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Summer is almost over. I know ALL of us planned to get more done this summer, but there is still time. I plan to devote the month of August to writing and if you want to join me, come on board. Just “like” my facebook fan page because that’s where the action will be.
I am choosing August because A) that’s all the summer we have left and B) the best time to start is now. I have a vacation planned for August, so that’s not real convenient, but is there ever a “convenient” time to get serious? Let’s get started now.
To get ready start making your writing plans for the month. Also start prepping your writing space. Clear off that desk! Buy yourself some flowers if it helps. Run to Staples and get the paper or pen you like. Have a back up printer cartridge in the ready position. Grind those coffee beans. Whatever you need to do.
Because in two days… It’s ON.
Remember, like my fb page so you can report of your progress. We are going to be so glad we did this.
My beloved cat, Johnny Baby, has passed a way. He had a good life. I adopted him twelve years ago and he was not exactly a kitten. He was a full grown cat, 18 pounds. I remember writing my first novel as Johnny Baby whined at me to feed him a little tuna-fish. He moved with me over the course of several cities and kept me company as I wrote The Untelling. In 2005, I asked my mother to cat-sit while I was on book tour, but she and Johnny Baby hit it off so well, that they eloped. Mama was always gracious enough to tell me that he was still my cat, but the two of them were perfectly suited. He was such a lovely companion– smart enough to open doors, compassionate enough to sense when I was having a bad day so he would hop up in my lap and purr. I’ll miss his sweet black-and-white face, and I know my mother will to.
I am trying not to be sad, so I wanted to repost this piece I wrote about giving Johnny Baby a bath on New Years Day.
Over the New Year’s holiday my cat, Johnny Baby, was banished to the animal hotel. (We had an allergic house guest.) Anyway, he came home in a rather malodorous condition. My first thought was to just let him air out, but after a few minutes, it became clear: Johnny Baby needed a bath.
Cats don’t like to be bathed and people don’t like to bathe them, but sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do.
Procrastinating, I checked my email where I received a message from Jafari
Today’s Daily Word
My Year: This new year marks a fresh start for me.
I considered bathing myself as a symbolic act, but I realised that bathing the cat was closer to the real work that has to be done.
As we jump into the new year, let’s figure out what needs cleaning in our lives so we can get our writing off on the right foot. It’s won’t be easy. I had to drag Johnny Baby out from under the bed to even get him in the sink. I had to ask my mother for help, as washing a cat is a two person job. (You have to realize you can’t go it alone.)
Then, there is just the element of hard work. Scrubbing a cat is manual labor, no art to it. Just wet and dirty and a little bit dangerous. (a lot of writing is like that. No romance, no mystery, just grunt work.)
Finally, we blew him dry which he didn’t like one bit. Now this is important. Cats hate to get wet. We were drying him and he fought that even harder. (The message: relax and accept the balm.)
Sometimes it takes a moment to know when you’ve got a good thing. And finally, there is the maintenance issue. As soon as we got him all clean and dry, he started licking himself. Although the point of the bath was for me to teach him a lesson, at the final step he reminded me of something crucial.(It’s not enough just to clean up your act. Once you get it together, you have to keep it together.)
More pics here.
Like many people, the biggest impediment to my writing is a failure to sit myself in the chair and try. I recently whined to someone that my writing hasn’t been “going well” for the last week or so. I know the person thought that I have been sitting at my typewriter, staring sadly at the glass keys, waiting for the words to come. But no. My writing didn’t go well last week precisely because I hadn’t been staring at those keys.
The remedy is obbvious– I need to sit myself in that chair and have at it.
And as all of you know, whether we are talking about writing or exercising, or cleaning house, or whatever. Starting is the hard part. (Sidebar: Have you ever watched this awesome video? It’s the mother of all peptalks.)
