Writing

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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Seeking Scandals & Love Stories

Or even scandalous love stories!
Hi Everyone. I am reaching out for a little help. I am getting a lot of really good work done on my novel. (Whew. For a while there I was getting really scared. Do you remember when I posted about going on a road trip without your wallet? I feel like I have been looking for my wallet for more than a year now, trashing the apartment, cutting open the sofa cushions, ripping up the carpet, just searching. I’ve found it now– it was in the freezer–and am happily on the road. For this to make any sense, check out this and this.)
Anyway, I have a character who likes to talk about celebrity stories in a way to illustrate some fundamental truth. The character was born in 1948, so she has a lot of pop culture time to work with. I was wondering if anybody out there can remember a pop culture scandal from say 1950-1980. I would prefer something that has sort of been forgotten. I’ve already thought of Al Green and the Grits. I need something like that. Oooh. I just remembered the Teddy Pendergrass incident. Marvin Gaye and his daddy happened a bit too late, 1983. I would especially love to hear about a scandal that was a little bit before my time, but anything, really would be helpful. I’d even like to hear about a great or tragic love story. Leave it in comments and if the comment thing is acting up again, send me an email!

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The Willesden Herald Incident: A Coda

Maybe you remember The Willesden Herald’s annual short story contest. The big drama was that the judges could not find one single story worthy of the prize. (It sounds like the set up for a fairy tale or an opera, doesn’t it?) When the panel– chaired by one Zadie Smith– announced its decision, TWH posted a sort of “what NOT to do” list on its blog.
Like much of the rest of the blogosphere, I posted about the list, even endorsing some of the advice. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help noticing a little, well, racism, in some of the entries. I gently– ever so gently– pointed this out.
Flash forward to yesterday. A representative from the judging committee left a comment indicating that ours was one of the few blogs that he felt was worthy of response. He’s concerned that our observations “contain some damaging aspersions.” This is the part I love: the commenter that was responded to in detail was, Kirk Larsen, one of my genius undergraduates– who called TWH out on its creepy Al Jolson reference.
You can read the whole thing and form your own opinion. (You have to scroll down to comments.) The response kind of falls into the three basic categories of defending yourself against charges of bias: A)It was IRONY. Can’t you people recognize a joke when you see one? B)I am just talking about my individual a-historical experience. and C)I have friends (relatives, what have you) of color! (Somebody call Carmen Van Kerckhove, ASAP!)

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Titles That Were Not Meant To Be

In the post below this one, I wrote about all the crazy file names under which I have stored the chapters of this novel I am trying to finish. While perusing “My Documents” I found evidence of many of the discarded names for my novels. Here are the finalists:
Leaving Atlanta, at one point, was called:

  • THE ENORMITY OF EVERYTHING. (I was in loooove with this title. I think I was trying to prove that I was a SERIOUS writer. This is about the time I bought a pair of glasses even though I have good vision.)

    The Untelling had a lot of failed titles: My editor’s reasons for vetoing them are in quotes.

  • RITES AND PASSAGES: “Wasn’t there a big self-help book in the 70s with that title”
  • TO CATCH THE RAIN: “What does that mean?”
  • ARIA: “Sounds too YA.”
  • **update** LIVING ALL ALONE: “Sounds too Chick-Lit” (I forgot about that one!)

    Current book has a new title, but I am afraid to unveil it until the book is done. Instead, here is a quick guide to what is it NOT called:

  • OUR MUTUAL SISTER: had to abandon this idea because it was way too complicated. I had to draw a little diagram to tell people what the book is about. Not a good sign.
  • THE BIGAMIST’S DAUGHTERS: I noticed that way too many books about women are titled in reference to the men in their lives. (So&So’s Daughter, So&So’s Wife…) I find this, as a trend, to be disturbing. Also the book would just blend in with the pack.
  • THE OUTSIDE CHILD: I like, but I just like my new idea more.
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    The File Name Game

    This may be more of a problem to novelists than to other writers, but I am having some serious issues with file names. As I am rounding the corner with this book, I wanted to make a big file with all the chapters in it. This has turned out to be more than a notion.
    For one thing, I don’t write in order, so the files are not neatly labeled “chapter one”, “chapter two”, etc. Instead, they are strange summaries like “RaleighMakesHisMove.doc.” This method gets tricky when I changed my mind about Raleigh making a move but forgot to change the file name. There are about twenty such files and I have to figure out what is in there.
    The other thing is that I am seeing how hard I have been struggling with this manuscript. These files are stashed in folders that reflect my state of mind. There are at least three folders labeled with discarded titles for this book. The first, OUR MUTUAL SISTER contains a good five chapters when I thought the book was kind of about a sisterly love-triangle. Then, there are the chapters I wrote when it was called THE BIGAMIST’S DAUGHTERS. (I am now saving in a folder called simply, NUMBER THREE.) Inside these folders are the pep-talk folder titles: 2006Baby!, TheHomeStrech, YouCanDoIt, etc. When I decided to do a radical rewrite after some helpful but painful criticism from a reader I called it PostSmackDown.
    When I am done with the book, I will save it all in a file with a special name. It’s corny, but I did it with my first two books and it is sort of a cheesy good luck charm. When everything is done, I call the file “enchilada” as in “the whole enchilada.”
    As some wise person once said, “Hey, whatever works.”

