What century is it?

I had a phone call this morning. It took me a minute to understand what the caller wanted.

“I’m sorry,” I said contritely. “I had to get my head out of the 19th century.” I’m not sure she knew what I meant, but if you’ve ever been reading an engrossing story, only to jerked back to the real world by an interruption such as a phone call or a child crying, you will understand the disconnect. It’s the same with writing.

I had been working on my novel, which takes place in 1820, and at the moment the phone rang I was wondering just what a person back then would put on a bruise and a nasty gash. After I answered the caller’s question, I went back to work.

Unfortunately, Google could not solve my problem. I’m sure people without access to the Mayo Clinic or its 200-year-old equivalent had plenty of home remedies, but it will take more research to find out.

I think some writers do all the research they will need before beginning their novel. Others may do research when and as they need it. I like to finish the story and then go back and fill in the gaps if I can’t find what I need right away. Stopping to look up a cure or a fashion detail can lead to hours spent musing over different websites, each one leading me down another path until I realize I’ve wasted hours reading information that, while fascinating, will never find a place in my story.

Distractions such as phone calls or enticing detours are the pitfalls of writing from home. I could take the phone off the hook (at least my landline, which most of my friends use). But then they would simply call my cell phone. If I managed to ignore that, they would worry and come knocking on the door to see if I was all right, so that wouldn’t work.

As for getting lost in research, that is my own fault and I know I need to be more disciplined. It’s too easy to type in a few words and see the wealth of information that pops up.  Back when the world and I were younger, finding out an elusive fact meant getting into the car and going to the library, filling out a slip of paper to hand to the librarian, waiting for her to bring you a book, taking the volume to a table, and then copying what you needed into a notebook.

There are days when I think I need to rent a cabin for a week and take with me only a couple of pens and some paper. No phone, no Internet, no books or television. I’d be forced to write without interruption.

But honestly, I don’t think I’d last a day.  There are only so many hours you can spend in a book whether you are reading it or writing it.  You have to come back to the real world eventually.

We just want our return to be on our terms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The (He)art of Journaling

Some years ago, my daughter-in-law presented me with a blank journal. I was pleased with the gift and vowed to use it to record only happy thoughts and experiences. I realized I had been a little negative lately (had she picked up on this?) and that I needed to change my perspective. Focusing on at least one good thing that happened each day would, I thought, condition me to look for the good rather than the bad.

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There were days where nothing good seemed to happen at all. I learned that if I  wanted to write something positive, I had to look for it.

Then the unthinkable happened. Jim died unexpectedly and my world was torn apart. For weeks, months, I howled my grief and despair on the pages. I blamed the doctors who didn’t think his infection was important enough to follow up  on. I blamed myself for not making an issue of it. I blamed everyone and everything until I realized that blame was worthless and not helping me heal.

Then I started writing about all the little things I had to do, a check list of sorts. Insurance, deeds, titles, credit accounts, all had to be sorted and reassigned. Every time I accomplished something on my list, I made a note of it. Sometimes it was easy, and more often it was hard and complicated and frustrating. The more difficult it was, the more satisfaction I took in recording the task’s completion.

When everything was sorted out, I began recording the little (and big) jumps I made out of my safety zone. There was the first time I ate in a restaurant alone. I was on my way home from an appointment. It was noon, and I was hungry. I said, “Why not?”

Afterward, I wondered what had taken me so long.

I learned to drive the riding mower, something Jim had never wanted me to do. I guess he was afraid I’d turn it over or something. Now I use it all the time.

I learned to pump my own gas. Can you believe that?

There were many little and big things I had to do for the first time, and I managed to do them all. Not that I’m asking for a pat on the back, but it is surprising how we let our partners take sole responsibility for certain chores. I know of husbands who couldn’t for the life of them figure out the checking account or which bills are paid when when their wives died. Or who couldn’t cook a simple meal or figure out the washing machine. So don’t you men shake your heads at me!

I think all marriages should do a little cross-training, like companies do with their employees.

Now when I journal, I write down things I have done for the simple reason that I like reading back over the entries and remembering the visit, the trip, or the fun luncheon with friends. I also write down when I’m feeling blue or lonely, because those days still come. Not as often, but still … And writing about my feelings helps me understand them and accept them.

Many people journal for many different reasons. I think those reasons can change with life circumstances, as mine did. No reason is better or worse than another.

If you are a writer, you might want to try keeping a journal. You can start with writing down one good thing that happened today.

 

 

 

Memoir continued

Last week I attended a day-long workshop on writing the memoir.  Our teacher was fantastic, to say the least: Joseph Bathanti, Writer-in-Residence at Appalachian State University. Bathanti hails from Pittsburgh, which is near where I spent many years of my life before I, like him, found  my way to North Carolina. I won’t list all his honors and publications, but rest assured, the man knows his subject, loves writing, and enjoys imparting what he knows. I’m now reading Bathanti’s memoir, “Half of What I Say is Meaningless.”

