It just clicked

It clicked.

Uncertainty has been my version of a tormented hell for the past sixteen months working on this book. Something clicked tonight and I think it is finally over.

I just spent almost two hours banging out a detailed outline for the alternate plot line for my novel. As it turns out, it is more or less a completely different novel. Many of the characters are the same or at least based on ones I wrote in the original version. But for the most part, it is quite different.

It is especially different in the fact that, from start to finish, the plot actually works. And it’s good. I genuinely believe this is a REALLY GOOD story. All of a sudden, I am feeling confident about what this book is going to be. That is a strange feeling to have. I like it.

I’m going to sleep well tonight. Even though I can’t wait to start writing and revising portions from the original version and I can’t wait to make this happen, I’m going to sleep well.

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What if

What if?

What. If.

I brainstormed an alternate plot line for my novel that could make all the difference. Actually, brainstormed is too strong of a word. It was more like I stumbled upon a fleeting, tangential thought at an unexpected moment. It was entirely unintentional. I have no idea how and why it came to me when it did. But it did.

And it might be brilliant.

It also could be a total stink-bomb of an idea, but that’s beside the point. The point is…this randomly sparked light bulb shone for a moment long enough to inspire me re-write and finish the first book I wrote this past year. The one that has been on pause for months, floundering due to a story line that just wasn’t right.

Today, I may have uncovered the key to make it right.

There is much work to be done. Research. Outlining. Cutting and chopping. Re-writing. And always my favorite: storytelling.

Pro-Life Death Threat – Part One

Pro-life. Pro. Life. The words were bloated with irony as it occurred to her that hers was coming to an end. She stared at a thin scrap of paper in her right hand, a torn envelope trembling in her left. Saliva began to build in the back of her mouth as she read it again. The words on the paper were blurry. No – she shook her head and squinted. No, they were clear, and she could tell they had been typed on a typewriter with some of the letters whited out and re-typed.

You have been contaminated with the deadly anthrax virus.

You will be dead within forty-eight hours.

Pro-life. Who would do such a thing? Who in the name of life would attempt to kill someone just because of where she worked?

She blinked hard and noticed a fine, powdery substance on her fingers. Her stomach lurched. Grabbing the trash bin under the desk she retched into it, her body convulsing with unexpected force.

Suzanne, one of the nurse practitioners, stopped outside the door in the hallway.

“Are you okay, Erin?” As she began to step into the office, Erin’s hand flew up to stop her.

“DON’T COME IN!”

Suzanne froze. “What is it?” Her eyes darted back and forth from the soiled trash bin to the paper and envelope in Erin’s hands. “Oh, God. Is that…Oh, God.”

“Yes, GET OUT.” Erin retched into the bin again, her eyes welling up with hot tears. Suzanne backed up.

“I’ll call 9-1-1. Don’t move. Protocol requires us to shut down and quarantine the area, I have to shut the –“

“Just close it!” The heavy door slammed shut, ringing metallic in her ears. Erin slowly set the paper and envelope on the desk and wiped her hands on her pants. She looked down at them. It’s no use. Dropping her head into her contaminated hands in defeat, her forehead was cold and clammy against her palms. Odd, since her skin was burning. It’s happening. I’m going to die.

— to be continued —

Day 343 – The importance of the “where” in writing a story

Day three hundred forty-three of my 365 Day Writing Project.

I have been working on my second book (fiction) for a couple of months now and while I am certain about the “who,” the “when” and the “what” in the story, I am completely undecided about the “where.” This is ridiculous to me, since the “who” and the “what” aspects are typically more complex. The “where” should be the easy part. For whatever reason, I keep changing my mind. So far, I have flip-flopped between three different states. And maybe starting in one state and ending in another. Or maybe three or more different states. See what I mean?

