I Am A Work-In-Progress

Keep working, Mr. Bee.

Miles run today: 10

Words written in my novel so far: 53,592

Times I have been wrong: 4.5

You may ask my husband and family: I am never wrong. Well, I mean… mostly never.

Memorable times in history when I have been mistaken:

1. “Pluto and Yugoslavia will always exist as they are today.”– Anne, circa 1987.

2. “I don’t get the big deal about the Information Superhighway. It isn’t going to affect my life in any major way.” –Anne, circa 1992.

3. “I am completely uninterested in sharing my life in a blog.” –Anne, circa 2009.

(The .5 is to encompass any slight oversight in my recollections.)

Please control your gasps, but a sea change occurred recently in my writing life, and I need to confess:

4. I was wrong about being a pantser. Plotting and outlining my novel might be a good idea.

I know. It’s huge.

Much has been made about the plotting vs. pantsing divide in the writing world: some writers prefer to construct detailed outlines of their novels, while other writers write “by the seat of their pants.”

I read an excellent blog post by a published author recently, though I can’t find it now to save my life. She said that she had many reservations about outlining… until she got very pressed for time: between caring for young children and rigid deadlines from publishers, something had to give.

She found that by taking a few minutes at the start of each writing session to write out, longhand, the gist of the next couple of chapters, she increased her word count by thousands of words. The result was dramatic and life-changing.

I was resistant to the outlining/plotting process. Like this author, I was afraid that specific, Roman-numeral, English-class-style outlines would stunt my writing, essentially locking me in a 10×10 cell wrapped in blank pages.

I’ve never been fond of formal outlines. They represent everything about school that I disliked, all rules-y and authoritative, judgmental and blocky.

But if you can find a way to make a chapter summary-style outline work for you, it just might change your life. I am finding, not that I’m writing wildly productive, 10,000 word sessions, but that the chapters I am writing have more of a focus.

And if you struggle with maintaining tension and keeping conflict alive in your writing, as I do, a scene/chapter loose outline may help you hone in on the nugget that each chapter needs to push your story forward.

I am fortunate to be in an excellent critique group, and if you have critiqued other writers’ work as I have, you will find that sussing out lack of tension in other writers’ work is SO EASY. Why, how simple it is to see what someone else is lacking! You, there–your story is getting dull! Your characters are talking about nothing that helps the story move forward! I just read a chapter that didn’t even need to be in your novel!

But it’s not so easy to see in your own work. At least not during the initital writing process.

You can become so enamoured of your characters, of the setting, of your snappy dialogue, that you forget the very essence of why you are writing: to make the reader want to find out what happens next!

I’m still muddling through on my WIP. I am no speed writer or novel goddess. I have not yet placed in the time trials of Olympic Novel Writing. I, myself, am a Work-In-Progress.

But I’d love to hear back from you about what you have changed about your writing process. What were you wrong about? What has made your job as a novelist easier? What nugget of wisdom can you pass along to make the world a better place?

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My son took this at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

Miles driven yesterday: 547

Times I heard the song “Wide Awake” come on the radio before I switched stations: 52

Words written in my novel so far: 28,101

When I was four years old, I liked to swing out on my Candyland-painted swingset and sing songs of my own making.

One day, when I came inside, my mom was not happy with me about something or other. I cried and said they should make a movie about my life.

“Well, it would be a really boring movie,” my mom said.

My first novel, now sitting in a drawer (shelf) in my office, shows how oddly prescient my mother is. When I follow that oft-repeated advice, “Write what you know,” agents tend to fall asleep.

Hence, the second novel… the one that will knock their socks off. Or something.

Thank you to JM McDowell, who offered me the opportunity to talk about My Novel That Does Not Yet Exist in its Entirety. Here are the interview questions she doled out and my somewhat evasive answers.

1. Which genre best describes your current WIP (work-in-progress)? Women’s fiction.

2. Who do you consider the audience to be for your work? With women’s fiction, clearly I am writing for women of any age. But as with any writer, my goal is to capture universal truths, something men or women, young or old, will find relatable.