Why do we write memoirs? Many of us want to or plan to, attested by the number of people who signed up for the workshop. Some have stories they need to share because of the lessons they learned and want to pass on. Some use memoir as a sort of catharsis. Me, I just want my grandkids to know how different life was when I was growing up.

Jack is more interested in getting a treat than hearing me talk about my writing.

One thing that kept me from starting, as I mentioned before, was revealing family secrets. Bathanti assured us that we didn’t need to tell everything, but if it is hurtful or painful, we can leave it out. “If you leave things out, you’re not lying,” he said.

That reminded me of another workshop leader who told our class, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” She was talking about fiction, but memoir writing is essentially creative non-fiction. It is subjective, and you can insert your opinion about events which you can’t do in journalism or non-fiction.

There are two things about the workshop that I’d like to point out. One is that as writers, we need to keep learning. Even if I never write a memoir, I took away a valuable tool that I can use in my fiction, which is to dig deep into my subconscious and bring up the emotion I need to make a scene live. The other is more prosaic: We are never too old to learn. I learn something new every day. Never mind that most of it I learn from watching Jeopardy!

And, I just thought of a third thing. Do we need to start with “I was born…” and end with some earthshaking conclusion about What It All Meant?

Bathanti’s book is a series of essays. I had already started writing a few essays on different themes, such as comparing play when I was a kid and what my grandkids do for fun. So now assured that I’m on the right track, I can continue.

Have  you ever considered writing a memoir? If so, what has kept you from starting? Or are you working on one now? I’d love to know how it’s going and what format you are writing it in — straight narrative, essays, humor, confession …?

Me, I’ll stick to short essays and hope it all comes together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basket weaving 101

I gave up knitting long ago, don’t ask me why. I guess too many dropped stitches and losing track of the pattern discouraged me. Still, I recently decided I wanted something to do with my hands.

So I took up basketry. Afraid that that weaving baskets might be as daunting as knitting, I took a one-day course on making pine-needle baskets. Sounded easy. All you need are pine needles, a (steel) needle, and raffia. And then you go round and round, somewhat like making a clay coil pot.

 I should have known better Nothing is easy. But the movement is soothing, so I’ve kept at it. I think each little basket is just a smidgen improved over the one before it. And I’ve learned something with each one.

You need a good foundation. Unless you get those first, crucial rounds right, nothing you can do will make the rest come out the way you want it.

You need to maintain the coils of pine needles so they are of an even thickness throughout. Otherwise, your basket will will come out lopsided. Same with the width between rows of stitches. You can see where I have some too close together and some too far apart.

You need to be careful whenever you add a new length of raffia. If you weave in the loose ends carelessly, your basket will have lumpy places or stitches where you don’t want them.

So,  in the end, I am still losing the pattern and dropping (or adding) stitches. I’m not discouraged, though. I can see progress, and I feel  the next basket will come out the way I want it.

I work on the my baskets when I need a respite from editing. I had ordered a proof copy of “When He Said Goodbye” and found, to my dismay, some typos that had escaped detection. And, to be honest, there were places I felt a another word would be better. Or where a sentence simply wasn’t necessary.

So that I would not gloss over the same mistakes that had eluded me earlier, I started at the back of the book and read each sentence in reverse order.  Its a tedious process, but it works. Errors become clear. But reading backwards tires the eyes more than just reading, so I needed frequent breaks.

Maybe writing and weaving baskets aren’t so different.  Start out without a plan and you will soon find your story off course with no prayer of getting it back. Dialogue, action, and narrative need to be balanced. Introduce new plot lines carefully or you will lose track of the main story. You should have an idea of where the story is going and what the end result will look like.

I hope to have the book published within the next few weeks. I need to finish it (although to be honest, I could keep fining ways to improve it every time I read it) because I am eager to start on the next book that is now taking up space in my head.

My ambition is to have it be an improvement over my last book, just as the next basket will be better than the one before it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s your process?

I had just wakened when the phone rang. It wasn’t too early to call, but I’d slept late because of binge-watching “Longmire” the night before. So the question took me by surprise.

“What process do you use when you write?”

“Huh?”

My mind clicked into gear and I said, “Well, I don’t outline. I tried it once and it didn’t work for me.”

So what do  you do when you first start writing, the caller asked. Do you begin with dialogue? Narrative? Action?

I had to think a minute. How do I start a new work? A song went through my addled brain: “…start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…”*

I just start writing I said. I tried to explain that before I sat down to write, the entire story is laid out in my head. I have spent months going over it at odd times, three a.m when I can’t sleep, standing in line, driving … the scenes get worked out, I imagine what the characters will say, I know what’s going to happen and how it ends. I don’t worry about jotting down fragments on stray sheets of paper or in a notebook (although I carry one because I read somewhere that’s what writers do).

It’s as if the entire novel is already written in my mind and when I sit down at the computer I am not writing so much as taking dictation. I begin by setting the scene in a specific time and place, introducing the main character, and describing the goal or problem that must be reached or solved.

