Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How I Write: Reading as a Writer

I am a writer mainly because of the way I read with abandon as a child. It made me want to . I loved the things that words could do to people, and I wanted to make that happen with my own words. But somewhere along the line, I stopped reading the way I did as a child. Because losing yourself in the words is not conducive to learning how to use them to your advantage. Reading as a writer requires a slowness and a certain amount of critical observation. But I have found a phenomena in my reading life that reminds me of that childhood reader. Once in awhile something just turns on in my head and I cannot get enough reading. I keep trying to articulate this. Here is how I described it in a post from last December (and don't let my 2nd person address fool you, it really happens to ME): You pick up a book to read and you are driven all the way to the end(or sometimes you only want to read beginnings but you read the beginning of all 20 books you have home from the library). Your eyes eat up the words and it is almost as if you are searching, searching, searching. It's thrilling. And then one day the engine dies, I mean, it is just completely gone but the only reason you know is because you picked up a book. You held it there in front of your face and you realize you are totally stalled. The words are bumpy. They are in the way instead of pulling you forward. It seems so cruel to find out like this. You were excited to pick up the book. The writing had gotten hard and reading would be such a panacea. But both the reading and writing engines out of gas at the same time. Like a breech in contract.  And you have to realize once again how integral the reading is to the writing and vice-versa. And that there is no way over under or around this mood, you must go through it. 
That description captures it as well as anything. And still doesn't capture it at all. Why don't I have more control over this? Why then are there only these rare moments when reading becomes everything and instinctual, as if some animal brain (not unlike my child brain) is trying to find something and whatever that thing is connects directly to my writing?

For right now I have to be satisfied that that is just it, it is instinctual and I cannot articulate that searching part of my process. Some part of me knows what it is looking for, but the conscious part of me is left out of the communication loop. Afterward, after I have soaked in all the words, the process goes underground. Or at least that is my guess! BUT WHO KNOWS, REALLY?

So, go check out what the rest of the folks have to say! 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How I Write: knowing when I'm done???

I guess I would be better suited to answer this question if I had any idea how being done felt. But knowing how I feel about what I have, I can tell you that I’m close. I’ve read plenty of other people's books that were not done yet. Published or otherwise. And I’ve known that they haven't been done. So as far as my own goes, how will I know? I'm looking for the familiar signposts of doneness. You know, word counts, a beginning middle and end, tied up plot lines, some critter to tell me I'm ready, yadda yadda yadda. I have thought I was done in the past, or near done, as I do now, but this time is different--I swear.

To quote my husband’s Uncle Mort: if you think you are lost, probably you have just not gone far enough. We have found it to be almost always true. If we go just a bit farther down the road we find the right turn off. This little bit of wisdom can apply to just about everything. A writer has got to trust she will see the right turn off. The book still needs a lot of polishing and some content tweaking. And I’m sure it would be best, smoother, more solid if I started it over from scratch and wrote it again knowing everything I know now. But after writing it all over again, I would for sure learn something new and then there would be something else to change. So why not just take this new expertise to a fresh idea?

That is just what I am doing: Call myself done for now and move on to the next idea. On vacation I am day dreaming and brainstorming and collecting ideas toward WIP2 and WIP3. And taking a break from # 1, after all these years. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How I Write: Revision Narrative

Last Wednesday the series was about revision, this week again about revision. Why? Because revision goes on forever. Don’t be surprised if next week is about revision as well (it’s not actually) because that is the way revision rolls, all over you!

So I promised a revision narrative for the book that as of yet has to be named: for more about revision narrative go here.

My book saw its first spark of life at the end of my MFA career at the same time that my second baby was born. Unlucky for it. I was totally burned out and pledged to take a three year break from writing. When I returned from that prescribed and methodical break I pushed through a -2 draft (I like the term zero-draft because of what it implies, but this draft was so much less than zero). I came out with the basic frame for the story and I learned that writing is not like riding your bike. Assuming that riding your bike is more of a feel, like getting a feel for balance, that you never lose however long you go without. Writing is definitely a muscle. And my writing muscles were atrophied. I was disheartened. When my daughter was in kindergarten I wrote -1 draft. -1 might be a generous label. This draft took me about 6 months and then I took it to the Big Sur Writers Conference(hugely generous gift from my mom), a fantastic place to make connections to other writers, learn a ton about both the industry and craft in a very beautiful location--I understate--it is sublime. But I don’t suggest you go with a -1 draft.

There was a lot of residue from my MFA experience in that -1 draft. I had thrown everything in and the bathwater too--including mixed metaphors, which I kinda love (they don’t actually encourage you to use mixed metaphors in grad school). While I was at Big Sur, with feedback in hand I took the scalpel to my first chapter and whittled it down and received glowing second reports. What I learned is that I could revise, and serious revision pays off(as does feedback). But the other comment I received was: the book needed to be in first person. I had this whole 50 thousand words in third. A ridiculously poorly written piece of junk that had this sort of experimental meta narrator I was into because she was quirky and self concerned and a little omnipotent. I knew I had to get rid of her, but to totally rewrite the thing from another perspective???

I went home and rewrote the first chapter in first and third person. And liked them both. They were two completely different books. I threw out -1 draft and started writing 0 in first person for no better reason than somebody had told me to, because I honestly couldn’t tell what was better. It took me a year to write. I practiced putting one word after the other without much confidence. It wasn’t until Andy, my writing partner, came along, at the end of that seriously long period of time that I started to get ongoing feedback and really learn what and how my prose affected people. He read everyone of those seriously bad words and told me what he thought. I started to see how words and lines and phrases worked on people and how a reader’s imagination filled in the blanks. I also developed the story and its intricate tapestry of theme--this is an odd little book with an even odder tapestry. Finally after a year of that, I got some online help and that is where revision came into own. I had been relying rather heavily on a ruse in order to hold my readers interest. I had learned in grad school that I wrote beautiful prose but there was no tension to sustain a reader through its winding path. So trickery was my response. My newest critiquers have confirmed what I learned in grad school. I finally had deconstruct the sham structure and face some of my characters more serious hardships, which led me to this current draft. Which finally has a MC that is likable and flawed. And maybe even some interest. Maybe this is draft 1.

And just to refer back to that bicycle thing; now that I got my writing muscle back. I find there is a little balance that goes on too. It has taken me this long to start to get the feel of this thing, maybe it’s being able to balance craft and flow.

A note on my narrative: I left out a lot and it's way too long! I would grade waaaay down for this verbosity. And in the end this covers how I approached revision. I think it would be even more interesting to look at my specific book and take the pieces apart. But for now--enough is enough.