Tuesday, January 26, 2010

1" Picture Frame

I haven't been blogging much lately because I've been knee-deep in revisions to my novel.  Blogging is something I've been doing while procrastinating from the real work, and since I've found my momentum on the real work, other things (family, friends, basic hygiene) have taken a back seat.  But today, I ran right up against a wall when I opened my file and saw that I was set to revise (ominous drum beat here) THAT chapter, the chapter that reveals much that had previously been hidden or hinted at, the chapter that propels the last third of the book forward to its conclusion.

The thing is, I've made a lot of changes on this go-round to the previous 14 chapters, changes that mean this chapter needs some major re-thinking.  So, I'm re-thinking this afternoon.  I'm returning to my tried and true method of freewriting whereby I type furiously everything that comes into my brain (e.g. "What if she was surprised and came into the meeting but then who would be there oh that's going to be stupid no one will believe that but she has to not know about it or else the guy who talked to her about the thing at the end will be there outside and bring her in not knowing she's not supposed to be there...").  As you can see, there's no danger of my giving away any of my plot to anyone reading my blog.

My problem is that I keep thinking ahead to how the changes I'm making today are going to affect the next chapters.  These are important things to think about, but not right now.  Right now, I need to just write the one scene that will bridge me to the next, and to get me through it, I'm thinking of Anne Lamott's amazing book "Bird by Bird" (if you have not read this, whether you are a writer or not, do so immediately). 

When Lamott (or her students) is stuck, she pictures a 1" picture frame and imagines that all she has to do is write the itty bitty part of the story that could fit in that frame.  The idea is to keep narrowing in on your writing task until it becomes manageable.  So, I'm not writing a chapter today.  I'm writing one scene.  And I don't have to write the whole scene.  I can write about how my protagonist gets into the room.  I can even do nothing more than write the description of the box of tissues on the coffee table.  Just the tissues.  (Lamott's example is writing about school lunches; she focuses only on the sandwich.) 

Nine times out of ten, you'll write that little bit, but won't stop.  You might find yourself frantically typing out the entire scene.  Or not.  The point is to get started.  Because if the book is an entire album, it's made up of a whole bunch of eensy weensy snapshots.  Write one today.  Write one tomorrow.  Before you know it, it's filled.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

One Lucky Bitch

It's Friday, and I'm wrapping up a pretty successful morning of revisions to my novel by consuming a big bowl of tomato soup at a favorite cafe before heading back out into the snow to drive home, relieve my sitter and resume my role of crayon distributor and milk pourer.  I love both of these roles, writer and mom.  Many days, I wish I had more time to write.  Some days when I'm writing, I miss the kids too much to really focus.  It's a balancing act, one that my husband and I set up about a year and a half ago after I got pregnant with our second child.  Wanting to spend as much time as we possibly can with our kids, we have a sitter just one or two mornings a week.  I've quit teaching for the time being because when I'm teaching, I've got no time for writing or much of anything else.  But, someone's got to make some cash, so that falls entirely on hubby for now.
 
As I write, I can't help but overhear the conversation of the two women at the table next to me.  They are complaining loudly about their jobs, about the "idiots" they work for, about how underappreciated they are and underpaid, and mostly about how much they wish they could quit.  This is likely their weekly lunch bitch session. I used to have similar sessions with my coworkers when I was the primary breadwinner in our family, before I decided to attend grad school.  I've done my share of time in cubicles, logged hour upon hour in conference rooms as both the person doing the talking and the person falling asleep in the back row.  I have to say, I don't miss it much.  What I do miss is the camaraderie.  It's lonely writing sometimes, but that's a post for another day.

Today, I'm reminding myself how lucky I am to have this time in my life to focus on the things that are most important to me, my family and my writing.  No matter how frustrating the writing process is, I could still be back at my 9 to 5 writing newsletters for clients and wishing I was working on a short story instead.  It's hard to explain to people that writing is my "job" now because I'm not making any money.  With some people, it's easier to call it my "hobby" and say my "job" is a stay-at-home mom, though, hey, I'm not getting any money for that either!

I'm listening to these women talk about how much they hate their work, and I'm thinking about how I desperately hope I'm still writing at age 95, how there isn't enough time in the world to get all the stories down on paper that I want to tell, how my worst day writing is still better than a good day in the cubicle jungle, how the only "boss" I have to deal with is the one in the mirror.  It was fun to bitch about work with my old office pals, but I'd much rather be where I am now, just one lucky bitch.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Genre Shmonra: Read Everything

Regarding my latest novel revision, I've been asked by the agent I'm working with to put more "anger and anguish" on the page, and so I spent some time browsing my book shelves looking for inspiration, and I came up empty.  The thing is, I read literary fiction.  I write literary fiction (at least I thought I did; now I'm not so sure what label I fall under).  I publish short stories in little literary journals that may be highly regarded by other writer-types, but very few people actually read.  Lots of the books I was pulling off my shelves contained both anger and anguish, but it was of the inner-directed type.  The book I wrote has a whopper of a plot, but is ultimately very "quiet."  More than one agent has used that particular word after reading the book: quiet. 

So, what's wrong with quiet, I think?  Well, if the writing style doesn't match the plot, it creates a bit of a disconnect with readers.  An agent pointed out that no one yells in my book, and I thought surely she must be mistaken.  But then, I re-read it.  And she was right.  And yelling is required in this book; it most certainly is.

So, my assignment over the holidays was to read something totally different from what I normally read.  I picked up "A Bad Day for Sorry" by Sophie Littlefield, a debut crime novelist.  Is it going to be my favorite book of the year?  Too early to tell.  But did I enjoy it?  A resounding yes.  And it helped me out, too.  It gave me an example of a character who starts out rather meek and then slowly, when tested, finds her inner strength, something I'm attempting to do with my own protagonist.  Now, my protagonist probably won't put a bullet in the brain of a mob kingpin, but she can still kick some ass, in her own way.  She can show anger, rather than just think about it.  She can show it in a way that's bigger than slamming a door or giving someone the silent treatment.  Is this the way many of us deal with emotions in our own lives, pushing them down or expressing them only passive-aggressively?  Yes.  But in the case of my book, it doesn't make for very compelling storytelling.

So, adding to my mental list of resolutions this year is reading anything that looks interesting, regardless of what category it falls into.  I'm tired of the grad school snobbiness that says only books that other PhDs have deemed worthy is acceptable reading.  I'm tired of "the canon." Reading widely opens up so many venues for writers.  Your own writing style might not change.  Your favorite type of book might not change.  But at the very least, you'll learn something that might be of use in one of your own stories some day.  Today, for example, I learned about severing an artery with a rotary cutter, perhaps not useful to my current book, but who knows what the future holds?