I started the work on it. With the exception of my garden, I’ve never tinkered with anything this long, certainly not any creative endeavor. I’m more of a “get an idea and execute it within a month (sometimes within hours)” kind of person. But a novel, especially one as layered and complex and interwoven as this one, with its three time periods and three protagonists whose lives intermingle in many ways, is a behemoth of a project.
I’ll be popping back onto Facebook in not too long, but most of my screen time (beyond my “real job”) is going to be spent in my story. Hopefully by the end of this year I’ll have it all tied up in a bow and ready to send back to my agent so I can get back to what I had originally wanted to work on as we headed into winter.
I’m trying to be content with the timeline I’m on, to live and work in this moment rather than always anticipating the one ahead. So as I get out from under this fall sickness and I can get myself up in the early morning darkness to work on my story, I’ll try to remember how thankful I am each morning to get to work on something I love.
I’m sure the coffee will help.
I don’t typically write with music on in the background, and if I do, it is nearly always music without words. And I don’t typically match music up with what I’m currently writing, unlike my husband (also a writer) who tends to develop playlists to get himself in the right head space when coming back to the work after a time away.
But I have found that, in writing the first draft of my current WIP, I have been listening to the same few songs over and over again in the car when I’m not writing. It made me wonder if perhaps I had found myself a soundtrack for this novel. But two or three songs do not a soundtrack make. So I decided to go searching for other songs I felt fit the mood or themes of what I’ve been working on.
Lo and behold, it turns out that I easily identified more than twenty songs from my three favorite artists (Brandi Carlile, Indigo Girls, and Norah Jones) that put me in the right head space or otherwise inspire me for this particular novel (and if you checked out my husband’s current novel-writing playlist, you will see they are very different).
Some of these songs I’ve been listening to for over fifteen years. It’s possible that some of the themes I’m bringing out in my current work were partially inspired by these talented musicians when I was in my teens. Certainly the issues and themes I am dealing with in this book have been plaguing me since grade school, and perhaps one reason I gravitate toward music with poetic lyrics that often keep meaning ambiguous or even obscure. There are many things in this life I am sure of — but there are also things I just don’t have pinned down.
I already owned all of these songs on CD (because I’m NOT a millennial, no matter what my husband keeps saying to irritate me — no offense, millennials out there, I just don’t identify with you — that’s a whole other post, I guess…). And what do Gen Xers do when they want to listen to a certain combination of songs? They make a mix tape, of course. Why is this better than just making a playlist on your iPod? Because the order of the songs matters and you don’t want to shuffle it around.
Making mix tapes require a fair amount of thought. Once you’ve identified the songs you want on your mix tape, you have to arrange them so that the tempos are varied and the intensity ebbs and flows in the right way. It’s a bit like plotting out a novel. You don’t want to have all your excitement at the beginning and just let the last half fizzle out into nothing (see every K. T. Tunstall album). You want to hit the right mood notes at the right times.
So here’s my playlist for The Girl Who Could Breathe Underwater, beginning with the song I just can’t stop listening to…and ending with the other one I can’t stop listening to.
1. Heroes and Songs – Brandi Carlile (from The Firewatcher’s Daughter, 2015)
2. Mystery – Indigo Girls (from Swamp Ophelia, 1994)
3. Hand Me Downs – Indigo Girls (from Nomads, Indians, Saints, 1990)
4. Happy – Brandi Carlile (from Brandi Carlile, 2005)
5. The Things I Regret – Brandi Carlile (from The Firewatcher’s Daughter, 2015)
6. Deconstruction – Indigo Girls (from Become You, 2002)
7. Not My Friend – Norah Jones (from Not Too Late, 2007)
8. I’ll Change – Indigo Girls (from Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, 2009)
9. You and Me of the 10,000 Wars – Indigo Girls (from Nomads, Indians, Saints, 1990)
10. Save Part of Yourself – Brandi Carlile (from Bear Creek, 2012)
11. Turpentine – Brandi Carlile (from The Story, 2007)
12. Everything in Its Own Time – Indigo Girls (from Shaming of the Sun, 1997)
13. Toes – Norah Jones (from Feels Like Home, 2004)
14. I Will – Brandi Carlile (from Give Up the Ghost, 2009)
15. The Eye – Brandi Carlile (from The Firewatcher’s Daughter, 2015)
16. All the Way – Indigo Girls (from Despite Our Differences, 2006)
17. The Sun Doesn’t Like You – Norah Jones (from Not Too Late, 2007)
18. Touching the Ground – Brandi Carlile (from Give Up the Ghost, 2009)
19. Lay My Head Down – Indigo Girls (from Despite Our Differences, 2006)
20. Downpour – Brandi Carlile (from The Story, 2007)
21. Don’t Miss You At All – Norah Jones (from Feels Like Home, 2004)
22. Wilder (We’re Chained) – Brandi Carlile (from The Firewatcher’s Daughter, 2015)
Just a quick note to let you know that I will be speaking tomorrow at the 10th annual Breathe Christian Writers Conference, keynoted by James Scott Bell (#1 bestselling author of Plot & Structure, Write Your Novel from the Middle, and thrillers like Don’t Leave Me, Blind Justice, and One More Lie).
I’ll be teaching a workshop I call Settings to Make Your Novel Unforgettable. I previewed this talk last year at a local NaNoWriMo event after the Lansing area leader/mentor/queen bee asked me to talk about settings. I said yes (you always say yes) and then figured out what I wanted to talk about later. It turned out to be a fun, informative, and (I think) helpful session. And now, after some recent experiences for me, I think it’s going to be even better.
I’m so excited to get to the conference, reconnect with the people I’ve met there over the years, and discuss the shared passion of writing in a setting where the attendees also share the same faith. It’s such a positive, welcoming atmosphere, and I’m always grateful to be a part of it.
A lot of conferences are held in fairly personalityless hotels that drain your energy by their very sameness to every other hotel out there.
Not so a retreat.
A retreat is meant to help you relax, rejuvenate, reconnect.
It’s not overscheduled.
It’s not attended by people you feel pressured to impress.
It’s a time to grow.
It’s about great food…
A time to nurture the friendships you already have…
…and a time to make new ones.
If you’re lucky, it is held in a place with admirable weather…
…attention to detail…
…and a sense of history.
For two years now, the WFWA Writing Retreat has been held at the marvelous Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town.
For four days I’ve lived outside — most of my meals and all of my writing time has been spent under sunny blue skies, with the occasional 2-minute sprinkling of rain, followed by soaring rainbows. But the inside’s gorgeous too.
The party may be over for 2016, but I’m not too sad.
Because I know that in one short year I will be back.
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!