Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Writing by Walking Around

You've heard of Management By Walking Around, the MBWA? Today, I practiced the not as well known WBWA, Writing By Walking Around. No words were actually put on paper, but I considered it a good work day nonetheless. I spent a glorious two hours in the fiction stacks of my local library. I had no agenda, other than to fill my tote bag with inspiration. I ended up with a mix of authors I've never read, but always meant to, authors whose past books I've read and loved, and completely new names I pulled off the shelf based on an intriguing title and/or cover.

I sat on the little wheeled stool in the aisle flipping open book after book and reading first pages. I'd estimate in at least 75 percent of the cases, I put a book back because I wasn't drawn in by the language or voice. In many of those cases, I couldn't find fault with the writing itself. It just didn't appeal to me personally. What a wonderful and timely lesson! You see, I'm in the hand-wringing process of sending queries for my first novel to agents and indie publishers, in the hopes that someday I'll find my novel right on these same library shelves.

Querying is a process that can drive a writer crazy. So much uncertainly and anxiousness. Is the book good enough? Interpreting comments becomes a full time job, searching for meaning where none may exist. If they say I'm a good writer, I am. If they say the book's not for them, it isn't. But writers are of course trained to look at every word, every scrap of punctuation even, and parse it. I do believe seasoned agents and editors know this and have learned to keep replies short and sweet as a result...

The best cure for the aches and pains of endless waiting are to write the next thing. This is easy for some writers. Some just dive in with a single line one morning and set off on a new book. I have no problem flying by the seat of my pants, when I'm writing a short story or essay. I know my time investment will be minimal if it doesn't work out. And it's good practice. But a novel is a different beast. I've written one now, and so I can't claim to be unaware of how it will demand all my mental energy. No one wants to think, at the outset, that this time will be "wasted."

And so I'm trying to redefine, "wasted." Any time writing makes you a better writer. Can't argue with that. But if a writer knew, as she started page one, that a particular book would never be published, would she continue? If she had that crystal ball? When it comes to my first book, I have to give a tentative "yes." Writing the book drove me in ways I can't explain or understand. I couldn't do anything in my waking hours without my thoughts drifting to the book. I'd dream about the book. I'd wake up with fingers itching to get typing. But, I admit, I'd still be very sad if the book didn't find a publishing home.

Book two is still a scattering of ideas. My trip to the library was meant to swirl those ideas around and see what shakes out. I'm trying to find my way into the story, to decide whose story exactly it is, to narrow in on the conflict. It's an exciting time, but a scary one, too. You never know where the project will end up.  In the coming weeks and months, I'll be freewriting a lot, reading a lot, waiting for the moment that, even if I don't have the book entirely figured out, I'll have a firm enough grasp to start. E.L. Doctorow once said, "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Good advice.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Distraction Time-Bench DIY

I've been mulling over the responses to my article in The Millions (see previous post) and feel another post coming on regarding that, but in the meantime, I decided to busy my hands with a little DIY project this weekend.

I'm slowly learning to follow my creative impulses, wherever they lead, even when they don't lead to writing. I used to be such a stickler for working on my novel, and only my novel, whenever I had a free moment. I wouldn't even allow any cross-contamination from other genres (no essays, no poetry, etc.), not to mention entirely unrelated creative pursuits, such as gardening, baking, decorating.

I've loosened up quite a bit. In fact, I've published an article in the current (February) issue of The Writer Magazine on this very topic.

This weekend, I felt like tackling one small piece of what will be an entire bedroom design-on-a-dime renovation. (I've got a tiny, one-car garage full of "projects." No room for the car.) I started with something easy, recovering a bench. I've done this type of project before and find it very satisfying because it's (a) fast, (b) inexpensive and (c) makes a big impact.

This was a 10-year old Big Lots purchased bench. Cute lines, but nothing special. The white cushion was worn and stained.

My always industrious 3-year old grabbed his screwdriver and helped remove the old cushion. I took the base outside for a shiny coat of silver spray paint (I am never without a can of silver spray paint.) I had planned to re-cover it in faux cowhide just to throw that current hot trend into the room (kind of a Glam meets Kitsch, gets married, and has a funky bench baby), but I didn't like my choices locally. I really wanted browns vs. blacks, and none of the faux brown cow hides looked remotely real (I spent many years in 4-H, trust me on this).

In the end, I chose this brown and white flannel. I had no idea flannel came in any patterns that weren't checkered or nursery-themed, but this goes nicely with the comforter, and the silver does add a bit of glam to the room. I've always really liked a bench at the foot of the bed. Great place to put on shoes in the morning and throw all those decorative pillows at night (Why are there so many pillows? I hear my husband asking, again).

