On Second Thought . . .

I started the new year by blogging about the only New Year’s resolution I recall making in my adult life: write every single day until I finished The Mud of the Place, my first novel.

mud-cover-smShortly thereafter it dawned on me that a similar resolution might help me do what i say I’ve been going to do for two or three years now: turn Mud into an ebook. E-publishing was still terra incognita to me in late 2008, which is when Mud came out. I didn’t even get my first e-reader for another three or four years.

Be careful what you write about. It may give you ideas.

I’ve been partly mulling and mostly hiding from this idea for a week now.  Once I started this blog post, it took two days to finish it. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that I’ve only made one New Year’s resolution in my adult life — and I kept it.

I’ve got a theory about why so many people make so many resolutions and why so many of them fail. We pit what our mind thinks we ought to do against what our body is willing to do, and the body nearly always wins. Mind can’t beat body into submission, not for any length of time, because mind needs body’s cooperation to do anything.

Mind also needs body’s cooperation to stop doing something that mind thinks it shouldn’t do. I’ve got a few stories about that. As a chronically left-brain person, I was startled, perplexed, humiliated, and ultimately humbled to learn just how powerless mind was to stop body in its tracks. If you’ve ever dealt with addictive or compulsive behavior, you know what I’m talking about.

My Mud resolution worked because body was involved from the get-go. It was willing to sit down at the computer and open a Word file. At this point mind would realize that its worst fantasies were unfounded, the novel in progress wasn’t crap, and whatever wasn’t working could be identified and fixed.

So I’ve been dancing around the idea of making this new resolution because body knew that mind wasn’t fully committed to the idea of turning Mud into an ebook.  If mind were fully committed, it would have happened already, the way I signed up for the beginning guitar class in November (very scary) and have been practicing ever since.

True to form, I made a good start on the ebook project before I choked. I started researching ebook services. I got an ISBN — Speed-of-C, which published the trade paperback version, was happy to let the ebook sail under its flag. The book was printed from PDFs, so the corrections made in the production stage had to be transferred to the Word file from which the PDFs were made. I did that, then I started cold-reading the Word file straight through.

To my delight, the thing was good. I still liked it. I was still proud of it. But there I stalled, and kept stalling, until a few days ago I got the idea that I could make a New Year’s resolution about this.

So for the last few days I’ve been letting myself think about why my mind might not be quite ready to do this thing. As usual, the reasons were lying around in plain sight. I just had to look at them.

As a former bookseller who knows a few things about publishing, I did not believe that Mud of the Place would make a big or even modest splash in the wider world. I did believe — hell, I assumed — it would receive serious attention on Martha’s Vineyard, which is both where I live and where the novel is set.

It didn’t. Both the two weekly newspapers and the two independent bookstores largely ignored it. (The Vineyard Gazette did assign it to a capable reviewer, who wrote a thoughtful review. One of the bookstores did pay some attention — five years later, and that because a booklovers’ travel group based in Minnesota featured Mud in their two visits to the Vineyard, in 2013 and 2014.)

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? If you write a pretty good novel, and no one pays attention, is it worth doing again?

Long story, but to say the least I was skeptical. Mind decided that serious writing was a waste of time. I put it aside. I looked for ways to fill the hole in my life where writing had been: training and competing with my dog, getting more involved with local politics and even running for office, training as a mediator . . .

Meanwhile, body was subtly, sneakily, rearranging my psychic landscape. Almost exactly six years ago, long after most of my friends, I got on Facebook. Loved it. Ever since I read about Margaret Fuller, I’ve fantasized hosting a salon, even though my verbal talents are more literary than conversational. Facebook was interlocking salons, mine and everyone else’s. I wandered from room to room, listening, talking, having a ball — and realizing that I didn’t need the Vineyard newspapers or bookstores to reach an audience.

Maybe a year and a half after joining Facebook, I started From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, my Vineyard blog. Two years after that, I started this one.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

By then I was writing seriously again. I was even, muses help me, working on another novel. It was, I eventually realized, “all sprawl and no momentum.” It was suffering from “a surfeit of subplots.” By the time I set it aside, however, one of the subplots had coalesced into Wolfie, the novel I’ve been working on ever since (which, by the way, makes excellent use of my detour into dog training).