3. How did the idea for the work come to you? I learned my lesson with the first novel. Agents want something fresh, different, something they haven’t heard before. I mulled over many different concepts before I dug into this one because I realize now how important the concept itself is… agents aren’t interested in how well you write if the concept itself isn’t AMAZING. BAM!

4. Are you an organized outliner or a “pantser” when  you write? I am somewhere in between, but closer to a pantser. I find that if I outline, I try to fit things into a very pat outcome. To avoid that, I like to start with a concept, have an idea of the major plot points, and let the characters start to tell their stories without forcing the issue. I’m afraid I would miss something wonderful if I had everything all figured out already.

5. Is this book part of a series or a stand-alone? I think this concept would do best on its own.

6. Did your research for the book lead you to new twists or scenes for the story? Okay, see, I’m still researching. One thing I can say is that part of the book takes place in Santa Barbara, California, and I am starting to think that only vampires, hobgoblins and surfers live in Santa Barbara. Do any real people live in Santa Barbara? I am highly doubtful. Please discuss.

7. Some agents suggest comparing your work to that of a published author. Can you think of a good comparison for yours? I was able to do this with my last novel. I think I will have to be finished with this one before I know for sure. I started out thinking it was going to be very funny, and it seems to have a darker undertone than I’d imagined. So the author comparison will have to wait.

[I am skipping a couple of questions here about my agent “pitch” because my novel is “high concept.” This is a snooty, high-falutin way of saying, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Are you intrigued or just disgusted?]

8. When the book is published, how will you celebrate? I plan to take my husband on a two-week spa vacation to Tahiti. Oh. Writers don’t make enough money to go on vacations to Tahiti? OK. I will buy a photo of a beach in Tahiti and post it in my kitchen. Then we’ll go to dinner and split an entree. I get my own glass of wine, though.

I also want to put in a pitch for the South Carolina Writers Workshop fall conference. My writer friends and I have attended the past few years, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ll be volunteering this year, and I would love to see any blogging friends who are out pitching their books, learning more about writing or meeting with agents.

Forever-Ever?

Captured on film for Eternity.

Words written in my novel so far: 24,111

Miles run yesterday: 4.5

Days until my 40th birthday: 38

A couple of nights ago, I had a dream that all of my hair went gray overnight. And I’ve been chased a lot in my dreams lately.

I have had more dreams than I can mention where I am running a race, and the course isn’t marked well. In one, runners were expected to crawl through a hole the size of which only my nine-year-old daughter could fit through.

I didn’t fit.

Is it my 40th birthday looming? Other stressors? I don’t know.

Like I’ve discussed with friends: aging isn’t so bad if you’ve checked off all of the things you’d hoped to accomplish.

If not? Well, welcome to some funky dreams, my friend.

Back in college, my cute Psychology professor dude talked to us about Eternity Projects… what you hope to leave behind when you’re gone. Perhaps it’s that you birth an amazing kid who goes on to save the world by finding a cure for cancer. Or you create a modern-day equivalent of The Statue of Liberty.

This may come as a shock to some readers, but I was not totally concerned about my Eternity Project at age 20. The end of my life seemed comfortably far in the future.

At age almost-40? Not so much.

And in the immortal words of Prince, or the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, or [Place Symbol Here] or Prince (again): Forever is a mighty long time.

I suppose I have to come out of the closet at this point and say that as I consider my life and my future, I am almost completely an Intuitive sort of person.

You may now play new age music, burn incense and chant with me.

Kidding.

But much has been written on fellow writers’ blogs lately about choices and self-doubt. I posit that this is simply the human condition.

But amid all the weirdo dreams and daily white noise, we all need to get in touch with that incense-burning, whole foods-eating, chemical-free part of ourselves and follow the signs.

