Friday, December 28, 2012

What I'm reading Now: "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott

Nearly every writer I've met has recommended Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott as a must-read selection with good reason. As artists, and we are artists who use words as our medium, each one of us has a different approach to our writing. However, there are some universal things about the craft that Ms. Lamott captures. The "shitty first draft," the hair pulling when we can't get a character, the blank stare at the computer when we fear the well is dry. The constant message is,"It's OK. Just keep writing."

I'm fairly new to this writing thing. I've only been at it consistently for a couple years. With two short stories published at Alfie Dog Ltd., my royalties don't even cover the coffee I buy as rent at the cafe where I write. I recently described my "process" to my sister as "Thumping around the hinterlands without a clue as to what I'm doing."  In some ways, it's very liberating. I'm not tied to one particular method, and I get to choose what I work on, where I work on it, and I am god of the universe I create. But for the very same reasons, writing this way can be very scary. I found myself highlighting a lot of quotes from this book that resonated with me, some not originally the author's.

"E.L. Doctorow: Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
This idea is particularly comforting to me. Every time the organization gene gets all crazy and lays out a brilliant outline, my characters rebel and I am off the plan within three sentences. Lesson 1: long term planning is a monumental waste of time for me. I have to take it one scene at time and very often they are not consecutive. Writing the end of the story sparks an idea for a scene in the beginning. What I've realized, especially after reading the chapter entitled "Shitty First Drafts," is that my first draft IS the plan. That's part of the reason why it sucks so badly. People change names, a character is pregnant, then miraculously, not. The draft is the time to play with the characters, figure out who they are and what they want, throw a couple barn fires and maybe snipers at them. So I stopped calling it a first draft. I call it a rough draft. I'll go back and edit it so it is fit for human eyes other than my own. THAT will be the first draft.
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people..."
Lesson 2: Just write it all out without editing.  I became particularly good at this during Nanowrimo when I had a daily word count goal. I just put it all down, practically stream of consciousness. I broke all of the rules: telling, not showing, long description of characters and settings. I turned off, to the best of my ability, the inner editor who constantly snarked about how bad the writing was. In some ways, writing like that was a little boring. There was no challenge of working each word until it was the perfect one, massaging the scene until I was sure the reader would be with me in the story. I learned that revision really is the writing, but the inner editor had to stay in the box until I had something to revise. Otherwise, her constant commentary would have me mowing the lawn instead of working on my rough draft.

I could go on and on about the inspiration and community I found in the pages of Bird by Bird. However, there were parts I couldn't relate too. I don't hang around martyrs in my non-writing life and I I studiously avoid hanging out with writers whose identity revolves around lamenting about how hard it is to write, to get an agent, to get published. I find the "artist" angst irritating because writing IS hard but wallowing in that aspect of it is non-productive and just feeds that evil inner editor until I end up folding laundry instead of writing my shitty first draft. It could be I'm suffering from "Newbie" hubris, but, someone is finding an agent and getting published every day. Why not me? I know it's not easy and without emotional ups and downs. However, I've read enough to know that my writing is, with a lot more work, publishable. The desperation, fear, and depression Ms. Lamott describes don't jibe with my world view, at all.

Still, I'd love to have a cup of coffee with Anne Lamott and talk writing with her. She is experienced and funny and has a great deal of wisdom to offer others. I picture her commiserating on tales of woe and cheering successes. Regardless if we are talking about the bad or good, I can hear her saying, "Just keep writing." After all, for a writer, that's the answer to just about any question.

Friday, December 7, 2012

What I'm Reading Now: The Wheat Belly Diet by Dr. William Davis

Five or six years ago I dragged my husband to see a nutritionist. I wanted to lose some weight and eat healthier. Since he is the cook in the family, it only made sense to bring him with me so he could support my dietary changes. After going through a series of interview questions, the nutritionist found out that Michael suffered from migraines. "Cut wheat out," she said, "Its a huge trigger for headaches." So he did.

The results were similar to what Dr. Davis describes in his book. Within days of cutting wheat out, Michael stopped having gastrointestinal issues. Weeks later, he noticed he hadn't had a headache. Over the next several months he dropped about forty pounds without changing anything except avoiding wheat. My daughter and I continue to have wheat in our diet, but I suspect my daughter has inherited her father's sensitivity. Because of this, we have made the decision as a family to cut wheat out of all our diets beginning January 1. I picked the book up to get some pointers and suggestions.

Since we had already experienced what a dramatic difference a wheat free life can make, Michael and I ended up skipping the majority of the book and going to the end, where Dr. Davis deals with the specifics of the diet. Of the chapters I did read, the author seemed to use good sources, I learned a lot, and although I did not take the time to cross check the references, my "Bullshit Meter" didn't go off.