Like Mud of the Place, the novel in progress is set on year-round Martha’s Vineyard. It involves several of the same characters, about 10 years later. This, combined with my growing awareness of the online audience and e-publishing in general, made me think that keeping Mud alive as an ebook would be a good idea. I started working on it.

Then I choked.

What if the ebook version, like its paperback predecessor, fell in the forest and made no sound? It’s a definite possibility. Could I handle it?

I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I’m making this resolution anyway: Every day I will do something toward turning Mud of the Place into an ebook. “Something” can be as modest as proofreading two pages of the Word file at five minutes to midnight, but I will do something.

Watch this space. You’ll be the first to know when I get there.

 

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How to Write

In a New Year’s Day post to From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, also known as “my other blog,” I wrote about the only New Year’s resolution I remember making as an adult. It was for 2002 and, surprise, surprise, it was about writing.

mud-cover-smI’d been working on my first novel, The Mud of the Place, for three or four years at that point, usually in fits and starts.  I’d never successfully completed anything longer than 40 pages. It was like 40 pages was the edge of a cliff and now that I had a novel draft of 300 pages or so, I was looking down into an abyss with nothing under my feet. I was terrified.

Terror kept me from looking at my manuscript, and the longer I went without looking, the more certain I was that the thing was total, unsalvageable crap.

So my resolution? I will work on the  novel every day until it’s done.

And I did. Some days I wouldn’t open the Word file till five minutes to midnight. Every single time I’d see that the ms. wasn’t crap at all and that just by looking at it I’d know what to do next.

guitar“Beginner,” my New Year’s Day blog post, is about learning to play the guitar. For (semi-)recovering perfectionists like me, learning anything new or doing anything for the first time can be very scary, and sure enough, learning new things is hard. My fingers won’t do what I want them to do, or they won’t do it fast enough, or everybody else in the class is getting it faster than I am. Yadda yadda yadda.

As a teenager I had fantasies of falling asleep and waking up a guitar virtuoso. It never happened. I didn’t dare pick up a guitar or even tell anyone how much I wanted to learn how to play. At that point in my life, being a fumble-fingered beginner was too scary to contemplate.

The intriguing thing is that by that point I was already pretty good with words, and over the decades I’ve gotten better. If I’m a virtuoso at anything, it’s writing and editing — which, by the way, I didn’t realize were considered separate skills till I was promoted from clerical worker into my first editorial job. I was 28 at the time.

But I don’t remember how I learned to write, any more than I remember learning how to speak English. Come to think of it, I had the same fantasies about French, Spanish, and Arabic that I had about the guitar: that I’d wake up one morning with a native’s fluency, having skipped the years of stumbling around making a fool of myself.

I do remember diagramming sentences in grade school, and vocabulary quizzes.  In fifth grade, I wrote a story for my class’s one-shot newspaper. I also adapted a young readers’ biography of Patrick Henry into a play that my class produced. (I got to play Patrick Henry. My most vivid memory of the production is that Thomas Jefferson was twice as tall as I was.)

So evidently I’d achieved some facility by that point, though I’ve no recollection how. I must have progressed through the beginner and intermediate stages without major trauma. By the time perfectionism kicked in for real, probably in early adolescence, I must have been so confident in my facility with words that I knew I couldn’t look or feel like a fumble-fingered fool.

The big problem with not knowing how I learned to write is that I haven’t a clue how I’d go about teaching writing. I’ve actually considered taking a how-to-write course or two, just to find out how others do it. Unfortunately, or maybe not, the opportunities available locally are very limited. Sure, I could devise lessons about parts of speech and sentence structure and the other mechanical stuff, but how to teach the feel for the language that makes me so good at what I do?

I haven’t a clue, beyond “Keep writing, keep reading, keep listening, keep trying new things.” If you’ve got any ideas, please let me know!

Eulogy for a Novel

Word came earlier this week that a member of my writers’ group passed last Sunday night. Following a serious illness Allen was in an assisted-living place in the Boston area, so he’d missed several weeks’ worth of group meetings (which, coincidentally, take place on Sunday evening), but we assumed he would be back, sooner better than later, but later would do.

