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.

 

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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.

Letting Go

Recently a colleague posted to an online editors’ forum: “How do you tell a client who keeps tinkering to just stop?” Her client’s tinkering was not improving the manuscript. In some cases it was making things worse.

Her client was having a hard time letting go, and with good reason: letting go is hard. Off the top of my head I can think of several excellent manuscripts that are languishing in their authors’ desk drawers or on their hard drives because their authors can’t let them go.

The subject has been on my mind lately because I’m in the process of making an ebook out of my novel, The Mud of the Place. The print version came out in 2008. My final draft was a Word file. The proofs were in PDF. Plenty of corrections and tweaks were made on the proofs. My first step was to transfer all of them to the final-draft Word file. Now I’m proofreading the Word file from which the ebook will be created.

In proofreading mode I’m looking for typos and stylistic inconsistencies. I am not looking to change or rearrange any of the words. Yes, a few times I’ve paused at a word and thought that another word might be better. But I want the text of the ebook edition to be identical to that of the print edition. If I find an error — a genuine, bona fide error — I will fix it.

But the time for tinkering is past, long past.

The urge to keep tinkering is often a sign that Perfectionista is gripping your shoulder and scaring you half to death with her what-ifs. What if you’ve left something out? What if you’ve made a mistake? What if your whole book is a mistake? What if everyone hates your book? What if everyone thinks you’re stupid?

Sometimes Perfectionista keeps you from writing. Other times she wants you to tinker endlessly with what you’ve already written. Whatever she’s up to, the way to loosen her grip is the same: Lower your standards. And no, that doesn’t mean “do shoddy work.” It means that no matter how much tinkering you do, your work is never going to be perfect — and even if it is, someone‘s not gonna like it. You can’t control what anybody else thinks.

Letting go takes practice. You’ve got to have confidence in your work — that takes practice too. If you’ve been sharing your work in a workshop or a writers’ group or with readers who’ll give you honest feedback, you’re well on the way. Sharing your work, after all, is a kind of letting go.

Deadlines can be a big help. When the clock or the calendar says you’re done, you’re done. The train is leaving the station and your story’s on it. When you see your story in print, a few hours or days or weeks later, you probably see something you would have done differently, but the chances are excellent that it’s fine as is.

Especially if you have a good editor acting as your safety net.

And one last thing: It’s easier to let go of one work when you’re hard at work on something new. The new story or essay or book probably won’t leave you much energy to obsess about the one that’s ready to leave home. Kiss it goodbye and move on.

Not ready to let go: The late Rhodry (1994–2008), right, and his buddy Rosie.

Not ready to let go: The late Rhodry (1994–2008), right, and his buddy Rosie.

 

 

 

Who’s Driving This Bus?

I’ve been thinking a lot about characters lately. Fictional characters, particularly the fictional characters that show up on the paper in front of me. They rise in the compost that is my mind, slide down my arm and into my pen, and manifest in colored ink on a lined white page.

No doubt about it: writing is weird.

Essential tools for character development

Essential tools for character development

“Write what you know,” say the sages. Characters are forever showing me how much I don’t know. No sooner does my protagonist set off down a footpath than I’m scrambling for the name of the pretty blue flower she sees over there. She’s an artist and a website designer. I know more about pigment and graphics than I did when she first showed up, but I still couldn’t play a painter on TV.

Necessity is the mother of invention — and research.

The other day, another character’s almost-five-year-old brother was watching a movie on his family’s big-screen TV. What was he watching? No clue. I don’t know any five-year-olds. It’s been a long time since I was five. I do hear car sounds from the hallway, and I know that when he’s not watching TV the kid likes pedaling his racing car around the driveway. I could leave it at “a movie” and come back to it later, after consulting parent and grandparent friends, but I want to know now, goddammit.

Google can be the world’s worst procrastination tool, but right now it’s my friend. I start typing: Popular movies for k . . . Google fills in kindergarteners. Sounds good: this kid will be in kindergarten next year. After consulting a couple of “top ten” lists, I slip Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into the DVD player. Or maybe it’s a Blu-ray player? I’m a total idiot about all things cinematic, unless they were made before 1980. DVD vs. Blu-ray can wait. Maybe the movie won’t turn out to be Chitty Chitty Bang Bang after all, but for now it is and that’s good enough.

My first novel, The Mud of the Place, took an unexpected turn when a minor character told my protagonist something she didn’t know. I hadn’t known it either. It changed everything.

