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Writing a Novel Longhand

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.

Writing Romance as Wish Fulfillment?

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.

Oil Painting: August Sunrise

I haven’t painted in a week, as I have just been too busy with work, freelance, and some very pleasant obligations to friends. But sometime last week, I did manage to paint this scene of a misty August sunrise.

It, along with six other oil paintings, is available in my newly revamped Etsy shop, Erin’s Artful Life.

Once upon a time I sold vintage teacups, handmade jewelry, and at least one handmade scarf on the site. But I’ve renamed and rebranded it as my virtual gallery. I invite you to stop in there and look around, even if you’re not in the market yourself. Perhaps you’ll find a gift for someone else.

I’ll keep stocking the shop as I finish paintings, and I hope to find time later this spring to develop a cost-effective system for making prints of some of my watercolors so that more than one of each will be available.

If the painting above has caught your fancy, just be aware that it is still drying and shipping would be delayed, possibly a few weeks, in order to allow it to dry completely.

Just a Girl in the World

Today, as you might know, is International Women’s Day, and as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed I was struck by the juxtaposition of two posts. The first was posted by an novelist/missionary I have the privilege of knowing through my work in the publishing industry. She and her husband serve some of the poorest of the poor in Mozambique. Here’s what she has been up to today:

The very next thing in my feed was this “sponsored” post (which is another way of saying it’s an ad):

A cooking hut for a woman being rebuilt with the help of another woman, who will also be helping to rebuild half a dozen other homes, made mostly of natural poles, dried plant matter, plastic tarps, and even garbage. Then a marble kitchen in a $35 million dollar compound.

I clicked through to see what $35 million dollars bought Gwen…

Now, I’m not a redistributionist. People can spend the money they have earned on what they want, and many wealthy people are great philanthropists. This post isn’t about the disparity between Mozambique and Beverly Hills. It’s about women.

And I’m not anti-Gwen Stefani. Like many people of my generation, I am a huge fan of No Doubt, Gwen Stefani’s band in the 1990s and early 2000s. I love her feminist song “Just a Girl,” which came out in 1995 when I was fifteen and felt all of its lyrics deeply. Ms. Stefani has done well for herself, projecting a confident, powerful female persona to millions of girls and women (though lyrics of some other songs and her overly sexual videos may undermine that at the same time).

My novelist/missionary friend from the first post? She writes strong female protagonists, sells tens of thousands of copies of each book, and is the winner of several awards, so she has a reach too. Still, when stacked up against Gwen Stefani and her rock-star kitchen, how many of us might be tempted to feel like the little things we were doing with our own lives just didn’t matter quite as much?

On this International Women’s Day, I’d like to submit that my novelist/missionary friend who is piecing back together grass huts that will likely fall apart again during the next big storm is doing more important and lasting work than Gwen Stefani, and that women should strive to be more like the woman with dirt under her fingernails than the one with the sterile, pristine, marble-ensconced palace who only encounters dirt in the tabloids.

Menial tasks that will have to be redone (like dishes, laundry, and cleaning) are not inconsequential or somehow “beneath” us, despite the fact that, unless you work in the cleaning industry, you do not get paid to do them. To those six or seven poor families who see a woman of God helping them rebuild, my friend’s labors may mean the difference between being safe and being exposed to the elements.

And that woman who is getting back her cooking hut? I bet she appreciates it more than Gwen Stefani appreciates her (frankly hard to look at) rock-star kitchen.

Today’s feminism often looks like a strange combination of worshiping Beyonce and screaming and flipping people off rather than listen to someone with whom you disagree. But feminism that makes a real difference in the lives of women is generally quieter than that. And frankly, it doesn’t pay all that well.

It’s my friend Jamie who works with women in the prison system.

It’s my friend Jeni who is in Thailand working to free women and girls from the sex trade.

It’s my sister Alison excelling at a traditionally male job.

It’s my mom who chose to stay at home with us when we were little, kept a clean house, and cooked dinner every night, but who also went to work when we were older.

