Blank Paper

I do most of my first-drafting in longhand. In pen and ink. It works for me. I’ve even blogged about it.

My fleet of fountain pens

My fleet of fountain pens

It does present certain challenges, however. The near-illegibility of my handwriting I’ve managed to turn into an asset: what the internal editor can’t read, she can’t second-guess and mess with.

Most commercially available paper, I discovered, can’t stand up to fountain pen-and-ink. Yellow pads, notebook paper, the bond paper I feed to my laser printer and my inkjet: they’re all so thin that what I wrote on one side made an impression on the other.

This might not be a deal-breaker for some people, but I’m cheap. I want to write on both sides.

I was also looking for a way to organize my handwritten pages. Browsing at a office-supply chain store, I found these cool notebooks. They were looseleaf, sort of, but instead of two or three big metal rings, they had eleven little plastic ones. You could add pages, remove pages, or move pages around.

I bought one notebook and the filler paper to go with it. Wonder of wonders, I could write in fountain pen on both sides of the paper, and the words all stayed on their own side.

I was hooked. Now I’ve got three notebooks: a blue one for Wolfie, the novel in progress; a red one for Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel on the back burner; and a brown one for everything else.

Wolfie has been eating up paper like nobody’s business. I scavenged paper from the red and the brown notebooks to put in the blue one. Then there was no more to scavenge. I was almost out of paper.

paperI hesitated. Blank paper is a challenge. Am I going to keep writing? Yeah, I thought. I am.

How much paper should I order? This was harder. Like I said, I’m cheap. I hate to spend money on stuff I don’t use. Sooner or later any blank paper left untouched on the shelf would be making faces at me and going “Nyah nyah, nyah nyah.”

I ordered five packets, 50 sheets to a packet — 500 sides of fountain-pen-friendly paper. And some section dividers to go with them.

Blank paper is faith in the future.

Ready to write

Notebooks with section dividers and sticky notes

New Look!

OK, I stopped fiddle-faddling and went with Hemingway Rewritten. Well, I haven’t totally stopped fiddle-faddling, because I’m still playing with background colors and widgets and thinking I want to redo the pages on the menu bar and maybe get a new header photo?

Later!

really like having a sidebar.

Let me know what you think. I especially want to know if you find it unreadable — because of the fonts, or the sizes, or the colors.

New Theme TK

Write Through It is going to get a new look — as soon as I can make up my mind, that is. I like this theme, not least because of its name (“Typo”), but I want a sidebar. Readers are having a hard time finding the archives, the “recent posts” list, and the search bar because they’re way down at the bottom. I’d also like “Leave a Comment” to be more visible.

The theme of my dreams has got to be free. The ones I’m considering are Twenty-Eleven, Hemingway Rewritten, Yoko, Mystique, and Misty Lake. Dear readers who are also WordPress bloggers, do you have a favorite theme that I should have a look at? Do you have any feelings, pro or con, about the ones I mentioned?

All comments welcome!

Digested Research and Nonfiction Writing

For me this is true of fiction writing as well. I call it “composting.” When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985, I was working on a novel that was partly set on Martha’s Vineyard, which at that point I knew only as an occasional visitor. Before long I realized I didn’t know nearly enough to write fiction about the place. In my first years I wrote mostly poetry, and feature stories and reviews for the local paper. All of this sharpened my skills at observation and listening, while reflection was going on deep in the background. It was eight years before all this experience had composted enough for me to write the story that became the backstory for my first novel. Which wasn’t the novel I thought I was writing when I moved to the Vineyard.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Holy_Trinity_B_Falls_3We’ve just run across Julija Šukys’ blog “Writing.Life.” in which she adroitly examines the craft of nonfiction writing, including a recent post that delves into what she defines as the “holy trinity of creative nonfiction” – SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.  In the snippet below, she discusses the hardest part for many new writers, digesting the research:

For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of…

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On Being Edited

Being both a writer and an editor, I get to listen to writers bitching about editors, and to editors bitching about writers. I’ve been known to blow off some steam myself, sometimes wearing a writer’s hat, other times an editor’s. On the whole, though, I wish writers and editors would spend more time listening to each other instead of just bitching to their colleagues. So a few months ago a friend of mine, the mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, was on the receiving end of an Edit from Hell. (I saw the edited ms. As an editor, I was embarrassed. As a writer, I was outraged.) I asked if she’d be willing to write about the experience for this blog. This is what she wrote. — SJS

By Cynthia Riggs

Is it always the writer who’s being unreasonable? Or could it be the editor?