I had a cool affirmation this morning! After waking up slightly off-kilter, definitely questioning if I should change the setting of one part of my novel, I started researching more and found a “thumbs-up” kind of sign for my original setting. It was just the sign I needed to move forward and stop worrying about crawling through holes that weren’t my size.

Do you have times when you question your choices? How have you resolved those issues? How much do you trust your intuition over research?

And lastly, a plea for research help: does anyone know a person who a.) lives in Santa Barbara, California or b.) has lived in Santa Barbara at any time over the past 20 years? I’d love to speak with him or her!

Joe Likes Pizza! and One Big Thing

Focus. Just don’t annoy your friends and family.

Words written on novel so far: 12,344

Interviews to do today: 2

Miles run today in a delicious summer rain: 3

Hi. I’m Anne, and I’m a multitasker. If I’m folding laundry, I might do it for ten minutes, then remember I’m letting the bread dough rise. I go put the loaves in the oven, come back upstairs and think about my son’s soccer game. Are his soccer clothes clean? I pull them out and put them on the bannister. I go back to folding laundry. But I haven’t talked to my parents in a few days, so I call them while I fold. My mom teaches piano; she mentions her recital, and I remember I need to check my daughter’s shoes for the piano recital. And on and on.

But one thing I’ve noticed: most people can only concentrate on One Big Thing at a time.

When I was in college, I fell in love for the first time. It took up 96 percent of my mental energy, leaving 4 percent (if that) for academic pursuits. Here is how most conversations went circa 1991:

[Setting: dorm with four rooms attached in a suite.]

“Hey, who wants to order pizza?”

“I do!”

“Save some for me!”

“Awwww. Joe likes pizza…”

Yeah. That was me.

Another example:

[Setting: my home, over the Christmas holidays.]

“So Jimmy Bob’s mother died. She was the one who owned the pizza parlor over on Lower Roswell…”

“Awwww. Joe likes pizza!”

Yeah, you guessed it. That was me, too.

One Big Thing. It’s the thing that sticks in your mind amongst all the other multitasking you do in a day: meetings, practices, doctor’s appointments, caregiving…

My husband’s One Big Thing right now is the marathon he plans to run in November. Here is how many of our conversations go these days:

[Setting: His car, on the way home from work.]

Him: Hey–what’s for dinner?

Me: Spaghetti.

Him: Awesome. I’ll be doing my 4-miler tonight and an 8-miler tomorrow. I need the carb loading.

Me: Great. So remember: we have to leave for the soccer game at 6:45.

Him: 6:45… When I was running yesterday, my average pace was 6:45. Well, I started out at a 7:15, but then there was a great stretch, and I got up to 6:55, and then…

There are a lot of numbers involved in our conversations now. A lot of numbers, people.

When I was training for my first marathon last year, it was my One Big Thing. My daugher would sneeze, and I would shriek, “Don’t get sick!” My children were certain I was losing my mind.

I might have been losing my mind: when I would try to sit down and write, A.) sitting down was not as comfortable with my newly bony behind (this is a joke; the marathon did not help in that respect at all) B.) all I could focus on was my next hit… er, run.

My point is: you have to watch out for what your One Big Thing is. You can multitask till the cows come home, with smaller, less brain-intensive activities. But if all roads start leading you back to the “Joe Likes Pizza!” point, beware.

That is why I chose to focus on my novel for a while. Novel writing is my One Big Thing for at least the next few months. Of course, there are articles to write, deadlines to meet, miles to run, kids to take to the pool, floors to clean, laundry to fold, in-laws to entertain.

But always in the back of my mind, I’ll be thinking about my characters. Their plights, their next scenes, their eccentricities.

While my husband spouts out numbers, my mind will be calculating words, feeling the sounds on my tongue, watching strangers to see their weird ticks so I can steal them.

Embrace your One Big Thing. It’s a little bit like being in love.

What’s your One Big Thing right now? How do you keep a balance in your life? Do you annoy others when you keep circling back to your unique “Joe Likes Pizza!” theme?

Revisiting Doorways

My fantasy life in Tuscany has more realistic-looking shadows.