In the Sunday night group we’re all working on book-length works, history, memoir, or fiction. Each of us brings a chunk of the work-in-progress to each meeting, passes out copies, and reads it aloud (or has another member read it). Then we discuss it, mark up our hardcopies, and pass them back to the writer. Each week we hear a new installment of eight different works, history or memoir or novel.

Allen’s novel is set in and around Berlin in the early 1960s, a time of heightened Cold War tensions — the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Its protagonist, Faust, is a young, idealistic army lieutenant newly arrived in Berlin and assigned as a press officer. His father is a small-town newspaper editor in the U.S. Midwest, but high-stakes Cold War journalism looks little like journalism back home. Gradually Faust learns the ropes, dealing with, among others, his superiors, a taciturn noncom who knows much more than he does, a CIA operative, and the international press corps. He falls in love with the civilian employee assigned to tutor him in German — she turns out to be a high-level spy for the USSR.

To say that we were caught up in the story is an understatement. Faust’s growth from naïve idealism into sober experience and the beginning of wisdom is well handled, and the setting, the evocation of the times — well, we kept wondering out loud how Allen knew so much, but Allen would smile enigmatically and a little self-deprecatingly and we would move on. As writers we all know better than to press too hard. (Faust’s war-correspondent friends would have pressed harder.)

And now — we know from the history books how the political crisis was resolved, but what became of Faust? How did he assimilate all he was learning and reconcile its myriad contradictions? Did he remain in the military, become a war correspondent himself, or perhaps return home to become a newspaper publisher like, and in some ways very unlike, his father? We’ll never know.

So I’m thinking of all the novels out there left unfinished, or finished and unpublished, by the death of their authors.

A writer friend of mine died suddenly last December. Don and I never met in person, but we’d been corresponding online for 17 or 18 years. When I was close to done with The Mud of the Place, we swapped manuscripts. His Summer Blues was based on his experiences as a gay man in the military stationed in Germany in the late 1960s, a politically turbulent time in both Europe and the U.S. It was quite wonderful. He submitted it to a couple of independent presses specializing in gay lit, got no takers, and set it aside.

My first thought after learning of Don’s death was for Summer Blues. The publishing world has changed considerably since the early years of the last decade. Would he have wanted it published? I suspected that yes, he would have, or at least he’d have been OK with the idea, but pretty soon reality reasserted itself. Transforming a manuscript into a book is hard enough, and costly in both time and money, but publishing also involves getting the book into the hands of readers. That means distribution and marketing.

I have been thinking the same thing about Allen’s novel. It’s not quite finished, but it’s publishable, and perhaps Allen had either reworked the problematic ending or left notes about what he was thinking?

But with Allen’s novel, as with Don’s, I looked myself in the eye and realized that I have the time and money and commitment for my own work (I hope), but not for anyone else’s.

Long time ago, 20 or 25 years ago, I worked with Virginia, a local writer, on her novel, which was based on her own life, growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s, living in New York in the 1940s, eventually moving to Martha’s Vineyard, losing a daughter to suicide. It’s beautifully written, moving, honest. This writer too made a couple of attempts to find an agent then gave up.

Not long after she died,  I was telling another writer about this wonderful novel I had on my hard drive that no one but close friends and family members even knew about. My friend shook her head sagely. “We all have one of those,” she said.

It seemed callous at first, even dismissive, but then I got it. Counting only the completed or nearly completed publishable manuscripts I’ve read, I’ve now got several, in head or heart or hard drive. For each one, we, the lucky few who’ve read them, form a sort of secret society: we’re privy to something special that no one else knows about.

For a few moments I’m overwhelmed with sadness at the loss.

Then Mother Jones’s famous words surface in my head: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

blank paper

Resolutions

I did make a New Year’s resolution once. When I was working on my first novel, The Mud of the Place, and desperately afraid that I’d never finish it, I resolved that I would work on it every day until it was done.

Note that I did not vow to write a thousand words or two thousand words or any number of words. Nor did I vow to write for an hour or two hours or for any set time.

Just every day.

mud cover2This turned out to be a brilliant move. There were days when I was so panicky, so sure that everything I’d done so far was crap, that I didn’t work up the nerve to open my Word file till ten minutes before midnight. And this was enough. Just opening the file and reading what I’d already written was enough to reassure me that this thing was good, this thing was worthwhile, I really needed to keep going till I finished this thing.