But on a less touchy feely plane, here is a simple tangible suggestion: Prepare your writing area the night before. Clean off the desk. I don’t mean just organize the clutter. I mean CLEAN IT. Wipe it down. Then arrange all your tools just so. Sharpen those pencils. Do you drink coffee when you write? Load the pot, so you only have to press “ON” when you get up. If you have a special writing outfit, set it out, too. (For me, that would be my fluffy robe.) Then go to bed.
I find that is I get the process going at night, I wake up already in the mode to write. And with everything set out before hand, I won’t get distracted and start cleaning up or something and them lose the mood to write. And besides, a clean and lovely writing space is so inviting. You will entice yourself as you entice your mood.
The picture you see here is my writing space in my place in New Jersey. Looking at the photo makes me realise how much I miss it. My lucky lamp! And the envelope you see is a letter from a reader, encouraging me to finish up Silver Sparrow. The desk is has a glass top and I windex it down at night so it gleams in the morning. Just seeing this picture makes me want to write. Seriously.
What I am suggesting is a simple fix. Try it. And while you’re at it, buy yourself a couple of flowers. Set them on your desk. You deserve it. And then, go write that book.
Since I am actively working on my new novel, you will see a lot more process-minded posts here. For the last year, I have basically been on the road promoting Silver Sparrow, so I didn’t blog very much. I figured that the world was not all that interested in my life in the various hotels all over the country. (I recently unlocked at badge on 4square because I have checked into 40 different airports.) But now that my writing life has settled into a groove, it’s all I want to talk about.
Yesterday, I was on twitter. (As you know, I am a tweeting fool! @tayari). I saw this tweet:
My advice to this writer is: write the story however you can. Do whatever you do. I am a serious overwriter in my early drafts. By overwriting, I mean, adjectives galore, adverbs all over the place. My characters sob. They shriek. They snarl. The “purple” language is because I know there is some need for emotion on the page and when I am working through a couple of drafts, I don’t have the energy or even words yet to conjure that emotion. In the first drafts (first few drafts, really) I am on a sort of writing rampage. I wouldn’t know a nuance if it slapped me. The goal at that stage is to get the story out.
If you don’t trust yourself to know when you’re overwriting, get yourself an editor who doesn’t play that mess. I have a friend who specializes prose so dry and crisp it will make you thirsty. I often ask her to give my work a quick once over. She is brutal and often strikes out some of my favorite phrases. Sometimes I just take her advice and lose the words completely, and other times I work to come up with a better way to state the same idea. And other times, I ignore her all together.
Right now, as I write this, I am looking at a monologue that I wrote last week that actually includes this: She cried until her face shone with tears. Yes, I, a professional writer of fiction, wrote that atrocious sentence. I am not ashamed. Why? Because I know it will not be in the finished product. It’s just a placeholder until I come up with something better. And I will. And you will too. Don’t worry. You will not let yourself go out like that.
Last week there was quite a lot of fuss about an amazing article in the NYT. A novelist who was faced with countless rejections of her manuscript, came up with a novel (ha!) scheme:
Just when Ms. O’Brien began to fear that “The Dressmaker” would be relegated to a bottom desk drawer like so many rejected novels, Ms. Newberg came up with a different proposal: Try to sell it under a pen name.
Written by Kate Alcott, the pseudonym Ms. O’Brien dreamed up, it sold in three days.
I was a tickled by this as anyone. Who doesn’t love a story about a writer figuring out how to outsmart the cut throat publishing biz? I posted it on facebook and lots of people commented.
In the days since, I have been thinking more and more about this story and others like it. You know the stories I am talking about. Some guy who was hawking his book on the some way and snagged a six figure deal. Maybe a story about someone who kicked in the door of a major editorial meeting dressed in a chicken suit and g-string, with his manuscript clutched in his beak. (I made that last one up, but you get the idea.)
Here’s my advice to anyone who wants to write: Don’t Worry About The Hustle.
Or, if you do worry about the hustle, try not to think about it until your book is done. Write the best book you can. Write the book that speaks to your heart. Write the book you think needs to be out there. Write, write, write, like your life depends on it.
