I had good luck with my novel over the weekend, and I thought I would let you know how it happened. As I have said about a million times, I am almost finished. The novel is about two young ladies who have the same father. The trick is, only one of them knows about daddy’s double life. Well, I am about 340 pages in and I am actually at the point where the father, his wives, and his daughters all end up in the same room. Then, I stopped writing.
It’s unfair to my own dear father who would call me for daily updates on the drama. “What happened today?” I have to say, “Nothing. I went back and am filling in holes.” He’s sweet, he doesn’t complain, but I know that he is wondering what the heck is going on.
I’m kind of seeing myself and Bo and Luke Duke. Remember “The Dukes of Hazzard”? I used to love it when they would jump The General Lee off that ramp or whatever it was.
(And can you believe that I didn’t even understand they were a couple of Confederate sympathizers? Thank goodness my dad never paid any attention to what I was watching. He would have pronounced it as propaganda and made me sit down with a copy of Roots! But, I digress.)
Okay, so back to Bo and Luke. The end of the book needs to jump the ramp, with a resounding Yeeee-Haw! Well, I have been working on this book for about three years. It’s like I have been leisurely walking up the ramp. If I am going to make the jump, I need some speed. So, I have trudged back about 100-150 pages and I am rereading, and rewriting to get some speed.
The thing is this: A little tweaky this, a little tweaky that is not going to get me my Yeeee-Haw!. I need to do some new writing. I need to do something to make the characters’ past experiences alive and vivid. Truthfully, I was having some trouble getting there.
On Friday, I took a chapters– circa page 256– and reread it about five times. There was something sort of lame about it. A couple of paragraphs had some pop, but otherwise, pretty workman like. So what I did was I asked a friend who is not a writer to pick the most interesting sentence on the first three pages. She did and I rewrote that sentence on the top of the page and elaborated on the idea. I learned so much about the girls’ dad– who is the mystery man in the book. I learned something that will help me better predict his behavior on the big Yeeee Haw! moment.
I’m not saying it will work for you. I have said before that the writing process is a lot like doing your hair— everybody has a different experience. But still, I wanted to share because it may be helpful to someone out there.

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Twitter: It’s Worse Than A Time Waster

I was talking to one of my grad students yesterday about Twitter and why I had to scale it way back. He was saying “What’s the lure?” And I told him it was like having 30 people chatting in your living room except they were not trashing your house, eating up your food, and drinking up all your liquor. He smiled as if to say “What’s not to like?” But I realised what it is about Twitter that is so incompatible to creative writing.
It’s actually the same reason why cocktail parties are so bad for process. Twitter, for those who are not familiar, is a social networking site where members exchange messages of 140 characters or less. It’s a lot like party chatter. (Which I happen to enjoy.) The problem is that it is surfacy. Whatever you say is broadcast to hundreds of people, so you aren’t going to say anything really personal or meaningful. It’s all sort of superficial. This is the opposite of the kind of zone you need to be in to write a novel. To write a novel you need to be solitary, private, honest and deep in your own ocean.

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Thinking Days Are Writing Days

As you all know, I have been working hard to balance my writing with my teaching and other responsibilities. I was a little bit disappointed with myself last week when my two “writing days” yielded only some notes and a little bit of revision of existing chapters. I am so close to the end of the novel and I am very eager to power through until the end.
Well, it seems that those writing days were really thinking days. Today, I was at work teaching and handling all my other work responsibilities and my mind kept going back to my novel. I mean this is a really specific way. Often my mind goes to the project, but it’s more like I am busy thinking that I should be writing. Today was different. All day, no matter of what I was doing, I was thinking of really specific details of the manuscript. As I was screening “4 Little Girls,” the Spike Lee documentary on the Birmingham Church bombings, I was thinking about contextualizing certain chapters of the novel. When I was eating my lunch, it reminded me that one of the characters is on a diet. It’s as though no matter what I else am doing, I am still working on this novel.
The time that I spent staring at the computer, complaining that I wasn’t getting anything done, I was getting something done afterall. I was like a hen sitting on her eggs. It’s not exaciting to watch, but it’s neccesary if those eggs are going to hatch.
This just goes to show that sometimes progress can’t be measured by word count.