Words written in novel so far: 9,364

Days ago kitchen floor needed to be mopped: 6

Miles run last week: 24

I have not yet adopted seven cats or started inventing reasons to drink at two in the afternoon.

This is some comfort, given the fact that I keep forgetting why I walked into a room.

You see, I grew up as the Organized One in my family. Not the Smart One or the Pretty One, as is customary in a family with two daughters. It probably started with the Christmas party I planned without my mother’s knowledge, at the age of five, as I blogged about for Mother’s Day.

I did spend part of my middle school years in medieval England and some of my twenties either imagining life at the beach or time traveling with the Outlander, but work got done.

The Organization Fairy stayed with me through my jobs as a public relations person, organizing events and newsletters and such.

I blame the children.

Before I had a cell phone, when my daughter was about five months old, I was thirty minutes away, in the same town where my sister worked, and we were going to have lunch. I got ready to call her from Barnes & Noble, and I realized I could not remember her number. Not like, hmmm. Now how does that number start again? Oh, yeah. Five-one-five… No. Complete block.

I hadn’t slept in about five and a half months, which might have been part of the problem.

At some point, I remembered my sister’s phone number, and when I visited her, I saw the neat files that were part of her Ph.D. studies. My mind whirled. I would be lucky if I remembered to pick up milk on the way home.

Once I recovered from sleeplessness and my daughter went to preschool, I started writing again. To be honest, that was probably the shift.

Going from business-oriented work to loosey-goosey motherhood to writing created some sort of mind-body shift.

I now must employ devices to keep myself on task. At the urging of my BFF, I have bought Clean Shower because until I remember to clean the shower, it will hold off the mold.

When I see a rogue tea cup sitting on the bathroom counter or a dirty sock in the middle of the den floor, I tend to walk past it and think, “Note to self: pick up rogue tea cup and take it downstairs.” I am more than a little annoyed at myself later that evening to find that same cup in the same place.

Being right in the middle of the creation path of my second novel, the characters are doing things in my head. They demand attention, and the mommy duties and cleaning duties and chauffeuring duties are done to some extent on auto-pilot.

Unfortunately, the flotsam and jetsam of daily life end up taking a backseat. Or in some cases, being strapped to the roof of the car (ha!) until I can make a note to do something about them.

If you are ever standing outside my house and wondering why someone keeps walking into a room and then out of a room; in, and then out, please know that the best way to recover a thought is to return to the space of air where you last left it.

You have to revisit doorways.

What was I supposed to do in the master bath again? Oh, that darn cup. Seriously. It’s in the dishwasher now. But the kitchen floor? Small children are still stuck to it. Note to self: I need to go rescue them.

Shoot. What was I supposed to do again?

Extroverts Anonymous

Wanna be my friend?

Chip time for recent half-marathon: 1:55 (a PR!)

Chip time for yesterday’s 10-miler race: 1:28 (a PR!)

Pace for both (odd coincidence): 8:51

Hi, I’m Anne. And I’m an Extrovert.

Much has been written in fellow writers’ blogs about writers and how so many of us are introverts. I thought maybe I could share an extrovert writer’s experience, just to Represent.

My entire childhood was a lesson in getting ahead socially while remaining unconcerned about academic possibilities: my dad was fairly horrified when I told him before first grade that I was looking forward to going back to school after the summer because of the social implications.

In kindergarten, I got a few friends excited about cutting our hair with safety scissors in the kitchen center. I may not have been able to tie my own shoes (come on, people: there were these things called buckles), but I had leadership qualities.

In first grade, I affected the future math prospects of a few large group of students who drew monsters with me instead of learning borrowing in subtraction.

In third grade, I was Witch #1 in the class play, which was a very important role, full of dramatic nuances. I had three very pivotal lines, which I’m sure people remember to this day.

When we moved to Atlanta the summer before fourth grade, I was nervous. I didn’t have any friends.