Distraction over. Next post will be solely about writing, promise!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Friends and Fodder

Well, it's happened. I've finally been caught writing about people I know in a non-fictional way, and now I'm hiding in my closet in case anyone's mad at me. I was sitting around a few weeks ago, compiling the 2013 recommendations for my book club when I had an essay idea. Two days later (record time for me), I was sending the finished piece out. It was quickly accepted at The Millions.

So, what's the big deal, you ask? It's not like I wrote anything nasty about anyone. I love my book club, and the people in it. The essay deals with my experience being the only writer in the club and my observations of how our reading tastes have changed over the past decade, which doesn't necessarily bode well for my own fiction-writing career.

The fear over the essay's publication started only when I showed it to my closest friend/club member. She was surprised, nar I say, shocked! that I was not just a mild-mannered member of the club, but a bit of a spy. Here I am, participating in meetings yet secretly mulling over the things people say about the books we read, considering our discussions in terms of my own work.

And I was shocked right back! How could I leave my professional life at the door of our meetings, I asked? If you invite a chef over to dinner, does he not notice the food? But it really has gotten me thinking...

Perhaps I should have my poet-lawyer friend (everyone should have one of these) draw up a contract explaining that anything my friends and family say and do can appear in my writing. Everything's fair game. Everything's potential fodder for my work.

You know the disclaimers in novels that say any resemblance to actual people, events or locales is coincidental? Yeah, well, you know that's not exactly true, right? Dave Eggers famously skewered that phrase in "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." He writes, "Any resemblance to persons living or dead should be plainly apparent to them and those who know them..."

As a fiction writer, I'm continually creating characters, events, locations, yet how can they not draw in some way from my own life? Sure, the similarities may be minor. For example, a character might have the same nervous habit of shrugging her shoulders as a certain someone I know. But, otherwise, the character's nothing like her.

This is not to say writers don't have their own, passive-aggressive fun on the page. I admit I have taken real-life mean people, turned them into very thinly disguised fictional characters, and punished them in my stories. There was a particularly vicious girl who lived in my college dorm who made a cameo as a narcissistic mother in my debut novel.

In revision, however, I cut her. She was a one-note character and deserved to be cut, but oh, it was still fun, and cathartic, to write her in, however briefly. I work out a dozen emotions, sometimes daily, tapping away at my keyboard. Saves tons on counseling fees.

But I guess I do need to be a bit more careful now that my publications are increasing, now that I'm writing more non-fiction, and the venues where I'm publishing have a larger audience. I can't hide as easily, and that's a good thing, of course, yet I feel like my sensitive skin still needs a bit more toughening up to be exposed to critics, whether they be strangers or friends.

I think I just need to write, publish, not worry so much, and buy this shirt I saw on What do you think? A wearable disclaimer that will serve as my uniform. I'm starting a new book this year, so consider yourself warned.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

This Design Trend Must Go!

As you probably know by now, one of my (not so guilty) pleasures is interior design. I'm an HGTV junkie with a love of old homes in need of a little TLC. I have stacks of decorating magazines by the bed and subscribe to various design round-ups that are delivered to my email box each week.

There's one trend that appeared quite a bit amongst all these venues in 2012, one I really hoped was going to disappear in the new year. Yet, here is a photo that was delivered to my in- box today from HGTV.

Lovely, right? I agree. I love the way they made use of this rather challenging room (proportion-wise). Love the colors. Who wouldn't love that amazing window? Notice anything strange, though, in front of that window? Perhaps five, 10- to 12-foot high stacks of books? Yes, my friends, if you are new to do-it-yourself design, books are the new, (not really, though, since people have been displaying books since they've existed) low cost accessory. As a writer, I say, awesome! Buy books! Display them! Most of them!

But, as a parent prone to anxious episodes whereby something heavy might fall on my little ones' heads, I beg you, designers, please stop already with the ridiculous book towers. I've seen nearly identical displays in photo spreads with toddlers in the picture. Who are they kidding? How long do you think it would take a toddler, or heck, an adult even, to have these books on the floor?

The accompanying article suggests that this is a great way to store your books, sans shelves, indicating that these are books you might currently be reading (not just display-only items). So, you know, if you really want that copy of Moby Dick, you'll find it at the bottom of that stack second from the left, the one that's going to crash into the window if you breathe on it. And your toddler? Well, I'm sure there must be a copy of Goodnight Moon in there for her somewhere. Let's just take that Fisher-Price bat and give all these stacks a good whacking.

Okay, this silly rant is almost done. But, let me just add that it's "trends" like this that keep parents from thinking they can have beautiful things and young children at the same time. I'm a fan of practicality, in all things, but especially in home design.

In 2013, and forever more, don't let this be your living room. Egads, just the sight of this makes me go all twitchy..