First-drafting is like watching actors on a stage. I’m the stage manager: I write down what they’re doing and saying. If someone’s standing around looking lost, I send someone else in her direction. That usually stirs things up. Sometimes a ker-thunk offstage signals that interesting stuff is happening just out of sight. I pull back the curtain: “Gotcha!”

All these years I’ve been saying confidently that my fiction is “character-driven.” But of course! I watch my characters move around. I shamelessly eavesdrop on their conversations. If my characters aren’t driving my fiction, who is? The opposite of “character-driven” is “plot-driven.” “Plot-driven” means that the characters serve the plot; “character-driven” means that they create it. Right?

While I was procrastinating the other day, a website informed me that I had it wrong: “A plot-driven novel,” it said, “has a recallable plot and not-so-recallable characters; a character-driven novel has recallable characters, and a not-so-recallable plot.”

Other writers and editors have different ideas, I discovered. I also discovered that there’s no shortage of advice out there about how to create memorable characters and memorable plots.

Sometimes Google is my friend. Sometimes Google is a trickster. Sometimes I need to stop Googling and get back to work.

Back in March I blogged that editing is like driving. So’s writing. The author’s driving the bus — she’s the only one with a valid license — but there’s all sorts of acting and interacting going on behind her. Sometimes she stops to pick up a hitchhiker. She thinks she knows where she’s going, but she’s open to other ideas.

And in case you wondered where this bus image came from, I walk past the West Tisbury School parking lot at least once every day. This is what I see. The dog is my Travvy. He’s a character too.

The backside of the buses, seen from our usual route. In early May, a brushfire scorched the woods hereabouts.

The backside of the buses, seen from our usual route. In early May, a brushfire scorched the woods hereabouts.

Travvy talks to the school buses.

Travvy talks to the school buses.

Furry Dog Story

An excerpt from my novel in progress, working title Wolfie, has just been posted to the Writers & Other Animals blog.

Writers & Other Animals features regular guest bloggers, most of whom are writing about animals — especially dogs! While you’re over there, browse the previous posts. You’ll make the acquaintance of some good writers, and probably pick up a few ideas for further reading.

The excerpt, “Close Call,” features both Shannon and Pixel from my first novel, The Mud of the Place. This takes place about 10 years later. Pixel is based on the late, great Rhodry Malamutt and Wolfie (who isn’t named in the story) is based on my Travvy. Trav was born the day after Rhodry died, so the only way I could introduce them to each other was in fiction.

I usually don’t let my writing out in public until it’s pretty close to done. Wolfie is nowhere close to done: I’m maybe 50 pages into a first draft. “Close Call” represents about four of those pages. Since it comes near the beginning, it doesn’t need a lot of explanation, and it’s self-contained enough to stand on its own.

See what you think!

Travvy woos at the waves, Lambert's Cove Beach, January 2014

Travvy woos at the waves, Lambert’s Cove Beach, January 2014

Rhodry and Dis Kitty, Malabar Farm, ca. 2005

Rhodry and Dis Kitty, Malabar Farm, ca. 2005

Whose Story Is It?

I’m posting this to both my writing blog, Write Through It; and my Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. I love it when the two converge like this.

Earlier this week I read a blog post on “What Makes Cultural Appropriation Offensive?” Both the post, by blogger TK, and the ensuing comments are well worth reading. “Cultural appropriation” is hard to pin down. Cultural borrowing happens all the time. The only way to stop it is to shut everybody into a room with people who are culturally just like them. I hope we can all agree that this is (a) impossible, and (b) undesirable. So when does cultural borrowing become cultural appropriation? And why does it matter?

My enduring lesson in why it matters came in the early 1980s. I was just starting to publish my reviews and essays. I was also the book buyer for Lammas, the feminist bookstore in Washington, D.C. As both writer and bookseller I thought a lot about ethics and politics and especially the often shifty terrain where the two converge.

What brought cultural appropriation into sharp focus for me was Medicine Woman, a book by Lynn V. Andrews. Andrews, a white woman, claimed to have studied with “Native American” shamans and been initiated into their spiritual tradition. Medicine Woman was popular with white women, including white feminists, including customers of the bookstore where I worked.

Soon after it was published, Andrews’s claims were challenged by people intimately familiar with tribal spiritual traditions. These challenges, at least at first, were published primarily in the alternative press and journals of limited circulation. Andrews’s book was published by a big-name trade publisher. It sold very well. It won Andrews more book contracts and eager attendees for her workshops and lectures. Her audience comprised primarily white women who had no experience of “Native American spirituality” — a misleading phrase because this continent is home to many indigenous spiritual traditions — and in most cases didn’t know anyone who did.