My indecision – while in the middle of writing the book – has led me to the profound understanding of how important the “where” actually is. Where the story occurs not only dictates scene background, it also dictates the voices of characters, cultural characteristics, experiences of characters, weather events, climate in general and countless nuances along the entire spectrum of details. As is the case in life, in a piece of writing the “where” touches everything.

To be undecided about location puts the writer in a position of writing sections she knows will need to be changed. Some of the writing thus becomes a string of contingencies. If happening in location A, it will be this. If happening in location B, it will be that. For instance, I wrote a colorful memory from my main character’s childhood that involved sweet grass. In the location I was imagining at that time, it worked. But if I change the location, it will have to be omitted if sweet grass is not indigenous there. This would be a minor change. However, major changes throughout the story might also have to be made.

For instance, a key thread in the plot centers around the protagonist’s ongoing efforts to flee the political and religious views of her upbringing. They are conservative, hard-core Christian views. This works very well in a location such as Alabama, but not as much in a place like Vermont. If a change in location means changing or omitting this thread in the story, well, then I’m changing my whole outline and likely resigned to writing a very different book.

The longer a writer remains in static indecision the more muddled her creative process becomes. Choose the location of your story at the same time you outline the “who,” “when” and “what.” And do your best to stick to it or you’ll end up changing far more than you anticipated.

Trust me, the “where” touches everything.

Day 323 – Longing to write

Day three hundred twenty-three of my 365 Day Writing Project.

Book two is limping along, slowly but surely. Lately I am too drained at the end of the day to write much. Life is busy. Work is demanding and stressful. I curse the day job. Except for the regular paycheck, I curse the day job. Well…except for the regular paycheck and the continuous conveyor belt of delicious writing material laid out before me, I curse the day job.

All right, I admit it. As much as the day job adversely affects the time and energy I have left in a day to write, it does have its benefits. I get ideas for stories all the time. Some of my experiences are so wild and colorful and unexpected and puzzling and crazy and just plain interesting, I can only defer to the old saying: “you can’t make this stuff up.”

It’s the stuff great stories are made of. It’s too good. And some day I will write about as much of it as I can, in the context of fiction and complete anonymity for those who may be connected to the material. Until then, I long to write. The ideas keep coming, and I long to write about them.

Someday, I will.

Day 304 – The chase of the writer

Day three hundred four of my 365 Day Writing Project.

The art of writing is a wily beast. Inasmuch as it can be simple, it can be extraordinarily difficult. The art of writing is always a step ahead of the writer. You see, writers are chasers. We chase our imaginations, we chase words to bring color to our stories, and we chase the notion that we can artfully depict our stories to share a little piece of our minds, to leave something behind of ourselves that will prove that we existed once. That we were something special because we had something to say worth reading. But no matter how much we chase, we never reach the level we hold as our standard in our minds.

Wily, elusive, seductively ambivalent. The art of writing is all of these things, which is why writers are chasers. We may eventually capture our imaginations and generate the story we wish to tell, but for a time we hold it sheltered deep within ourselves like hyper-protective, helicopter parents. During that time we live with it pinging around the corners of our minds in sheer madness until we are ready to put it down on paper. As we write we try to blossom the story into what we envisioned, and we hope what is left on the page truly reflects what we enjoyed (lived) in our minds. We do all of this knowing full well that it will always fall short. Always.

I love the way Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner and And the Mountains Echoed) describes it in an interview with Joe Fassler:

You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.

Writers experience this every day, in every piece of writing, and sometimes even in every sentence we write. Madness? Maybe. Art? Definitely.

So, we chase. It’s what we do.

Day 294 – At least I’ll always have my imagination

Day two hundred ninety-four of my 365 Day Writing Project.

I waited all day. I waited over fourteen hours, actually. For over fourteen hours, off and on, I thought about writing. Distracted, busy, obligated to fulfill a long list of responsibilities, I had to wait. I was eager to sit down and write today, which is pretty much the norm for me. But it was another Monday I had to go to work when all I wanted to do was stay home and write.