Then I met my best friend on the first day of fourth grade when she looked around the empty classroom and deduced that we were the only two people still left to get on Bus 1084. She said, very profoundly, “Are you on Bus 1084?” And because of that, we were friends and read “Little Women” together and decided to go to neighboring universities when we were 18 and switched clothes  and danced to David Bowie at Putt-Putt Golf when our class went on a field trip to Savannah.

The issue with being an extrovert is that social agenda often takes priority over, well, anything else.

Introvert writers have pointed out that being an introvert is helpful because writing consists of sitting in a chair, persevering while being alone for many hours at a time.

I’m not actually that good at that part. But here is a summary of the pluses and minuses involved in being an extrovert.

1. Running. I’m really fit right now. For me. (My triceps still wobble when I point at things, but I’ve found I can get around it by not pointing; just nodding my head towards things in a meaningful way.)

This is not to brag, but to point out that the reason I’m really fit is that I have a running partner. If she didn’t run with me, I’d still run, just not as much. And I wouldn’t enjoy it in the same way. And I wouldn’t laugh like I do when we run together, because that would just look weird and slightly maniacal.

Running is a solitary activity by its nature. But this spring, I realized that my aerobic capacity has increased dramatically. Wanna know why? Because we run for lots of miles while talking. Constantly. Then, when I run by myself, I feel like I have lots of extra air.

Slight negative: I never used to get Personal Records (PRs) at races, because I talked the whole way. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Races are like super-charging an extrovert. It’s like running, but running on crack. People! People who like to run! People I can talk to while I run who I don’t know yet!

It’s a problem.

The races I’ve done over the past several years have made me best-running-race-buddies with: a 55-year-old surgeon who smiles a lot, a marathon pacer who my running partner dubbed Justin Timberlake (JT), a fellow mom whose kids were in college… the list goes on and on.

I ran the half-marathon recently by myself, and I talked to no one on purpose. It was weird.

At this weekend’s 10-miler, a race I’ve collected friends at in the past, I had to talk to myself: “Run your own race. Run your own race. Run your own race.” I was in front of the 9-mile pacers when we hit the Hill Challenge that goes on for one whole mile between miles 8 and 9. I felt low. I was tired. I started to walk just a little because other people were, and it looked really fun. And relaxing. And then the 9-mile pacer chick comes up behind me and says, “Come on, girl, you can do it.”

And for an extrovert, it was just what I needed to hear. We talked all the way up the rest of the hill; it buoyed me. And I heard all about her job, and how she recently got married, and how fast she usually runs… okay. Maybe this extroversion thing is a bit like an addiction. But it got me through.

2. Writing. I interview a lot of people, which means wanting to hear peoples’ stories and tell them in words on paper. It is rare that I interview a boring person. Part of this is because I find people in general very interesting. I like listening, I like calling people, I like talking to them… it’s a weird extrovert thing.

It helps the breadth of my writing. While sitting in a chair by myself for hours to get a certain number of words on a page can be a bit like eating a can of beets, I have so much experience to draw from. I have gone out to schools and spoken with children, teachers, business leaders, volunteers, crossing guards, musicians and chainsaw artists. They energize me.

I’ve heard how they speak as much as what they say. When I write, the people I’ve met inform my words. The stories are character-driven, with lots of dialogue; exactly what you might expect from an extrovert.

But if you call me and invite me to go to lunch, my characters have to wait. After all, they’re pretty patient, and who knows when I’ll get the chance to go to lunch again? Oh! Someone just emailed me about lunch on Wednesday, too! Oh, well. More fodder for my novel!

3. Networking. Networking is a kind of dirty word. When I got out of college, I wondered how something like networking worked. It seemed like a secret society, full of special handshakes and code words. But I’ve realized that a lot of networking is simply getting older and accumulating experiences.

Whether you live in the same area for years, as I have, or traveled the world as many other people have, you meet a wide range of people who have varied skills and super-cool intellectual property.