And that was enough to encourage me to add a few words, and sometimes to keep going till two in the morning.

Had I vowed to write so many words or for so many hours, there would have been no point to opening the file at ten minutes to midnight.

I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution since.

My Epigraph

Discussion recently turned to epigraphs on an editors’ board I’m on (Editors Association of Earth — if you’re an editor and you’re on Facebook, check it out).

Academic publishers, it seems, are OK with epigraphs for books, and chapters of multi-author books, but they frown on epigraphs used for sections or even chapters of single-author books.

Self-publishers in some genres — how-to was mentioned — are apparently prone to excess in the epigraph department. They’re also prone to misquoting and sloppy sourcing. Given the number of erroneous and sloppily sourced quotations floating around the internet, this is not surprising.

Epigraphs may not be covered under “fair use,” the conventions that guide when it’s OK to use quotes and excerpts from a copyrighted work without the copyright holder’s permission. This was a surprise to some of us, including me. The argument is that epigraphs are not essential to a work the way, say, quotations from a book are essential to a review of that book.

Aside:Fair use” is a contested area. If you plan to quote other writers in your work, read up on it. I believe there is, and should be, a huge middle ground between “anything goes” and “consult a lawyer,” Do learn the lay of the land, because the cost of putting a foot wrong can be high. Word on the street for a long time has been “don’t ever quote from popular song lyrics without getting permission.” This has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the fact that the big music publishers have been zealous about defending their turf. Your use of two lines from a popular song may be fair by any reasonable definition, but it takes very deep pockets to defend it in court. Might often does make right, and it makes us jumpy too.

I’ve used epigraphs in some of my essays, one-act plays, and even poems over the years, without ever asking permission and without ever being threatened with a lawsuit. My works generally circulate in areas that aren’t bristling with lawyers, and the works I’ve quoted from are usually written and published by people whose approach to fair use is probably similar to mine.

The epigraph for my novel, The Mud of the Placewas different. I knew I had to get permission. Not for legal reasons, though novels do tend to travel further than essays, poems, and one-act plays, and I didn’t want the source of my epigraph to find out accidentally that I’d used her words. The big reason was that her words had inspired me to write the novel — which meant overcoming my fear of attempting anything longer than 40 pages.

The story: I live on Martha’s Vineyard. Much of what’s written about Martha’s Vineyard in books and the national press is incomplete, distorted, and even flat-out wrong. In August 1993, President Bill Clinton came here for a three-week vacation. I got to watch the national press corps and others swarming all over the island and getting it wrong wrong wrong. It was infuriating.

Paley TNY clip sm

From the May 16, 1994, New Yorker

The following May, a little squib leapt out at me from the Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker. What caught my eye was the painting of poet-writer-activist Grace Paley at the top. What changed my life were her words: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

It came in response to an interviewer’s question: Would she comment on the situation in South Africa? (Nelson Mandela had been released from prison only four years earlier.)

If only the journalists and novelists and travel writers who wrote about Martha’s Vineyard were that wise! For a while I kept fuming at them because they weren’t. Then it dawned on me: I’m a writer, and my feet are  in the mud of this place. If not me, who?

Paley’s words kept me going while I slogged through the mud, not of Martha’s Vineyard but of doubting the importance of what I was doing and my ability to pull it off. They gave the manuscript its working title and eventually its actual title and, of course, its epigraph.

The Mud of the Place finally made it into print in December 2008. Grace Paley had died of cancer on August 22, 2007. I regret to this day that I didn’t try to contact her during the years I was working on it, but, well, I just wasn’t that confident that I’d ever finish it or that it would ever see the light of day.

Once we entered the tunnel to publication, with definite light at the end of it, I knew I needed someone‘s OK. My epigraph didn’t come from one of Paley’s books. It was an off-the-cuff comment, and maybe something she would have revised if she’d had the chance? Not to mention, it had given my novel its title. Plus — well, Grace Paley’s words and example had inspired so many people over the years. I was one of them, and I wanted to acknowledge the debt. I located and contacted Nora Paley, Grace’s daughter and literary executor. I enclosed the clipping and told the story. I was thrilled when she said yes, go ahead.