After ten books and the deft editing of Ruth Cavin, the doyenne of mystery editors, I and my eleventh book were turned over to an editorial assistant in her first real job out of college.

I understand the heady feeling of a first editing job. The more changes an editor makes, the better, right? That will show how conscientious one is. It takes a while for a new editor to recognize that less is more.

The paper manuscript for my eleventh book came to me through the mail, along with a two-page letter from Jane Doe (as I’ll call her). “I think if he [the serial killer] murders a few less people — perhaps 5 instead of 11,” she advised me, ” it would make the murders more meaningful.”

I promised myself to think about it.

stetOn to the manuscript itself. I am accustomed to electronic editing, so in order for me to work with Jane’s extensive comments, I transcribed the first 64 pages of her penciled notes from the paper copy to my computer. Once I got that far, I decided I’d better stop there and write my own comments. The first 153 edits took me up to page 58. Of the 153, I accepted three and rejected 150. I explained each and every one of the 150 I rejected.

She changed ellipses to em dashes, added adverbs, such as “said dismissively” and “snorted derisively,” confused its and it’s, turned sentences around, had my characters react in ways unlike them in past books, and, in general, trashed my manuscript.

Should I, the writer, be teaching Jane, the editor, how to edit?

The last straw was on page 58. Jane had changed my sentence, “The Steamship Authority would require a passenger ticket for the corpse, even one in this condition,” to “Even in it’s [sic] condition, the Steamship Authority would require a passenger ticket for the corpse.” (Actually, the Steamship Authority is in pretty good condition.)

That’s where I decided to quit.

Now, I’m not an inexperienced writer. Or editor. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. I was tutored by editors at the National Geographic Society, where I worked for a time, and wrote two chapters in one of the NGS books, which I also edited. I was editor of the Marine Technology Society Journal, edited and wrote for Petroleum Today, the quarterly publication of the American Petroleum Institute, and have more than a hundred published articles and short stories to my credit. I have been teaching writing for 13 years, since Jane was ten years old.

There are things an editorial assistant in her first job can tell me that I can profit from, but not when she hasn’t read any of the previous books, doesn’t know grammar, doesn’t know the basics of copyediting, and is rewriting my work so it sounds comfortable to her.

We editors often can get defensive about a writer’s rejection of all the work we put into improving a manuscript. But more often than we editors like to think, the writer is right.

  * * *

Cynthia Riggs. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Cynthia Riggs.
Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Cynthia Riggs is the author of the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series, whose protagonist, the indomitable Victoria Trumbull, is based on Cynthia’s mother, the late, equally indomitable Dionis Coffin Riggs.  She recently launched Martha’s Vineyard Mysteries, a lively blog about her life at Cleaveland House, which has been in her family since about 1750.

 

In Praise of Readers

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?

I think it did. I also suspect that when we repeat the question, we’re not just talking about trees. Trees don’t care if they make a sound. They’re going to fall, and rustle, and crack, whether we hear them or not.

For me, writing is part of a conversation. I do want people to hear the rustling and cracking of my words, and more than that: I want to hear what they have to say in response. I’ve had three one-act plays produced, and I love giving readings. Nothing beats the thrill of seeing and hearing people respond to my words.

mud-cover-smIt’s a rare audience that will sit still for a book-length work, but I’m lucky: I’ve experienced what has to be the next-best thing. Last Wednesday and the Wednesday before, I got to sit down and talk with a group of women all of whom had read my novel, The Mud of the Place, and were interested in what I was writing about, the lives of year-round residents in a seasonal resort.

Minnesota Women's Press publishes a bimonthly newsletter that's all about books, writers, and readers.

Minnesota Women’s Press publishes a bimonthly newsletter that’s all about books, writers, and readers.

These women, who came from all around the U.S. and Canada too, were participants in Books Afoot, also known as Reading on the Road, a program of the Minnesota Women’s Press. As organizer Mollie Hoben described it in an email, “The basic idea is that reading and travel make a rewarding combination. We pick a destination, learn about women writers from that place (which always involves exciting discoveries), select books to read beforehand, then travel there with interested reader-travelers for exploration and book discussion. Participants come from all over the country.”

I first learned about Books Afoot a year and a half ago, when Mollie contacted me out of the blue. Three Books Afoot groups would be coming to Martha’s Vineyard in the fall, and my novel was one of the four “required reading” books. Would I be willing to meet with any or (ideally) all of the groups?

One of the 2013 Books Afoot groups, meeting in the outdoor café at a local bookstore

One of the 2013 Books Afoot groups, meeting in the outdoor café at a local bookstore

Would I?? This was a fantasy come true, and the reality surpassed my wildest expectations. (I blogged about it here.) I’d pretty much decided that writing a second novel was a waste of time. These women changed my mind.