It’s all of the amazing women writers I know who create female characters who have the wherewithal to admit when they are wrong and forgive when they’ve been wronged.

It’s the women in my church of different generations who have persevered through hardship, who have raised incredible children as single moms after unplanned pregnancies, who have survived a spouse’s infidelity, who have carried on with grace after the death of loved ones, who have been friends and mentors to other women.

If you are a woman reading this, I hope you won’t buy into the lie that feminism has to look a certain way. That it must be angry or hypersexual. That it must be full of bitter resentment against men or our society. It can simply be you being the best person you can be to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and yourself.

You don’t need Gwen’s rock-star kitchen to feel fulfilled. You don’t have to scream to be heard. Build a grass hut for someone. Get your hands dirty.

You’re just a girl in the world. But you get to decide what that’s going to look like.

Less, More, and the In-Between

We’re on the cusp of something. The March winds are stirring things up. Dry leaves rattle along the road and hold desperately to one another on my patio. The birds have tuned their voices. The sky is a pure, beautiful blue.

Spring makes us consider the possibilities of a well-edited wardrobe and surprises us with the fact that, even after last year’s big clothing purge, we can still find more than eight bags worth of clothes to donate.

It has us thinking about getting a standing desk and reorganizing the office (again). It calls little canaries to fly back and forth in their cages at great speed. It awakens the poet within.

Spring whispers in our ears that there is a difference between contentment and complacence. That safe is not better than soul-stirring. That horizons are meant to be chased.

Spring shows us that we need less than we think to be happy. That there is more to life than what we see in it at this moment.

It’s the restless, in-between time that makes dreamers of us all.

 

Sloughing Off Winter

Maybe it’s the sunshine we got this morning, or maybe I’ve just had too much coffee, but I feel like it’s time to start spring cleaning despite the fact that our temperatures are only in the low 20s and there’s a dusting of snow on the ground. I won’t be throwing open the windows or anything, but the thought of clean laundry and shiny wood floors suddenly excites me far more than it should. I’ve recently noticed the layer of dust on the printer, the general stuffiness of the house, the discombobulation under the kitchen sink. The atrophy that occurs after months of insideness. The piles of junk begging to be organized or put into bags and dropped off in a bin at the back of the thrift store.

Everywhere there is evidence of neglect.

In the office, a box containing Christmas wrapping, a chair I’ve been meaning to re-cover, the buckets I used to condition the aquarium water for fish now long dead.

In the kitchen, a waffle maker that hasn’t been used in weeks still on the countertop, an empty space on the wall that should hold the 2017 calendar I never got around to buying, a Tupperware cupboard in complete disarray.

In the living room, the air conditioning cover that blew off in high winds weeks ago, the snow pants that haven’t been necessary since January, the basket of Christmas cards I forgot to recycle.

And there’s more, so much more! When people ask me how I can write as much as I do when I work full time . . . this is how! I let other things go.

But the robins and red-winged blackbirds and sandhill cranes are back. The buds are swelling on the bare trees. The rivers are swollen with rain. They’re telling me that it’s time to clean up my act — clean up my house — and get ready for a new season.

40 Days, 40 Chapters

Between the covers of these five books are a total of forty chapters. One chapter for each day of Lent. They’re all books I’ve been meaning to read, books that have been sitting in stacks or on shelves. Each day of Lent, I hope to read one chapter. I probably haven’t read five books in one month since I was on maternity leave, so we’ll see if I can keep up with that ambitious schedule. But I thought that, rather than giving up practices or habits I should not have to begin with and calling that a sacrifice, I might instead feed my mind and soul with devotional readings, memoir/history, science and religion debates, and Bible study. That, in addition to my daily readings (they’re snippets, really) from C. S. Lewis’s classic works.

I’m putting writing on the back burner during Lent. Perhaps a poem or two or three may materialize, but likely little else. And I’ll put off my research reading until after Easter — though I suppose the grim realities of World War I would be in keeping with this somber season. For now I’ll set my mind on things above and hope that it positively affects my world below.