So when anyone argues that epigraphs aren’t essential to a work, I shake my head and think, But sometimes they are.

Revision as Improv

I’m in deep revision mode on Wolfie, the novel in progress, so ‘ve been thinking a lot about how I know what needs to be added or subtracted or completely rewritten.  The truth is, I don’t know. In an early Write Through It post, I write that editing was “Like Driving.” Revision is like that too.

Early this year, I started a second draft before I’d finished the first. As I blogged in “On to Draft 2!” a couple of plot threads had emerged in the writing. Those threads were going to affect the novel’s climax and conclusion, but until I developed them more fully I wouldn’t know how.

A sound foundation

A sound foundation

The same thing happened with my first novel, The Mud of the Place. I thought I was writing a tragedy. Then around page 300 of the first draft, a minor character said something that took me by surprise. Suddenly I could see a way out for a main character who was digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole. I tried to keep going — “I’ll fix the first 300 pages in the next draft,” I told myself — but I couldn’t. It was like building a house on a crumbling foundation.

So I went back to the beginning and started again. The rewriting wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. I didn’t have to throw everything out. That minor character’s words revealed new possibilities in the story that was already unfolding; they’d always been there, but I hadn’t noticed.

Since I can’t tell you how to revise, I’ll start by telling you how not to revise: Don’t return to page one and immediately start fiddling with punctuation and word choice. Revision starts with the big picture: structure, organization, plot and character development, that sort of thing. The little stuff is frosting on the cake. Mix the batter and bake the cake first.

To see the big picture, you have to step back — to approach your own work as if you’ve never seen it before. Of course you have seen it before, but if you let it sit for a while — a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months — you may be amazed how different it looks when you come back to it.

While you’re letting it sit, start a new project or wake up one that’s gestating in a notebook or computer file somewhere. If nothing tempts you, use your usual writing time to scribble whatever pops into your head. Chances are it’ll lead somewhere interesting.

If the work is far enough long, you might even draft a colleague or two to read and comment on it at this point. We all have different ideas of when the best time is to do this. I generally wait till I’ve gone as far as I can on my own.

When you’re ready, save your current draft with a new filename. The old draft is your safety net. Then start reading. Read like a reader or a reviewer — and not the kind of reader who pounces on every typo! Notice where you get impatient, or confused, or curious.  I’m always on the alert for clues that something interesting is happening offstage. This is like walking by a closet and suddenly there’s loud pounding and thumping coming from behind the closed door. Something is demanding to be let out. See “Free the Scene!” for more about this.

Word's Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I'm looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Word’s Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I’m looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Make notes as you’re working about scenes that need trimming, or expanding, or moving to somewhere else. If you know what needs doing, go ahead and do it. Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature enables you to make tentative additions and deletions, then revisit them later.

Look for “soft ice” — the words, sentences, and whole paragraphs that don’t carry their own weight. Look for the pathways that led you into a scene but that become less important once you know where you are. They’re like ladders and scaffolding: crucial to the construction process, but dispensable when the job is done.

You’ve heard the standard advice “Kill your darlings,” right? It means different things to different people, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I’ve got mixed feelings about most “standard advice.” Most of it’s useful on occasion, but none of it is one-size-fits-all. Take what you like and leave the rest.

But sooner or later when you’re revising you will come to a stretch of drop-dead perfect dialogue or a scintillating anecdote and realize that it just doesn’t belong in the manuscript. Maybe it’s too much of a digression. Maybe it calls too much attention to itself. Maybe it duplicates something better said earlier. It’s hard to let these things go. Track Changes comes in especially handy here. You can zap it provisionally and gradually get used to the idea that it really does have to go.

When you’re slash-and-burning and filling in gaps, don’t worry too much about the transitions between paragraphs and scenes. If the right segue comes to you, by all means go with it, but if it doesn’t, move on. You can smooth it out later.

If you can’t solve a problem while you’re staring at it, stop staring, make a note, and move on. My thorniest problems tend to solve themselves when I’m out walking or kneading bread, falling asleep or just waking up. Solutions sometimes appear for problems you haven’t come to yet. Writing is weird.