Then I tell the story. I try to limit narrative as being a “tell” rather than “show.” Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I’d rather let the reader find out through action and dialogue. Narrative is limited to describing the scene where the action takes place. I’ve been told dialogue is my strong point, so I use it more often than narrative.

My caller asked how I handed the second, third, and consecutive drafts.

I stumbled over that, being still only half awake. What I should  have said was that I look for problems in pacing (using shorter sentences and paragraphs when the action heats up), flow, plot holes, repetitive narration or description, and other stumbling blocks that might make a reader stop and scratch her head in confusion. I also believe it is important to pay attention to white space on the page. Dense paragraphs are off-putting. Again, crisp dialogue helps balance the longer, necessary descriptions.

Then I edit for grammar and construction. And finally, look for typos.

When I’ve done all I can, I ask trusted beta readers to read the manuscript. I take their feedback and make any changes I find applicable.

Only then does it get submitted to a publisher, where an entirely new process begins.

So that’s my process. What’s yours? How do you begin your story?

We all want to know.

* “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music

 

Good news — I guess

I am so near completing my work in progress that I can envision myself writing “The End” and sitting back with a happy sigh.

But I also know it isn’t finished. As every writer has discovered, there is more to the process. I still have to do the final edits, send it off to Beta readers, and then make any corrections they suggest (and that I agree with). And after that, decide whether to make the round of submissions or to self-publish.

So the good news is, I am almost there as far as one goal is concerned, tempered by the fact that there are more goals to reach before the process is complete.

As of this writing, I have two novels in the submission process. One publisher asked for the full manuscript, so I am biting

Jack is ready to go outside if someone will just open the door

my nails waiting for the verdict. So in between working on my current novel and researching unsuspecting agents willing to take on new clients, my mood and expectations have been as up and down as a Ferris wheel.

And of course, aside from writing, I have the usual stuff going on. No one can write 24/7, because in addition to my imaginary lives, I also have to cope with my real one.

I decided to get a security system and talked to reps from two different companies. I decided on the second and now every time I open a door to let a cat in or out, a disembodied voice says “Back door open.” At first, on hearing it, the cats refused to come inside.

Now they ignore it, just as most pets learn to ignore the radio or TV as not being real, therefore not requiring their attention.

And so it goes. I will post when and if I hear anything about my submissions, that is, if one of them gets accepted. No one wants to hear about rejections, least of all me.

Hope you are having a great summer as we slide into August. Let’s hope it is not as hot as July has been.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are you reading?

What are you reading? This question was posed in a  comment on an earlier blog, and I promised to respond. As I told her, I’m an eclectic reader — which only means I will read anything, even the back of a cereal box if nothing else is handy.

It’s a tough question, so I went to my bag o’ books that I toted home from my last library visit. Here’s what I found:

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (almost finished)

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison (recommended!)

To Die But Once by Jacqeuline Winspear (yes, I’m a fan of Maisie Dobbs)

That Month in Tuscany by Inglath Cooper

Circe by Madeline Miller

I haven’t read the last two yet, so no comments.

Then there are the two books on my schedule for my book clubs. One club is reading The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe. I have it on order. The other club is reading See Me by Nicholas Sparks. I may take this one to the beach with me next week.

Speaking of the beach, my favorite beach read authors are Nancy Thayer, Mary Kay Andrews, Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Alice Monroe, Elin Hilderbrand, Barbara Delinsky, Susan Mallery, and Debbie Macomber. I have probably left out a few.

I also love big, sweeping historical novels by Ken Follett, Edward Rutherford, Philippa Gregory, Colleen McCullough, and Diana Gabaldon. Gabaldon is my all-time favorite. History, romance and paranormal all in one. My kind of book. The TV series is the only one I ever felt compelled to buy. I could watch them over and over, and no, it’s not all Jamie.

As for mysteries, give me Anne Perry or Elizabeth George any time. If I see their name on the spine of a book on the library shelf, it’s in my hands immediately.

Of course there are many others. And, I like to try new authors by browsing Book Bub and Ereader News Today. (I like the solid feel of print books, but also the convenience and portability of my Kindle.)

I also read biographies and other non-fiction. My son let me borrow SPQR by Mary Beard. It isn’t a book you read all in once sitting. But I am slowly getting through it.

And where do I put Anne Rice, Anne Lamott, and Pat Conroy? Also favorites.

After The Prince of Tides, I wrote Conroy a gushing letter telling him how much I loved it. I had never written a fan letter before and didn’t expect an answer. But he sent me a postcard from Rome where he and his family were staying while he worked on his second book. It was a picture of the hotel where they were staying and he even marked the window of the room they were staying in. I still have it somewhere.

So that’s what I read. Anything, even the history of ancient Rome, which is interesting enough to keep me reading, but not so interesting that I won’t put it down in favor of something a little (ahem!) sexier.

And, in parting, if you are looking for something to read this summer, hop on over to my place and browse the shelves. You may find something you like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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