Nothing good gets away

Don't worry about losing. If it is right, it happens - The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away. -John Steinbeck

I’ve been in a hurry, and this past week I was called a loser.

(By me.)

A week ago was the first stretch when I kicked into actual writing.  Ever since I became officially retired I’ve had a nagging sense that I wasn’t doing real writing yet. A little internal voice wondered if all the planning could be a form of procrastination. 

For example, among the plans is a multi-page plot outline, both the external events and the emotional/inner events. I’ve mentioned a poster board where post-its march across it to show a story arc, but there’s also a second one that shows critical dates in Johanna and Vincent van Gogh's lives so I can figure out when their paths should cross. And I have a start on research notes about the 19th century, artists during that period, life in Paris, my protagonist Johanna, and on Vincent van Gogh.

Plus I’ve been reading books on the craft of writing (like The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass) and making notes on when I could apply his ideas in the story.  

But this is not writing. This is not pulling up my office chair, turning off the phone, powering up the Macbook and committing myself to writing THE BOOK nonstop. 

So, this past week, I tried.

This is when loser thoughts crept in, all on the writing decisions I've made:

  • Third-person point-of-view (I've been writing in third-person ("Johanna thought..."), instead of first-person ("I thought...") then I wondered, wait! The books I've read lately are in first-person (The Orphan Train, The Paris Wife, and The Handmaid's Tale) - perhaps third-person is wrong?
  • Voice - investigating first- or third-person point-of-view led me to reading up on “voice,” or a writer's style. I wondered, oh no! My text sounds really boring or as though I'm imitating someone else, not authentic or genuine, fake. Do I even have my own "voice"?
  • Including emotion -  Then as I read over the words written so far, I saw that I'd moved too fast from scene to scene. It's too shallow. There’s not enough about thoughts and feelings, letting the reader in on why characters are acting as they are. I'm not used to writing about feelings! Good business writing, the skill I've honed for 20 years, is the practice of brief bullet points and next action steps, not creative writing. Maybe my business writing is too deeply ingrained for me to change?

The loser thoughts lined up and took their shots: Writing is hard! You're not good enough! You don't know what you're doing!

Has my dream of writing a book all been a mistake?

Among all of this second-guessing and mental spin, I’d been texting a writer-artist friend Deborah. Like a lovely shaft of light piercing a thick cloud bank, she sent me this message:

"The reason NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] is so successful is because it encourages writers to just get words down on a page or in a computer file. They respect “first draft energy.” My recommendation is to not worry about voice or POV. Pick a POV and go with it…it can always be changed later. If you have a rough outline, you are ready. Sure, read in between writing sessions to inspire you, but just let your characters — Johanna tell her story through your fingers. Get your head out of the way. Like a friend told me back in the 1980’s when I was considering quitting my job to go full time to college to finish my degree — JUST DO IT. As they say, writing is all in the editing process. But you first need words to work with. Lots of them.”

“Get your head out of the way.” Sharply, I realized that I’d had a hidden sense of ego. I think I’d been secretly imagining that I would do such a great first draft that I’d skip a few rounds of editing. So, instead of feeling like good discoveries, the questions derailed me. I’m glad to realize this early and even to have experienced such severe self-doubt so I can recognize and dismiss it in the future.

Just do it.  And do my best to enjoy it. 

Nothing good gets away. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Daily Writing: This week I am writing (not planning or researching) each morning (except Friday/Saturday when I'll be in a writer's workshop.) I have a feeling the writing will be crappy, but, hopefully, I'll have lots of crappy words. 

Scrivener Writer Software: So far, my first draft is in Microsoft Word, but I've been reading that there’s a software program called Scrivener especially for writers that will make life much easier when it comes to editing, incorporating research, etc. It has a sharp learning curve but I'm thinking of making the investment sooner rather than later.