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It’s In The Stars

My horoscope says it’s time to get serious.

SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21):

A poet friend of mine hatched a scheme for writing a book in record time. He bought a round-trip ticket for a Greyhound bus that would take him from Oakland, California to New York City and back. He vowed that over the course of those nine grueling days and 6,000 miles, as he ate stale sandwiches from vending machines in bus stations and slept sitting up surrounded by strangers, he would churn out an epic-length poem about the experience of traveling cross-country on the most populist form of transportation. The experiment worked. His book was witty, shocking, and entertaining. I urge you to give yourself a comparable assignment, Sagittarius. Invoke the magic of a strict deadline to create something beautiful that will last a long time.

Other folks, you can get yours here.

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Lose The Phone


Originally uploaded by jeremy.plemon

There is a pretty nifty article in the LA Times today about telephones and the movies. (For those of you who prefer to listen to your news, you can catch the journalist on On The Media.) Anyhoo, the article is about the ways that cell phones are changing movie plots.
So often, an inability to connect with the world makes a plot-line move. Think Casablanca: When Bogie and Ingrid miss each other on the train platform. So beautiful! So tragic! It wouldn’t be if one of them had whipped out a cell phone and said, “Hey! Where are you! I’m by the ticket counter.” Could those misfits in The Breakfast Club have bonded if they could have been yakking away on thier Sidekicks? I can’t think how much Romeo and Juliet could have benefited from blue tooth technology.
Now, screenwriters have to figure out how to get rid of the cell phones if they want that kind of scene. And then coming up with a way to lose the cell phones can too easily seem like a device. To make matters worse, if the scene takes place in a public venue,you have to come up with a reason why no one else in the whole place has a cell phone!
I have a similar situation in my own novel. Thank heavens it takes place in the 1980s. Our characters are stranded at a gas station and everything hinges on who gets there first to pick them up. In the cell phone age, one of them would have made a simple phone call and avoided the drama that is the climax of the story.
Hee, hee. If the characters were real, I just imagine James– the busted bigamist– holding a blackberry in the year 2008 thinking how all this could have been avoided.

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It’s two weeks into the school year and I am falling into a very bad rhythm that I must break. I think I may have confessed to accomplishing next to nothing on my writing last school year. This summer, I went to the Blue Mountain Center, and wrote like I was on fire. Still smoking, I came home in July, spiffied up my writing room and wrote like crazy for the rest of the summer. Then school started. I have read over the entire manuscript, but I haven’t been really in the world of the novel enough to write meaningfully. This is not good.
I have featured guest posts here for working writers– working writers with KIDS even– who find time to get their work done. One of the most popular posts on this blog was Renee Simms’s excellent piece “Jazzing My Way Through.” So why am I not jazzing? I come home, tired, hop in the shower, whimper into my Carol’s Daughter, and crash, crash, crash.
I have urged people to snatch time while they can get it. I remind everyone that Judith Ortiz Cofer found her writing time while her baby’s clothes were in the dryer. But I am finding that I need full immersion time, which is not only free time as measured by the clock, but I need free mind space as well. I can’t work when I feel like I am stealing my time, when my to-do list is ticking like a bomb.
It’s time for me to reorganize my life and refocus my efforts. I know that I usually am providing helpful hints for other people, but now I am sending y’all an S.O.S. Does anyone have any suggestions? I am three quarters through this novel. I can’t let it go until next summer.

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5/6 Through, Time To Start From The Top

I am 5/6 of the way through my novel. I’ve been writing it for about four years, which means that the first hundred pages were written when I was still considered to be in my early thirties. The most recent pages were written in my mid-to-late thirties. The point is that this book has been written at different phases of my life. Now it’s time for me to write an ending that speaks to the book as a whole, not just the parts of the book I have written most recently.
Just to give a sense of how much water has passed under the bridge since I started writing this novel, consider that when I wrote my opening line “My father, James Whitherspoon, is a married man…”:

  • Barack Obama wasn’t even senator yet. (The detail has caused a specific issue with the story, actually.)
  • I was still living in Illinois and thought I would stay there. (That was two jobs and two cities ago.)
  • Not to get into details of my personal life, but that was also several dudes ago.
  • My current job– Rutgers-Newark MFA– didn’t even exist.
  • Brittney Spears was sane and Paris Hilton wasn’t even invented yet. And Jennifer Hudson? Who? Jill Scott was still “new.”
  • People were still doing the Atkins Diet.
  • No one had ever heard the term “sub-prime”.