When I started draft #2, I swore I’d get to the end before I started draft #3, but now, at page 238, I’m pretty sure I won’t. At present I’ve got  two viewpoint characters. To develop an important but currently underdeveloped plot thread, I need to add a third. He’s already a player, but adding his point of view is going to change the book’s balance a lot.

There’s also an incident I need to stage near the beginning of the book: my central character, Shannon, listens to an answering-machine message from her long-estranged younger sister. Shannon never picks up or returns these calls because her sister is always drunk or strung out. This time, however, her sister sounds sober and lucid. Shannon doesn’t pick up this time either, but the call ripples through the narrative. The ripples were already there; I just didn’t know what had prompted them.

So I’ve got a little farther to go in draft #2, then it’s back to the beginning to start on draft #3.

Notes and More Notes

These days the how-to-write gurus like to divide writers into planners and pantsers. Planners, it’s said, outline everything in advance, then stick to the outline. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t know how the story is going to end until they get there. They make it up as they go along.

Either/or doesn’t work for me. Meticulous outlines make sense for some, but for me they suck the point out of writing. Writing is a journey of discovery. If I know in advance what I’m going to discover, why make the trip? I’m just a sightseer gazing through the windows of a tour bus.

Nevertheless, a story needs forward motion. To maintain forward motion, some sort of structure is required; otherwise you’ve got waves breaking on the shoreline, getting no higher than the high-water mark before they fall back, momentum spent. Last year I set a project aside because it had a surfeit of subplots, characters galore — and no forward motion whatsoever. I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. What it lacked was structure.

Think of structure as the frame of a building or a road through previously untracked wilderness. Either way, your job is to build it. My first novel, The Mud of the Place, started with a character and a problem. I wrote it scene by scene. But though I never made an outline, I scribbled notes here there and everywhere. Years after I finished the final draft, I was still finding yellow pads with notes on them: notes about characters, notes about plot, notes about how I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

I’m doing the same thing with Wolfie, the novel in progress. Ideas and insights and solutions to plot problems often come to me while I’m walking or kneading bread or falling asleep, but to really explore and develop them I have to keep my hand moving across the page. This time I’m keeping the notes in one place, and in chronological order. When I’m stuck or drifting or just need a jump start, I dip back into them. My old ideas keep giving me new ideas.

Here’s a sample of what they look like and what I use them for.

In early November I was trying to corral some emerging themes, subplots, and images. I was auditioning names for one character (Javier? Rafael? Rafe? Ralph?) and social media handles for another (for the moment she’s settled on Quinta Wolf). Note also the ink scribbles at the top and the liquid splotch (probably tea, maybe beer) at right. The red notes were added later.

20141107 notes

Here the author is trying to figure out what the hell happens next. She does this a lot.

20141121 notes 1

Toward the bottom of the same page, the pen offers an answer — and starts speculating about a possible plot development further down the road. I haven’t got there yet, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Note the scribbles. Note taking often involves scribbles.

20141121 notes 2

By late February, I had started draft 2, even though I hadn’t finished draft 1. My main plot threads were clear and becoming clearer. I had to build them a trellis to climb on. On March 24, I listed the characters driving each of the threads. “The Wall” is a mural that protagonist Shannon is painting on her living room wall. It has, as these supposedly inanimate objects sometimes do, taken on a life of its own. Amira wandered in from the set-aside novel, where she plays a major role. Her role in Wolfie isn’t settled yet, but it’s definitely important.

At the bottom of the page I’m brainstorming names for my villain. He started off as Bruce McManus, which didn’t feel right. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” is gone. I didn’t want a name with obvious ethnic associations. I did want a name that suggested that what this guy does, though terrible, can be and often is done by ordinary, unexceptional men. His surname is now Smith.

20150324 notes

Here — not even three weeks ago! — I’m looking ahead to what follows a key scene (“selectmen’s meeting”). The scene itself is being lifted wholesale from draft 1, but when I first wrote it I hadn’t thought much about what its repercussions and aftershocks might look like. I’m also working out some character motivation: “Why is Shannon getting uneasy?” She is uneasy, and with good reason, but neither she nor I are quite sure why. The tricky thing is that it can’t be too obvious. One of the questions that’s driving this novel for me is “What do you do when you suspect something is very wrong, but you can’t be sure and the stakes are too high to allow for mistakes?” The jury’s still out on that one.