Books I'm Reading:  Author of the Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, also wrote, A Thousand Splendid Suns. (Choice of  my W4 Book Club.) Intense and gripping, the story is about two women in Afghanistan, from the 1970's to early 2000's, and how their lives are impacted by terrible regimes and war. Hosseini is masterful at bringing the Afghan culture to vivid life through showing, rather than telling, details of daily living. Plus I'm still reading Peter Wohlleben's fascinating book, The Inner Life of Animals. (Each chapter is a standalone so I can dip in and out of it.)   

Meanwhile, there are two weddings to think about now (Eric and Angie's in June and Cristina and Jay's in the fall) so I have been quietly creating a spreadsheet of out-of-town guests for the first one, and doing phone interviews with KC wedding planners for the second one. It is super, super fun and I am in heaven being the mom of a groom and a bride. Juan is concerned that I have my own ideas -- well, of course, I do! 

Back to John Steinbeck and his parting counsel:

And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good. 

Amen!

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Choices

It's not our abilities that show what we truly are. It's our choices.
-Albus Dumbledore
Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

This weekend I made a choice. 

Before I tell you what it was - first off, I need to acknowledge that there are a lot of things that are hard when it comes to starting over, but I think the pressure can feel especially heavy if you are pursuing a passion. 

A passion claims your heart, not just your brain. A passion carries vulnerability. 

Whenever I'm with a group of writers, I feel like, no matter what kind of composed face I try to put on, I'll be found out. I will ask the dumb, obvious question that will reveal what a newbie, hot mess I am as a writer. They will be polite, supportive even, but no doubt are thinking, "Really? How did she get in?"

So, I had a little trepidation joining up with a group of writers this weekend. 

Together, we were participating in a writing workshop called, "Blueprint Sprint." Designed for writers interested in doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in which you write a (messy) novel during November), the course followed a blueprint of exercises and instruction that gave me an intense dive into my book's characters, plot and more. The class was taught be Jennie Nash; I've been reading her weekly blog on writing and editing for a few years.

Connected via video our group of 12 writers came from across the country (including my friend Deborah!). In between the writing sprints, we checked in regularly over the weekend to hear feedback on our work while also learning from each others' questions and struggles. Started Friday at mid-day, it ended at midnight on Sunday: a 60-hour sprint (though I did sleep plus take a break Saturday night and watched the sweet and funny movie "The Big Sick" on TV. Juan had driven to KC to visit Cristina and Jay since I would be huddled over my desktop.) 

I wrote an outline of my book's critical scenes and how each would need to involve a decision that would move the action forward. I tried hard to think deeply about what was in my character's heart in each scene -- what was she doing, thinking, feeling?

I wrote three versions each of the first and last scenes of the book. Yes, six scenes. Then I picked the best ones and revised them again. 

I learned that I must know more about everything in order to write with authority -- so I've got more research to do.  I got a taste for how the process is iterative -- I did my best to prepare, but sometimes the scene or the characters developed minds of their own and a new action showed up without forethought. 

It was exhausting.

I have a lot of work to do. 

It was really fun.

Lately, as more people are realizing that I'm retiring at the end of the year, I've been having more conversations about it. As a result, I'm learning that to a lot of people "writing a book" sounds like a fake answer. I see their eyes glaze over slightly...Isn't everyone writing a book? Doesn't everyone have a book idea they'll write someday?

It sounds like a fall-back answer. Writing doesn't feel like a real thing. 

This brings me to the choice I alluded to at the beginning of this blog. Professor Dumbledore said, "It's not our abilities that show us what we truly are, it's our choices." Who better than a fictional character to give me advice on writing fiction? I may not be sure about my writing ability, but I am sure about my choice. 

To be a writer. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Writing Craft: I am not participating in NaNoWriMo; however, I can use the systems and processes I learned this weekend to keep going on my own. This week I'm developing a writing schedule to map out a short-term plan between now and the holidays to keep up the momentum.

Books I’m Reading:  Still really at the beginning of reading The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. 

For my final quote, Albus Dumbledore is so wise that he said something that describes the heroine of my book, Johanna: 

It's a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantel because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. 

What will you choose this week?

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