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    The Brand Name Issue

    Yesterday, an essay in the NYT really bashed writers who drop brand names in thier work. I read it in total agreement. After all, it is pretty irritating, for me at least, to read a line like “She closed her Burberry umbrella, grateful that the mud had not marred her Jimmy Choo slingbacks.” When I read something like that, I feel the way I do when people brand-drop in real life.
    This morning, I sat down to work on my new novel and I found myself dropping brand names ALL OVER THE PLACE. I mention seven brands in a twenty-page chapter. How can that be? The issue I am facing is that these twenty pages place in a drugstore and a hair salon. I don’t think I can refer to the items in this space without using thier brand names.
    An example: My characters are in a store (for the ATLiens in the house, it’s the SupeRx that used to be in Greenbriar). Dana and Chaurisse are nearly caught by the shoplifting. The manager almost tipples a display of Sea Breeze. (Should I have said “astringent?”) Chaurisse girl has stolen a can of Slim Fast. (Should I have said liquid diet meal?) What about S-Curl? That is just so much more specific than “hair texturizer.” (You must visit the S-curl website.) Dana is stealing “Dexatrim and Trojans.” Doesn’t that have more kick that “diet pills” and “condoms”?
    Thoughts? Can I get a pass if the brand names are not fabulous, just informative?

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    LushLame Life

    I’ve been taking good care of myself for the last couple of weeks. I can’t decide if I am taking care of myself because the writing is going well or vice versa. Did I tidy up my writing area to get myself to write, or did I do it because I was ready to write? Can’t decide, but here are some of my rituals that have me waking up each morning really ready to do my thing.

  • Tidy the writing area each night before bed. When I work, I sort of throw papers around and trash the place as much as is possible while sitting in one place. When I start I like it clean and open. Why this must be done before bed: cleaning is a means of righteous procrastination. It feels like work, but it is really a way to keep from working.
  • Sleep well. This involves going through all the proper getting-ready-for-bed rituals. No more falling asleep in the tank top I wore all day. I put on true pj’s, wash my face, brush my teeth, floss. Sleep better, wake up better. (And make up that bed! You’ll rest so easier in a bed that is nice and fresh.)
  • Go to bed at a decent hour. This involves living like a real writer and not like Carrie Bradshaw (who is an imaginary writer). I know all the cool kids are hanging out at Ideya, getting crazy with ginger Caipirinhas. But the cool kids are not writing books, now are they? Happy hour twice a weeks, tops. (To challenge Billy Strayhorn, I, too, “used to visit all those very gay places, those come what may places, where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life…” And I got NOTHING done.)
  • Get up early. I know everyone isn’t a morning person. (I am. I really really am. Around 6:15 am, I turn into a superhero called MORNING GIRL!) But the reason morning makes for such good writing time is that the early hours are all yours. You can write with out looking at the clock calculating the time before your first appointment. No one calls you at 6am, so you don’t have to even turn your phone off.
  • Moderate coffee drinking. I have never been known for moderation, but keeping the coffee in the normal zone gets me up enough to to do my work, but not so zooted that I am listening to my brain music when I should be writing.
  • Quiet meditative time afterwards. It’s so easy to skip the cool down. It’s just like when you are in a hurry at the gym, you may skip the stretching. Or when you microwave a Lean Cuisine, it really helps to let it sit in the microwave another minute or so. For me the same is true with the writing. I need to spend a good fifteen minutes just lying on my bed, or having a bubble bath. This helps me think about what direction I should take the next day.

    Right now, all the drama in my life is on the page. Lame as this may sound, it’s working for me.

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    As New Edition said: Is This The End?

    One of my writing “rules” is turning out to be just a guideline. I have always thought that writing is best when you don’t know where the story “is going.” I go on and on to my poor students about how when you know the end, you aim for it and the reader can see it coming.
    Well, I am about two thirds of the way through with my novel and I felt that I can’t go any farther without knowing how things are going to work out. (I could make a really annoying analogy regarding romance, but I’ll restrain myself.) Anyway, I did something I have never done. I called my friend, Joy, and bounced around possible endings. We talked it through and I came up with an conclusion that feels both interesting and true.(That’s the tricky part. Many interesting endings just seem false and real-seeming endings are often just lame.)
    The point is that I am writing a story while under the impression that I know “where it’s going”. Weirdly enough, I feel okay about it.
    When I wrote Leaving Atlanta, I didn’t know how the book would end. (I did get an inkling about Rodney’s fate about a month before it happened.) I wrote The Untelling feeling as worried as Aria herself about the way things were going to work out.
    So what does this mean? I’m not sure. I’ll keep you posted.

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    Getting Ready for the Wrap-Up

    Well, the votes are in. Everyone seems to think that I should move forward with the manuscript rather that look back through the pages I White Water Lilyhave already written. I tried, but I got all jammed up. I revisited the paged, added some paragraphs, fixed a little something here and there. I feel better about the chapters. I reordered them. But I haven’t moved forward. Well, that’s not exactly true. I took a couple of baby steps. (5 pages or thereabouts.)
    I am not sure what this is all about. Maybe am just refilling the well. I wrote those 53 pages like I was on fire. The words came pouring out and maybe I have just run out, a temporary condition, I’m sure.) Or It could be about the fact that I am ready to get back home to my own bed. (And my own phone. This cell phone ban is freaking me out. Phone Friends, I MISS YOU!) I also miss my life. I miss my friends. I have already set up lunch dates, happy hour gatherings, and even a spa day for the moment I get back. I guess it’s good that at the end of a residency–4 more days–I am just ready to go home.
    But back to the writing. I am ready take inventory for the time spent Blue Mountain. Although sixty or so pages isn’t the 100 I’d hoped for, it’s been a good run. I accomplished more in these four weeks than I did all last school year. When I get home, I am going to dedicate myself to fixing up my writing room and getting into a rhythm. It doesn’t make sense that I have to leave home to get my work done. I have to learn how to get inspired wherever I am.
    (Photo on the left is of a water lily. I snapped it on an 11-mile canoe adventure.)

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