    I’ve loaded my printer with a ream of paper. After I post this, I am going to print out the master file and get a feel for the entire story– all 326 pages that I have so far. I’ll read not with my red pen to correct things, but with a highlighter, just to bring out points that are important.
    I need to reacquaint myself with the novel, the way you catch up with an dear friend you haven’t seen for a very long time.

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    Here Kitty, Kitty!

    GOTCHA!My novel is acting like my cat, Johnny Baby Feline. I left it alone for a week while I went to Atlanta. Now that I am back, it’s not speaking to me.
    I am trying again today to reconnect with my manuscript, so it was nice to see this encouraging horoscope.

    Michelangelo never finished two-thirds of the sculptures he started. Basketball mega-star Michael Jordan failed on 26 different occasions when he was given the ball to try the game-winning shot as time ran out. Of Bob Dylan’s 57 albums, maybe only 15 of them are masterpieces. I bring these facts to your attention, Sagittarius, in the hope that they will give you some perspective on the down times in your own track record. More importantly, I want to let you know that in the coming weeks you should have access to the kind of energy that Michelangelo, Jordan, and Dylan had when they were creating their legends.

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    How Do I Keep The Flame Burning?

    I am trying to get myself ready for a ten-day trip to Atlanta, my natural habitat. Since I travel all the time, I have all the airport rules down pat and I know how to get the most of my suitcase space. What I am worried about is my novel-in-progess. Because I insist on being real with myself, I have accepted that I am not going to get much writing done when I am in The A. For one, I haven’t been there in over a year and there is a lot of catching up to do. Secondly hometowns cause everyone a certain level of anxiety and– for me at least– writing and anxiety just don’t mix.
    I don’t want to be away from my novel so long that I have to get reacquainted with it when I get back home. So what can I do to keep the novel warm for ten days? I have come up with a plan and when I get back I’ll tell you how it worked.
    One thing is to make sure that my writing space is all clean and nice for when I come home. I think I need to widen the net and make sure the whole apartment is welcoming. The only other thing I can do is to print a chapter or two and take it with me, folded in half in my purse. When I am sitting in restaurants to wait on my fabulous (yet frequently tardy) friends, I can jot notes. Maybe I should visit some of the settings of the novel? I don’t want to neccesarily work on the book, I jut want to keep myself focused on it.
    If anyone has any ideas, please leave them in comments. My work has been going so well this month. I hate the idea of losing my momentum.

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    The Case for Pen and Ink

    I have been writing for the last month or so with pen and ink. I started this because when I write on my computer I start surfing the net, doing email, playing solitaire, etc. With pen and paper the only potential distraction is doodling and that’s not really a lure for me. What I have discovered is that I am way less likely to delete large chunks of texts when I am using paper and pen. On the computer, I can get drenched with a wave of self-loathing and highlight and delete three of four pages, all with a couple of keystrokes. (I suppose I could act like a writer in a movie and throw my handwritten pages in the trash, but I am not that sort of drama diva.)As a result, I am writing through my problems instead of just giving up.
    Also, using pen and ink, I don’t read through the work as much as I am working through a chapter. Maybe it’s just that those typewritten pages are easier to read? When I am using the computer, every hour or so I scroll up and read it all from the top. This makes me self conscious and interrupts my flow. When I am handwriting, it’s like living in a house with no mirrors. I just write without worrying what it looks like. I just move on, move through.
    (My favorite: a Waterman fountain pen, fine nib. I like Waterman because the pens are a little bit fancy, but not so expensive that I am scared to use it. I prefer to bottle-fill because I get such satisfaction from measuring my progress by how much ink I use. Ink in use today: Levenger is the brand, Amethyst is the color.)

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