20150628 notes

And finally, here’s the sketch for a plot break-through scene. Bruce, an outwardly rational lawyer who weighs the consequences of (almost) everything he contemplates doing, has to make a move that isn’t all that well thought out. He has to be, in other words, on the brink of panic. What would do it? Well, if he realized that Shannon, whom his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Glory, idolizes, knows Amira, who counseled Glory four years earlier when she was in trouble at school, that would do it. How to bring that about? I mulled that over on several walks, then a possibility popped into my head. On July 8, I sketched it out and decided, Yeah, that’ll work. Let’s try it.

20150708 notes

Point of View

If you go web-surfing or pick up a couple of how-to-write books, you can learn almost everything you need to know — and a great deal more — about point of view (POV).

What you have to figure out for yourself is what works best for whatever you’re working on.

First off, a short lecture: Everything created by humans has a point of view. Even the formal, scholarly stuff that pretends it doesn’t. Even the photographs that are supposedly worth a thousand words because you’re supposedly seeing the real thing, not someone’s possibly inaccurate, incomplete, or biased description of it. What you’re seeing is what the photographer saw and wants you to see. This was true long before Photoshop, and it’s true now.

Visual images have a literal point of view: a place where the viewer is standing, sitting, hovering in space. This affects what you see. You can’t see the dark side of the moon from Earth. You can’t see the backside of whatever the photographer’s showing you the front of. You can’t see what’s above or below, to the right or left of it either.

Here, though, we’re talking about writing, particularly fiction writing.

Fron Cover MockupMy #1 goal for my first novel, The Mud of the Place, was to show how the place I live in works. I live on Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard is in the news a lot, especially in the summer, especially when the president comes to visit. If you see Martha’s Vineyard on the news, you generally see what the reporters see: the summer resort, the quaint tourist attractions, the celebrities. I wanted to show what goes on backstage. The reporters and the summer people rarely see this stuff, and when they see it, they don’t really understand what’s going on.

In short, I wanted to tell stories about people who aren’t considered newsworthy. How to do it?

Mud wanted to be an ensemble piece. So it’s all in third person, with several POV characters. (Yes, I know they all sprang from my first-person mind, but bear with me here.)

Each scene has a single POV. Sometimes an interaction or a conversation can be glimpsed from both sides, but there’s always a scene break where the POV shifts. I learned a lot about each character from seeing him or her through other characters’ eyes. Sometimes a sequence of events remained out-of-focus because the POV character involved didn’t think or say anything about it, and the other POV characters didn’t know what had happened. I liked that a lot.

At one point in my first draft, a non-viewpoint character told my protagonist something my protagonist hadn’t suspected. I didn’t like that so much. In fact, it scared the hell out of me, because I had to drastically overhaul the plot and I was already afraid I’d never finish the thing. But I did, and Mud was much the better for the overhaul. I’d thought I was writing a tragedy. Turns out I was writing a comedy, in which nearly everyone is better off at the end than they were at the beginning.

Moral of story: Non-POV characters have a way of getting their perspectives into the tale. Don’t discount them just because you’re not watching the action through their eyes.

Wolfie talks a lot, but he isn't telling the story.

Wolfie talks a lot, but he isn’t telling the story.

Wolfie, my novel in progress, is set on that same island, but it’s not an ensemble piece. Like Mud, it’s all in third person, but it’s got a tighter focus. At present it’s got two viewpoint characters. One is a woman in her mid-fifties — Shannon from Mud of the Place, if you’ve read novel #1. The other is an 11-year-old girl. The title character is a dog. No scenes are told from his POV, but he’s as essential to the story as the woman and the girl.

The big challenge is the girl. She’s smart and observant, but what’s going on in her family is key, and she can’t see or understand a lot of it. More, she doesn’t have conscious access to some of her own memories. So in first draft her POV sections are being told in third person, present tense. I’m not a big present-tense fan, so this is a challenge. I also have to work out ways to weave this girl’s backstory into the novel. She doesn’t remember a lot of it, and the one character who does isn’t telling.