The diet Dr. Davis describes is what our nutritionist tried to get us to do those many years ago and what our trainer is talking to us about now. Eat a lot of vegetables and moderate amounts of meats and grains. Nothing new there. The reminder was helpful and the recipes were interesting. Because we are dealing with a teenager, we have decided to start by cutting wheat only. Once we get that down, we will start to reduce the other "no-nos" in our diet. I've learned over the years that too much change at once can be over whelming.

I would recommend this book, especially if you are having chronic digestive issues, headaches, or any other ailment that is not responding to medications or is just lurking in the background. As I said, I've seen the dramatic effect in my husband and I think it is worth at least conducting an experiment to see if skipping the wheat products helps out. You really have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Storytelling: Watching TV

I have a guilty pleasure. As a writer, I'm just a little embarrassed by it. I hide my predilection from my writing buddies, sneaking my fixes in between writer's groups. My family knows. How could they not? My husband sighs, shakes his head and leaves the room. I'm indoctrinating my daughter in my shameful ways. I try, but I can't break my TV habit. What's even worse is my taste runs to lowbrow. I'm in heaven this time of year with all the made for TV Christmas movies and holiday episodes of the shows I watch. This is what I tell myself: I'm studying plot and character. Yes, that's what I'm doing while I'm ensconced in bed eating popcorn and watching Holiday in Handcuffs, slowmo-ing the scene when Mario Lopez is naked to the waist.

All kidding aside, my friend and fellow writer, Rich Redman, regularly posts about TV shows he is watching, why he is watching them, whether he will continue to do so. He spends quite a bit of time writing about plot and character. I really enjoy his blog and have found some cool new shows to watch on his recommendation. I have also developed x-ray vision when it comes to watching TV shows and even movies.  Each one is a lesson in plot, conflict, character development, and dialogue and I usually come away with either an insight or a reminder about writing an effective story. Two examples come to mind when I think of shows I've watched recently, the CW's Beauty and the Beast and the movie Red Tails.

Full disclosure here: I am a romance junkie. I read romance novels, watch romantic comedies, and am drawn to TV shows that have a romantic elements. I'm writing a novel with heavy romantic themes. I'm into it. When I heard that the CW was going to resurrect my favorite romantic series from the late '80s I was in. I watched the first episode of Beauty and the Beast with the updated Catherine, AKA Cat, and Vincent, and decided it was worth watching another episode. Now, I'm hooked. What keeps me coming back is the sexual tension between the characters - a must in good romance - and the use of conflict by the writing team. The amount of obstacles the team keeps throwing at the two main characters is admirable. At first Vincent refuses to be near Cat for fear of her safety, then there is a misunderstanding, now there is a physical reason they can't be around each other. Add in the curious partner, and a newly suspicious ME and things are about to get very interesting for Cat. As an audience member, I know that ultimately Cat and Vincent will be together. Every episode I wait to see if we will get the first kiss. Not happening. As soon as I think things are resolved and as "normal" as things will get for the lovers, the writers throw a new wrench in the machinery. I have to watch the next episode to find out how the problem will be resolved. After every show I am reminded not to be nice to my characters. Giving them what they want makes for boring reading and TV watching. Inspired by the show I went nuts on my characters. Maybe having sniper fire and a barn burning in a twenty-four hour period was over kill, but at least my characters are not sitting around on their keisters.

On the other hand, Red Tails, was a great example of what not to do. Caricatures rather than characters, moral lectures instead of dialogue, a predictable plot line all contributed to a movie that I would give a C at best. None of the conflicts seemed to be that big of a bump. There just wasn't enough drama, enough nail biting, enough asking "how will they make it?" The cardboard cut out characters didn't help either. If I were black, I'd be offended that the brave men of this squadron were reduced to the cigar chomping father figure, the young firebrand colonel, the angry black man, the man struggling with his relationship with his father, and finally and so much the worse, the guitar plucking, backwoods talking, Smokey. Really? Smokey? The writers were way too easy on the characters and didn't ask them to step beyond these stereotypes. In comparison to Beauty and the Beast, which is not supposed to be high art or have any kind of big message, Red Tails was poorly written and missed it's mark widely.

Admittedly, Beauty and the Beast doesn't have a high mark to hit, but there is wisdom there. Know what you are trying to accomplish. If you are writing for a show on the CW that is all about romance, sexual tension, and the police procedural, that's what you write. Don't try to make it more than it is. There is no shame in writing a good story. Red Tails became too engrossed in the overall moral and forgot to tell the story. Once again, I am reminded my job, my charge as a writer is to tell a story, not  to impart a moral lesson. A well written story will entertain and get the point across without beating the audience over the head with a post.

TV and movies are like little intense writing courses if you pay attention. I've started to and I think my writing has benefited. "And so," you ask, "what is the benefit of watching Holiday in Handcuffs?" Well, you know, Mario Lopez's character is an excellent example of a romantic hero and honestly, he's hot. Who said school had to be boring?