For those of you who begin the observance of Lent tomorrow, may it be a time of fruitful self-examination that brings you to the joy of Easter in the proper mental and spiritual state.

The End Is Only the Beginning

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.

Home from Orlando, Dreaming of Albuquerque

Last week my husband and I took our eight-year-old son on our first big out-of-state family vacation. When the boy was five and just starting his martial arts training, we promised him that when he earned his black belt, we would take him to Disneyworld. Three years flew by and lo and behold, it was time to go.

Our little man took his first airplane ride.

We went to the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Disney Hollywood Studios…

Plus Legoland…

We swam in the outdoor pool, watched the palm trees sway in the breeze, enjoyed many interesting conversations with Uber drivers, and generally enjoyed watching our son have so much fun.

We came home to unseasonably warm weather in Michigan, though we know better than to hope it will last. And we’re getting back into the swing of things at work, church, and school.

But I find myself already looking ahead to the rest of the year’s travel. Zach to Israel, the boy and I to the Upper Peninsula, all of us to camp. And once more, in September, I get to head out to Albuquerque for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association annual retreat. The secret Facebook group for attendees has been opened and everyone is already abuzz with excitement! So I thought it would be a perfect time to work on the painting for the cover of this year’s retreat notebook.

Last year, I was flattered when our retreat coordinator and WFWA founding president, Orly Konig, asked to use the painting I did when I came home from the 2015 retreat as the image for the 2016 retreat notebook:

This year she asked me to do another. So this is what I painted today…

It’s the same lovely fountain, but much closer and from a different angle, and I composed the shot such that the background was easy to put text over and it is a portrait orientation. I’m very happy with how it turned out!

I believe I’ll get some good, professional scans done on both of these paintings so that I can make prints later, but I’m thinking about putting both of the originals in the retreat raffle. I’m also cooking up a new Etsy shop in which I can make my paintings available for purchase. They’re piling up in the house and I need to find them homes! Watch this space for more information about that in the coming months.

And Now for Something Completely Different

This week I read a great column in Writer Unboxed by Sarah Callender about navigating between hope and despair, and the part writers have in “disturbing the universe.” She used a line from T. S. Eliot‘s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” as a provocative jumping-off point, which reminded me how much I love that poem.

I was going to write that inspiring line down on a post it and stick it to my computer monitor. But that didn’t seem enough. So I thought I’d type it out in some interesting font, print it, and tape it up somewhere. But then that didn’t seem enough. So I concocted a little plan to do a painting. This is the result.

I’m not sure if it’s actually done yet. I may add another layer after this one is dry. But here is how I went about painting it.

First I typed up the line, chose fonts and sizes, and then printed it. I cut the words apart and arranged them how I thought they would fit on the canvas. Then I taped the pieces together and taped them to the back of the canvas so that, when a very bright light was positioned at the back, the black letters would show through.

Next, I painted over the letters with black gesso, which is a fast-drying acrylic medium.

Once I had all the letters in place, I let them dry.

I knew I wanted the corners to be very dark, so I sponged black gesso all around the outside, almost like a vignette.

I let it dry overnight, though I probably didn’t have to. When I was ready to paint today, I covered the whole thing with a coat of liquid clear.

Then I started to lay in the color. I chose only transparent or semi-transparent paints so that the black text would show through and I started with the brightest (indian yellow).

Now, as I tend to do, I forgot about taking any more photos as I laid in all the rest of the colors. But after they were on the canvas, I didn’t exactly like how they came together. So instead of trying to blend them together and hide the brush strokes, I swirled them all with a 2″ brush so that the brushstrokes would be part of the effect.

As I said, I’m not sure that I would consider this done at this point, but I think I need to let this layer of paint dry before making any further decisions about it.

This was a nice change of pace from landscapes and I got to use some very bright colors, which was fun. Of course, it doesn’t match any room in the house, so who knows what I’ll end up doing with it!