I know that no one will write a NYT profile about how you said no to your friends who wanted to hang out because you wanted to put in another hour on the manuscript. No one is going to give you a high five just because you write five drafts on a single chapter just to get it right. But this is how you write a good book. It’s not sexy. It’s not clever. It’s really hard. But it works.
Once you have that draft in hand, hustle away. But until then, keep your head down and write.
I was reading a student’s manuscript recently. I liked it, but I didn’t love it because there was something generic about the descriptions. I shared with him a pretty easy fix that will make a significant difference in the draft:
Here is an easy suggested to amp up the language in your story. Use your “find” function on your word processor and look for the following words– NEVER, ALWAYS, EVERYBODY, NOBODY, NO ONE, EVERYBODY, NOTHING, EVERYTHING. You think you are using these words for emphasis. For example, you say that NOBODY attended the funeral. I get your point that the guy was not popular. But it’s way more interesting for you to describe the two or three people that did attend. You won’t lose the idea that this man had alienated many people, but you give the reader a more engaging description.
I want you to go through and find all the words I have listed above in caps and then replace them with more vivid imaginings. You let yourself off to easy with these consensus words. To say that “everyone thought that he was guilty”, is the kind of thing you should write in an early draft as a placeholder. Then, you should come back and take it up a notch. This is just off the top of my head, but “Everyone thought he was guilty except the Eastern Stars from Greater Hayes A.M.E. You could not tell those ladies that Miss Hilda’s baby boy was a criminal. Not one of them was a minute under 80 years and they felt that they didn’t have to watch the news or listen to scientific experts to know what was what, and who was who.”
This is just my two cents. I hope this is helpful to you.
starting a new novel is frustrating like trying to start a roll of packing tape. you just scratch and scratch trying to find a seam. then you raise a little scrap, pull, and it shreds, but you start scratching again, and it’s a little easier this time. you lift a another little piece & easy, easy, careful, gently tug.
Last week I blogged about my plan to write my new novel on a sixty-year Smith Corona. I bought the machine on Etsy and the ad promised that it “works.” Well, it did work, a little bit. It worked enough to type my name, but it wasn’t in true working order. The seller thought I just sort of wanted the typewriter as a conversation piece. She didn’t understand that I was actually going to use the thing.
Luckily, there is a typewriter hospital here in Cambridge. My trusty assistant, Sarah, gave me a ride to the storefront shop which was crammed with typewriters of varying vintage. The Typewriter Doctor looked very tanned and rested, having just returned from vacation. He opened the case and looked at my machine. “This is a beautiful Pinky,” he said. “One of the best ones I’ve seen.” I beamed like a proud mama and no longer felt silly for talking to the thing in baby talk on the ride over. (My assistant is very indulgent.)
When I left the Typewriter Hospital, I realized that the Typewriter Doctor did not mention one time that typewriters are dying out. When asking me if I wanted a two-tone ribbon, he mentioned that mostly teenagers like those. When I was looking at a 1980s IBM Selectric he said, “It’s a real workhorse. If you are going to be pounding out a lot of documents, that’s what you need.”
I had expected him to be like that Maytag Repairman on those old commercials. (Remember, he was depressed and had no customers because Maytag washers never broke down?) Instead he was a jovial and optimistic as the “Geek Squad” computer repair team at Best Buy. If I didn’t know better, I would have no idea that the vast majority of printed writing is generated by computers. Further, he didn’t charge me a fortune to tune up the machine, as though I was asking for some arcane service. His store isn’t a museum.
I couldn’t help but wonder if writers have something to learn from him.
I have noticed that writers are always asked about the death of the book, the death of the bookstore. We are told that the Kindle is going to drown us in our bathtubs. How do we feel about the fact that we are all going to starve to death? When I go to a poetry reading, there is often a sense of self- satisfied martyrdom—no one reads poetry, but we write it anyway! And in the literary fiction word, it is often the same vibe—everyone wants to read “street lit” or _________ (fill in the blank with your anxiety of choice). Woe is us. All this genius and nobody cares. Frankly, it’s a drag and I don’t think it helps anyone get her work done and it certainly does not improve anybody’s quality of life. And I can’t imagine that it revs up readers.