Hour after hour, I couldn’t take my mind away. When I could – when I wasn’t absorbed in one of my legal matters or taking care of my kids or doing yard work with my husband – or maybe even when I was doing those things, I was thinking about writing. Earlier today I described it on Twitter like this:

If I can’t be writing, at least I can allow my mind to tumble freely through the halls of the story.
And that is what it feels like. It’s like my mind is tumbling around ideas, words, story line and characters, with no particular sense factored in. That’s my imagination, like a load of dirty laundry in a front-loading machine; it’s a busy mess in there. So, then what? What does one do with all of those active thoughts about a story? One writes.
I wrote down some of my tumbling thoughts tonight before they vanished. Now, they reside in my outline. Boom.

Day 287 – With an outline comes ease and efficiency

Day two hundred eighty-seven of my 365 Day Writing Project.

I’m on the cusp of delving into the meat and potatoes of my new book. Writing it, that is. In light of this timing, I decided to outline the story from beginning to end so I can more readily proceed. When I wrote my last book (which is still in first draft form and hopefully will evolve more later), I prepared an outline very early on. It was a helpful tool throughout the writing process even though I deviated from it multiple times. It helped me stay on track and get my story down on paper. That’s half the battle, right?

Now I have about half of the outline finished, which means I have about half of the first draft done. Okay, not really. What I have is a lot of work ahead of me. With an outline prepared, the work will be easier and much more efficient. Ease and efficiency. I like the sound of that. A LOT.

Writers like to make writing sound easy. After doing a good deal of writing over the last 287 days, I know for certain that it isn’t. It’s hard. So here is a no-brainer for myself and any other writer out there looking to make their process better: Prepare an outline for your book. And eat chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Day 281 – Build momentum first, then ride the wave

Day two hundred eighty-one of my 365 Day Writing Project.

I made time to write again today. I’m so glad I did because I thoroughly enjoyed it. Only two days in a row after some weeks of intermittent writing and I’m already succumbing to obsessive-compulsive writer moments. For instance, I was in the shower this morning thinking about a long dialogue between two of the characters of my new book. I was so immersed in my own imagination, I forgot to hurry in the shower to get ready for work. Before I knew it, my slow-poke son was standing outside the bathroom telling ME to get a move on. But I couldn’t leave the story be. In fact, I continued to think about it the rest of the day until I could write about it.

Truthfully, I’m still thinking about it. This is the kind of motivation I need. It might be obsessive or even a little crazy, but if it builds the momentum I so desperately need to get back on track to write every day, I’m all for it.

Day 233 – Narrowing the revision lens

Day two hundred thirty-three of my 365 Day Writing Project.

Revising and rewriting is much more difficult than I anticipated. I’m too often squabbling over minor things, reluctant to take out parts that probably should be removed, and unsure of ways to make a chapter better. It has been overwhelming, really, so I have been searching for ways to improve the process. Finally, I think I found a solution.

Instead of revising by chapter, I have narrowed my focus to revise by paragraph. I ask myself several questions with each paragraph, picking my way through in small bites. It is no longer overwhelming. Bringing my lens closer has also allowed me to not get bogged down in trying to create a perfect 2nd draft. I have to remind myself: Make a pass and remember that you will need to make more passes before it is done. Just make a pass, one paragraph at a time.

These are the questions I have come up with to work on each paragraph:

  1. Is the paragraph necessary to move the story forward? If it isn’t, get rid of it.
  2. Does the paragraph serve its purpose to convey information to the reader in a clear way? If it doesn’t, revise it.
  3. Is the information in the paragraph consistent with the plot? If it isn’t, get rid of it or rewrite it to fit the plot.
  4. Does the paragraph keep the readers attention? If not, rewrite it.
  5. Does the writing in the paragraph keep a smooth flow and rhythm, connecting well with the previous paragraph? If not, revise it.

Whether this method works for everyone is doubtful, but so far, it works for me. In fact, it may be just what I need to get to a finished manuscript.