This year we were joined by my writer friend Shirley Mayhew, whose wonderful Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard came out early this summer — too late for the travelers to have read it before they got here, but plenty of them bought a copy to take home with them. Shirley moved here as a young bride in 1947; I arrived solo in 1985. Our books and our very different but overlapping experiences became gateways for the visitors to enter a place that many people know about but few actually know.

Last month I concluded a blog post, “Who Do You Write For?,” with this description of the kind of reader I’d like to be: “one who’s brave enough to venture into unfamiliar territory as long as she trusts her guide, and one who appreciates the effort that goes into the writing.”

When a book goes out into the world, does it make a sound? If it does, will I hear it through all the cacophonous competition? Having sat down and talked with dozens of such adventurous readers, I know you’re out there. I’m writing for you.

The 2014 Books Afoot women each picked a postcard from wherever they were from and wrote a favorite book recommendation or two on the back. Here are a few of them.

The 2014 Books Afoot women each picked a postcard from wherever they were from and wrote a favorite book recommendation or two on the back. Here are a few of them.

Plotting

I just discovered this in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, my blog about living year-round on Martha’s Vineyard. When I blogged it, in June 2013, I wasn’t even thinking of starting a writing-and-editing blog. Or maybe I was. I’ve updated it a bit, but not much.

Plotting fiction is like making rock candy. Left to itself, boiled sugar water just sits there. Nothing happens. Well, yes, things happen, but they take so long that it’s a rare soul who’ll just sit there and watch.

For me "how-to-write" books are mostly a procrastination technique, but this is one I actually find useful.

For me “how-to-write” books are mostly a procrastination technique, but this is one I actually find useful.

Not the stuff of plot.

Day-to-day life on Martha’s Vineyard is like boiled sugar water. Things happen, but most of them unfold
s-l-o-w-l-y. Even when the results are noteworthy, the steps taken to get there are mundane, quotidian, dull. Follow the newspapers for a few months if you don’t believe me.

No surprise, then, that most novels written about Martha’s Vineyard are murder mysteries. Killing someone off is like dropping a string in the sugar water. Formless liquid crystallizes around the string. Murder shakes people out of their day-to-day routines. They say and do things they wouldn’t do otherwise.

Homicides are rare here. Fiction writers are all in the alternate-reality business, especially if we write about real places, but though I’m happy to read about alternate Martha’s Vineyards where murder happens several times a year, I don’t want to create one. As a plot device, murder makes me just a little bit queasy. My fictional alternate reality is a sort of psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard. I want it to mesh with the Vineyard (I think) I live on.

Dramatic events do happen, of course. Once in a while a quiet undercurrent will explode into a headline. A loose dog jumps a fence and chases down and kills a miniature horse. An on-leave police officer obstructs the firefighters who shows up to extinguish a fire at her home. Such incidents are like strings in the sugar water, good grist for plot, but they have their own challenges. Have you ever really listened to how we recount such incidents for someone who wasn’t there?

“So Jane parked in front of her sister’s house — you know her sister, right? You met her at Cynthia’s Groundhog Day party — no, that’s her older sister; this was the younger one, Margaret — no, you don’t want to call her Peggy, that’s their mother’s name and the two of them barely speak — Is that what happened? I hadn’t heard that — this sister lives in Edgartown, back behind the gas station — yeah, there’s been some trouble there, I’m getting to that — Jane just sat in the car because there was a young guy standing there with a wool cap on even though it’s August — isn’t this heat outrageous? Yeah, I know it’s how they dress, but Jane never saw him before and he had a skateboard under one arm — really, I almost hit one last year when he came shooting into Five Corners from the post office . . .”

Every little thing that happens has at least half a dozen stories feeding into it. Trying to prune and shape these into a plot that readers can follow is, to put it mildly, a challenge.

When I started Mud of the Place, my first and so far only novel, I couldn’t plot my way out of a paper bag. I learned by trial and error, and with the help of a couple of books: Plot, pictured above, and Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by sf writer Nancy Kress.

I didn’t kill anyone off in Mud, but the string I dropped into the sugar water involved a shooting that could have got someone killed. All sorts of interesting stuff crystallized around that shooting.

Wolfie, the canine protagonist of my novel in progress, comes close to killing some sheep. He’s suspected of killing several chickens. Several citizens of his town — which bears the same name as my town — wouldn’t mind taking a shot at him. Some plot has coalesced around that.

There’s also a human character in this novel that I wouldn’t mind taking a shot at, but I haven’t.

Yet.