This is not to say that the Kindle will not drown us in our bathtubs. Maybe it will. Who knows.
I am not saying go into see-no-evil mode. The Typerwriter Doctor is not burying his head in the sand.[video] He has had to adapt with changing times. He used to rent typewriters, but now he repairs them. And he doesn’t hate computers– you can like him on facebook, and he keeps a blog— typing the entries and then scanning them.
What I learned at the typewriter hospital is that we don’t have to carry that fear of obsolescence around with us, strapped to our backs and we certainly don’t have to make it part of our identity. We don’t have to announce impending doom everytime we talk about our work. When we create, we don’t have to multi task writing with fretting that these these are the endtimes for literature.
Take a lesson from a man who repairs typewriters for a living. He’s good at it. And he’s enjoying his life and his work.
My mentor, Ron Carlson, once told me that there are two types of writers—gushers and ekers. The gushers are the ones who write really quickly, producing a lot of words, but also producing a lot of crap writing. On the other side are the ekers—they agonize over each word. It takes forever, but they don’t write a lot of useless drafts. If you can’t tell from my personality, I am a gusher. On a good writing day I can maybe write five or six pages in about two hours. (Compare this to my good friend MJ who writes a paragraph in a day!) My gushing sometimes feels like automatic writing. I am going so fast that I don’t know what the heck I am writing sometimes. Then, the next day, I read through what I have written and see if there is anything usable in there. (Sometimes there is; sometimes there’s not.)
I wrote Leaving Atlanta and Silver Sparrow pretty much by hand. This is because I feel the computer helps me write even faster. In addition, in a fit of pique, I can hit two keys and delete a day’s work. With handwriting, I may often get frustrated and then I just turn over a new page in my notebook. The next day when I calm down, I read it over and something I find something there that I like.
I am thinking to write my fourth novel on a manual typewriter. A pink Smith Corona from the 1950s to be exact. The idea is to sort of shock my system and make me more mindful of what I am doing on a word-by-word level. The typewriter is a little rusty so I have to take it to be refurbished, but I am getting ready to clickety-clack my way through.
(And the typewriter is not connected to the internet. The twitter is my weakness.)
Writers, I recommend that you try to break yourself out of your ordinary routine if you feel like you need a jump start. Try writing with a new tool, a new location, or even just switch up the time of day that you are writing. I think of it like exercise. You can reach a plateau with your current routine and need to vary your workout and work some different muscles. Try it and let me know how it works.
Edan Lepuki has a great post up over at The Millions about a book she wrote that she hasn’t been able to publish. If you are in this situation, I definitely recommend that you read the article. Here is the line I like best: “Lastly, these months of rejection have taught me the difference between being tenacious and being stubborn — and being stubborn and being desperate..” In short you have to learn when to let go.
I would like to add just a little extra piece of advice about coping with rejection.
Just to establish my rejection bonafides: My first book Leaving Atlanta was rejected by 26 publishers. My new novel, Silver Sparrow, received about a dozen “passes”. And in my desk drawer is a healtfelt, but unpublished and unpublishable novel called Evangeline. So despite what is happening to me right now, I know what I’m talking about when I talk about rejection and disappointment.
The best way to cope with rejection is to write something else. Afterall, you would have to do that anyway. If your book is snapped up by your dream publisher and you sell foreign rights all over the world, what would you have to do next? Write the next book. No matter what happens, the next step is the next book.
So go do that.
And maybe one of those books in the drawer will be something you will be able to publish later. As for me, I am so happy that Evangeline is safely tucked in a drawer, although I worked so hard on it when I wrote it. But maybe you novel that isn’t connecting with publishers today, will connect with them later. You’ll still have it. And you still have to write something new.