Monday, December 3, 2012

What I Learned from Nanowrimo

The race is run. December 1st marked the return to normal after a spectacular literary sprint conducted by writers all over the globe. National Novel Writing Month, AKA Nanowrimo, the challenge to write 50,000 words in one month, came to a conclusion November 30. Now my blogging drought is broken and I am engaging in some serious navel gazing along with most of the other participants.

The first question most will ask is: "Did you win?" My answer is no and yes. Did I write 50,000 words? No, I produced just over 30,000, so I'm not technically a winner.  There will be no t-shirt or confetti or even electronic props. I did, however, win in the sense that I finally got down the vast part of a novel I've been dabbling with for over two years and I learned quite a bit about "my process."

Jack started walking around in my head about two years ago. He was the result of an exercise during a writing class I was taking. "Who walks in the door? And what do they see? What do they feel about us sitting here looking at them?" the instructor, Gwendolyn Jerris, exhorted. That's when Jack, the cowboy transplanted from Texas to Michigan walked into my head wearing his stetson and cowboy boots. His Mama taught him manners, so he has stepped politely aside several times in the last few years when another character waved his or her arms around and shouted, "Ooo, ooo, ooo!" in a Horshack-esque ploy for attention. When that character has gotten his or her due, he always returned, quietly asking for his story to be told. Nanowrimo finally gave me the opportunity to focus exclusively on Jack and his story. I wanted to say, "Gave me the chance," rather than "opportunity" but it would be a lie. I've had the time since I left my job in April. What Nanowrimo did was give me the focus I needed to pound out about three quarters of the novel. I'm sad its over and now the impetus has to come from within me. I'm happy that I've spent November giving a great character his due and will continue to do so in December. The goal is to finish before the end of 2012.

In his quiet way Jack allowed me to find out who I am as a writer. Writers talk a lot about the differences in their process. We pace around like divas and require absolute silence, classical music, or new age. Our coffee must be hot, cold, or decaffeinated. We constantly ask other writers, especially those with an agent or a publisher, what their process is. To entice the muse to cross our threshold, we contort ourselves in so many crazy ways. I learned that the muse shows up as long as I'm sitting at my computer. Its amazing how she shows up when the goal is 1500 words, do or die.

When the muse enters the room, the very most important thing I do is shut up the The Writing W(b)itch. Her haranguing about dialogue, plot, and even grammar will drive the muse away. I find that I must stuff the W(b)itch into a box and not let her out until its time for revision. This means that I write a lot of dreck and I mean pages of it. I expect to toss at least a third of the novel and cut out at least one character. But until I'm ready to do that, The Writing W(b)itch just gets in the way of getting the story down on the page, something I mentally refer to as "Brain Splat." Now, many of my friends are diligent  plotters. They have everything planned out before they start to write. I'd love to be a plotter. It appeals so seductively to my organization gene. Its a complete waste of time for me. I've outlined this novel at least three times and as soon as I write three sentences I'm already off the outline. This time I decided to just go with it and lean heavily on "Brain Splat."

The Brain Splat Method made trying to write this novel chronologically very difficult. I really started losing steam in the middle. To mix things up I'm writing scenes as they present themselves to me rather than where they will fall in the novel. I've already written what I see as the end of the book. I've also written parts of the middle and recently another one presented itself to me where Jack gets back with his male lover, Marcus. I'll probably write that one too. It may or may not make it into the first draft.

See how I used the words "first draft" there? That's because what I'm producing right now is a rough draft, not suitable for eyes other than my own. Once I finish this rough draft, then I will try to use all those wonderful plotting tools like character analysis and beat sheets to whip this amorphous pile of brain mush into a first draft that will not embarrass me in front of my writing buddies.

In the end, as crazy as it was to try to write an entire novel in one month, it was a fantastic experience for me. I was able to get a lot of pages out, most of which are really, really bad. (I'm not fishing for compliments, they really are really bad). More importantly, I learned that my process is as individual to me as my fingerprints. I was able to spend time developing it and getting comfortable with it. Now its time to push forward and finish this rough draft so I can let the W(b)itch out of her box.

This is The Writing W(b)itch. I let her out of her box for this blog post.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Second Title Accepted at Alfie Dog LTD

Happy, happy news! My second title,  The Christmas Tree Miracle, has been accepted at Alfie Dog LTD and is now available for download.  At just over 1500 words it is a quick way to get into the spirit of the Christmas season. Here is a little tidbit about the story to wet your whistle.

While Tina and Paul are shopping for a Christmas tree, Tina receives a phone call requiring a decision that will change both of their lives forever. Regardless of which option she chooses, there will be no going back. Will Tina be able to grab the brass ring and take the risk to fulfill her and Paul's dreams?
Angel of Fate by  h.koppdelaney (some rights reserved)