Come to think of it, the girl isn’t the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge is the character who knows but doesn’t tell. I hate him. I don’t understand how a person could do what he almost certainly did, and is probably going to do again, and still look himself in the mirror. But plenty of people manage, and if/when their monstrosity is revealed, a popular reaction is disbelief. Creating believable villains is hard. I had a couple of villainous characters in Mud of the Place, but I managed to keep them at arm’s length. I can’t do it with this guy.

There’s also a somewhat mysterious fellow hovering in the wings. I know who he is. He’s important. Is he a POV character? I’m not sure yet. A key scene’s coming up that involves him and another non-POV character. One of them has to become a POV character or I’ve got to figure out another way to get that scene into the story.

This is what I love about using just a few viewpoint characters, none of whom has the whole picture. It challenges me as a writer. I have to plumb those characters more deeply than I would otherwise. I have to come up with incidents that will prompt them to say or think things that readers will need to know. Sometimes they say or think things that even I didn’t suspect. That’s how I know I’m tapping into the deep place that the stories worth writing come from.

 

Selling Books at the Artisans’ Fair

Sorry for long silence — I’ve had deadline-itis in a bad way.

This past Thursday’s deadline wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t a rush — not until I turned it into one by spending 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. last Friday and Saturday at the Thanksgiving Artisans’ Fair. Along with three other local writers, I was part of “Writers’ Row.” (I blogged about the fair in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories: “A Saner Way to Shop.”)

So I was selling my novel, The Mud of the Place, and my colleagues were selling their books, and it dawned on me that, hey, not only had I written my book, I’d edited at least one of each of theirs.

This made me happy. These books were all good before I got hold of them, but I was proud to have had a hand in making each one a little bit better than it would have been otherwise. Editors are even more invisible than writers. Usually we finish a job, wave bye-bye, and never see the book or paper or story again. It was downright satisfying to see the finished books on display and hear people talk about them.

Not to mention — I know those books inside and out, love them all, and have no qualms about encouraging people to buy them.

vineyard cats smLynn Christoffers is a wonderful photographer. Cats are her favorite subject, so Cats of Martha’s Vineyard was a natural. But she did more than photograph a hundred cats. She interviewed their people and turned those interviews into a book. I’m a chronic dog person, but I still think it’s cool.

cover scan smShirley Mayhew moved to Martha’s Vineyard as a young bride in 1947 and has been here ever since. Her personal essays, collected in Looking Back, not only chronicle a quietly remarkable life; they provide a window into the last six-going-on-seven decades in this particular place — a place that’s often seen from the outside but rarely from within.

Cynthia RiggsMURDER ON C-DOCK cover sm took up mystery writing at age 70, after a career that included writing for the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian, running a ferryboat company on the Chesapeake Bay, rigging boats on Martha’s Vineyard, and raising five children. The 11th book in her Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series is due out from St. Martin’s Press in the spring. The previous ten were all for sale on Writers’ Row, but pride of place went to Murder on C-Dock, which is hot off the press (official pub date isn’t till next month) and which I copyedited. It begins a new series, drawing on the author’s 12 years living on a houseboat on the Washington, D.C., waterfront. It’s got such a stupendous cover that I’m determined to hire the artist, Elizabeth R. Whelan, to do the cover of my novel in progress.

Cynthia, by the way, contributed “On Being Edited” to this blog back in October. Her account of an Edit from Hell has been viewed more times and received more comments than any other Write Through It post. Good! I’m here to report that to my mind Cynthia is an ideal client: she writes well, takes her writing seriously, and appreciates careful editing. She also hosts the writers’ group that both Shirley and I belong to.

Writers usually work in isolation, so face-to-face contact with readers and prospective readers is exhilarating. It can also be exhausting: The Artisans’ Fair was busy from the time the doors opened at 10 till they closed at 4, which meant we were “on” for six consecutive hours. This is why I didn’t come straight home, go for a walk with the dog, then buckle down to editing. My brain needed a break.

At odd moments I wondered if we writers really belonged among the weavers, jewelers, leatherworkers, printmakers, and other crafters who work wonders with media more tangible than words. For sure no one objected to our presence, and all of us had a great time. My life is pretty much devoted to words: writing them, editing them, reading them, reviewing what others have written. It’s a little disorienting to be reminded that words aren’t everything, that creativity comes in myriad forms, and that there are plenty of things that words just can’t do.

 

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.