Sleepless in Northampton

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What keeps you up at night?

Worries, definitely. Will I be able to pay that bill? Is the house going to fall down if we have a hurricane? Have I given those I love enough evidence that I love them? Why am I being tormented by nonsense?

But sometimes, if I’m very lucky, what keeps me up is thinking about writing a novel, trying to solve a problem in a current one, or suddenly having a brainwave about something new and completely different.

My question is this: why don’t those moments come when I really need them, like when I’m seated in front of my computer with a blank page in front of me?

And then, why don’t I just get out of bed and write those things down instead of berating myself for not sleeping?

Sigh. That would be too easy. And we all know that writing is the hardest thing there is.

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Does Blogging Count as Writing?

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This is a serious question. I’m challenging myself to write a modest 500 words a day. I think blogging can be a legitimate means of creative expression, and is certainly a popular medium—perhaps because of the instant publishing gratification.

But if I’m being honest with myself, when I say “Write 500 words a day,” I mean on my current WIP.

Here’s the problem: I have at least two, possibly three, works in progress that I could be writing for. Each is in the early stages, and therefore still gets interrupted by research needs. That means the progress is slow and painstaking. A writer friend described it as snail-like, and he’s absolutely right. I have to coerce myself into opening the document and facing that seemingly insurmountable challenge.

I would posit this, then: For people who are trying to write, blogging doesn’t count—unless it’s an integral part of the book. For just about everyone else (and especially journalists) it does.

Which means I haven’t actually written anything yet today, and you could well not be reading it either…

Exploring Possibilities

Writing is such a strange activity. In some ways, it feels very natural to those of us who are essentially verbal people. In other ways, it’s like searching for meaning and form in a pile of mud.

I’m reminded of Ann Lamott’s story and the title of her wonderful book about writing, “Bird by Bird.” If you try to form that mud into something coherent all at once, it’s overwhelming. But take it one little bit at a time, where you can discover some oddity or clue as to what the mud consists of, and slowly, painstakingly, a story begins to emerge.

The research phase, for me, is the beginning of that process. Reading, reading, and every once in a while a nugget pops up and says, “Your story could be here!” Then I feel like writing a scene, or sketching a character.

Inch by inch, word by word, bird by bird. It’s a torturous process, but I’m always amazed when I look on the finished product and think, “I did that.”

Yet because the book has an existence of its own, I never quite believe I had anything to do with it.

Taking—and giving—criticism

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I think it’s one of the hardest things to do in writing. You’ve worked so hard on your manuscript, sweated over plot points and characters, hoped you managed to avoid cliches and those insidious repetitions that creep in all over the place when you’re not looking. And then you finally decide to let someone read it, or part of it.

What you imagine is this:

“Oh my god! I’ve never read anything so sublime! This is superb, it rivals Tolstoy in its depth of character and mastery of drama!”

OK, a little hyperbole there, but face it writers: we all fantasize about mind-blowingly glowing praise, right?

Instead, what you get is this:

“Why is your character behaving so strangely? Did they really have forks in that period? Too much use of the passive. The plot is a little contrived.”

Even if you’ve prepared yourself mentally, criticism can sting. But here’s the thing: We all know that we are the worst judges of our own work—unless you’re James Joyce or someone like that. As we become more proficient with our craft, some of the beginner mistakes (digressions into unnecessary descriptions, excessive exposition etc.) do vanish or diminish. But there’s nothing like a new set of eyes and a good critical brain to really make you SEE and HEAR your work.

Chances are, what a good critic says will only underscore what you already felt intuitively before but were reluctant to work at for one reason or another.

When I read my colleagues’ works, I often find it inspiring. Not just when something is so close to being wonderful that there’s little to say, but also at the draft stage, when there’s still a lot of work to do. Seeing what others struggle with highlights the faults in my own writing for me, almost as if they’re reading my work at the same time.

So all in all, good criticism is good. I suppose that’s obvious, but I just had to say it.

Research: The Upside

My last post was about how it’s possible to get derailed by research. But for me, that’s actually rarer than finding out something inspiring, breakthrough, or just amazingly useful.

All novels require a degree of research, unless you’re writing about something you know inside and out to begin with. Even there, chances are you’ll have to check up on a few things. But historical novels provide their own, unique challenges.

To begin with, like fantasy, you have to be able to imagine a world you can’t possibly visit in real life. This is daunting to some, a candy store of inspiration to others. Unlike fantasy, however, there are records out there—sometimes more than it’s possible to conceive of—that will all have an angle on the topic or person or era or place you’re researching.

What’s so exciting about that, you ask? It’s in the controversy, the contradictions, the hazy areas that no one is sure about, where the stories often come from for me. Taking the limitations of certain known facts and knitting them into a cohesive, compelling narrative, bringing a person, a situation, or a place to life for a reader—these are the things that make me want to face the blank page.

Speaking of that, I just read something last night that gave me the arc of my whole novel about the 18th-century French painter, Elizabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun.

Now that’s thrilling.

In the Mood to Write?

I can be anywhere and suddenly have an insight about a scene for a work in progress.

Then when I get in front of that blank screen, my mind often goes blank in sympathy.

What causes that? Sometimes I think it’s the weather. Days like today make me feel energetic and inspired—sunny, windy, the world is talking to me from outside and in. The weekend, by contrast, was still and foggy. I tried and tried to write, but only succeeded in reworking a scene (the cafe one!) that I knew was wrong historically.

By the end of the weekend, my WIP was shorter than it was at the beginning.

But if there’s one thing I know, once you get into the zone, you should treasure it. Having been away from writing for all this time, I haven’t quite figured out the best way to do that.

Writing well is not about being in the mood. It’s something you have to labor at, to struggle with. Sometimes I’m not sure I really know how.

And then, a scene comes together.

Research. Research. Research.

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I thought that getting started again with writing would be hard enough. Not that I forgot about the research part, but I sort of forgot how it can sandbag your creativity!

Example: I was cruising along writing a scene where my heroine (in the pre-revolutionary Paris novel) was going to a cafe with her friend in hopes of meeting someone she had met there before.

Wrong!

As I was looking for the name of an extant cafe to slot in, I discovered that, like the ones in London, the early Parisian cafes were for men only.

Scratch all that, and reimagine.

But I guess that’s a big part of what’s fun about writing: playing God, and changing what happens to your characters. On the other hand, I did sense more than reluctance on the part of my heroine, and maybe she was trying to tell me something. In the time-honored tradition of characters asserting themselves, and bending the author to their own wishes!

The Writing Muscle

For me right now, it’s totally flabby. Nonetheless, I’ve made two separate starts that go in two different directions for a possible novel, and when I sit down and just write, I end up with 1,000 words.

I guess that qualifies as a kind of muscle memory.

Funny, when I wasn’t writing and thought about it, I was certain I had completely forgotten what a novel was, how to begin one, how to structure it, and how to make the characters come to life.

I had to work hard on my craft to get it to where it was, and never really felt confident about it. I guess that’s normal. All my life, I’ve thought, “If I can do it, anyone can.” That may or may not be true, but it certainly says something about me!

So here is my mantra for today: Believe in myself.

Just that. And of course, try to write more!

2013: New Beginnings

I don’t know if there’s anyone out there who still follows this blog. It has been silent for so long.

My New Year’s resolution is to write something every day. I used to do that all the time, but have been away from the craft doing something else for about a year and a half.

I started the year by launching into a new book project, which may go nowhere. But it doesn’t matter. I’m writing again, and that’s what’s important.

I hope everyone has the same fresh start for the new year.

Peace.