An extrovert will jump at the chance to meet a new person, to talk to them about their unique situations and life lessons. Someday, you may find that you can help someone get a job or that you know someone who knows someone. And maybe someday, I will have a book that someone wants to buy, and she will tell someone who will tell someone else.

I’ve gotta go… there are places to go and people to call. Oh–but you want to tell me about the time you fell off the tire swing? Oh, no, I’m not busy…

 

Planning the Happily Ever After

Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Times I thought I had life figured out: 57

Times I did: 0

Times I thought I had writing figured out: 98. But didn’t: 135

I was lucky enough to get to interview YA author Jordan Sonnenblick yesterday for work. Not only was he gracious, but humble, too. He has published eight books so far, and he wrote the first four in four years while still teaching full-time. He had some advice to pass along. As always, being in the presence of greatness makes me think about my own writing and how to improve. I thought I’d pass along what I’ve been mulling over since we spoke.

Picture the end of your novel before you start page one. Sonnenblick said this was advice he’d give to middle school students who hoped to become published writers one day. As an aspiring novelist pushing forty, it spoke to me in a kind of “duh, why didn’t I think of that before I went on a meandering, character-developing goose chase?” way.

When I was in my senior year of college, I had some major soul-questioning moments. There was a recession, and I couldn’t figure out how to get hired doing anything journalistic. Or, let’s be honest, how to get hired doing much of anything at all. In my college town, my peers seemed polarized into those who were already hired as assistants to the President of the United States the second they graduated and those who were going on to graduate school. I fit into neither category. My hometown of Atlanta was gearing up for the 1996 Olympics, and when I tried to get a job in public relations there, a family friend said that she had gotten several resumes from people with 15 years experience who were willing to intern for free (no money!) just to be close to the scene of the action.

I’m a planner, and I was ready to know how my life was going to turn out. If I could have, I would have flipped the pages of that book and discovered, stat, if the heroine ever gets a backbone or a clue.

Fast forward to my thirties, and applying that floundering lesson to my long projects didn’t take. I had left my characters bereft, floating on a (symbolic) raft, with no distinct goal. Or at least a rather amorphous one.

Lesson learned. Sonnenblick’s advice makes perfect sense. If only I had interviewed him a few years ago.

Head for the deep water. Sonnenblick had the good fortune of being blessed with Frank McCourt (of Angela’s Ashes fame) as a high school English teacher. Sonnenblick, already proficient at writing humor, wowed his classmates. But McCourt kept telling Sonnenblick to “head for the deep water.” As Sonnenblick said (and I’m paraphrasing here), humor without poignancy doesn’t last. True, dat.

But here’s the thing: deep water is very scary. You don’t know what’s under there. Even though I love boogie boarding in the waves, I’ve heard the stories about rip tides. That, and my mom still stands by the edge of the sand and yells, “Don’t go out too far!” I’m almost forty. Read into that what you will.

The uncomfortable bearing of my soul and the fear that no one will really relate are probably behind my adherence to the breakers. Let’s just say I’m working on it.

If Frank McCourt had been my English teacher, I would be an award-winning novelist today. Only kidding, Mr. Sonnenblick. What I remember from AP English was that my teacher, a pinched, narrow, Englishy teachery type, favored long silences punctuated by pushing her cheeks in on either side as she considered any comment. It was distressing.

As we studied the Book of Job and all the horrible things he had to endure, I had no trouble making a personal connection to the text. English class was a hair shirt that I pulled on once a day to atone for my sins. My teacher wrote only one thing on my papers that year, “Be More Specific,” or more disturbingly, “Specifics?” I never asked her what she meant.

I found my way back to writing by late freshman year. My salvation was journalism school, a refreshing change from five-paragraph essays. But please note that news stories lack, even encourage, no solid conclusion. Bingo! I can now blame both bad luck in the English teacher lottery and journalistic style for my unpublished novel.

We writers must plot out our own courses, and I’m back to the feeling of wanting to flip to the end of the book. Will I ever get to be a published novelist? I’m going to plan on it.