Andrews had access to a mass audience in part because of her own color and class privilege, in part because her big-name publisher thought — correctly — that her book would sell, and in part because her followers didn’t really care if her tales were authentic or not. The aura of authenticity was enough. Medicine Woman would not have had the same cachet had it been published as fiction, which it most likely was. (For a thoughtful and well-documented discussion of this case and cultural appropriation in general, see The Skeptic’s Dictionary.)

Cultural appropriation often involves racism, implicit or explicit, but not always. It does always involve an imbalance of power, but the imbalance can be based on race, sex, class, region, nationality, religion, or other factors. Here’s an example of appropriation, or mis-appropriation, in which the people doing the appropriating look a lot like the people whose stories they’re presuming to tell. Maybe it will shine a little light on the whole contested matter of cultural appropriation or, as I like to think of it, “whose story is it?”

In the summer of 1993, President Bill Clinton vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d been a year-round resident for eight years at that point, long enough to know that the year-round island and the summer island occupy the same hundred square miles of land but are not the same place. He was accompanied not only by his family but what seemed like the entire national and regional press corps. The first family made some public appearances, but most of the time they hung out on a hard-to-reach estate near the south shore. They were here for three weeks.

This left all those reporters with a lot of downtime. To justify their salaries and expense accounts, they had to file stories, so they swarmed all around the island, seeing the sights, buttonholing everyone who didn’t look too touristy, and writing about The Vineyard. I saw some of what they wrote because friends around the country sent me clippings — this was before the World Wide Web, never mind Facebook and Twitter. Often a single story would be syndicated and wind up in several newspapers.

Paley TNY clip sm

From The New Yorker for May 16, 1994

This wasn’t exactly going viral, but it did mean that stories written by reporters who’d been here for a week or so reached many, many more thousands of people than anything that appeared in either of the Vineyard’s two weekly newspapers. At the time I was working for one of them, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. I was doing what most year-round working Vineyarders do in the throes of August: trying to keep my act together and praying for September to come PDQ. In a summer resort, September means sanity, or at least the semblance thereof. But in the national press the Vineyard was all about lolling on the beach; hobnobbing with the rich, famous, and influential at cocktail parties; and seeing the sights.

The following May, still fuming, I happened upon a small item in The New Yorker about Grace Paley, a poet, writer, and activist I much admired. It said, in part:

“Paley’s stories are local, in the wisest sense. If you ask her about whether she would write about what’s going on in South Africa, she says no. A character might comment on the situation, she adds, but ‘if your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.'”

Grace Paley nailed it: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.” Not only did that become the epigraph of my first novel, it gave me its title and sustained me in the writing of it. It sustains me to this day: my feet are in the mud of this particular place, about which so much has been written by people who only skim the surface, so what the hell else should I be writing about?

mud cover logoAnd that, in a nutshell, is why appropriation, cultural and otherwise, is a problem. Stories have power. Stories told by those with access to education and, especially, to the mass media circulate far more widely than stories told by those who lack such access. Stories that the mass audience wants to hear, or what the editors and publishers in charge think they want to hear, circulate more widely than stories that make us uneasy. Stories told by those whose feet aren’t in the mud of the place all too often come to be seen as authentic, as more real than the real thing.

Course Correction

Earlier this week I officially set aside novel #2, working title The Squatters’ Speakeasy, to work on novel #3, which doesn’t really have a working title yet. I’ve been calling it “Wolfie” for reasons that will shortly become apparent.

Travvy inspired Wolfie, but Wolfie gets into a lot more trouble.

Trav inspired Wolfie, but Wolfie gets into a lot more trouble.

Over a year ago, Shannon — a protagonist in my Mud of the Place (aka novel #1) and also a major player in Squatters — spotted a dog running through the woods. She followed it, first in her car, then on foot. She caught it as it tried to wriggle through a fence to get to the sheep on the other side, just in time to save it from the owner of the sheep, who was headed in their direction with a rifle in his hand.

I liked the story, not least because the dog, called Wolfie because that’s what he looked like, was clearly based on my Travvy. But despite my best efforts I couldn’t graft it onto Squatters’ Speakeasy. I made a new folder for it, promised to come back, and returned to Squatters.

Squatters was alive, no doubt about that. It sprawled and kept sprawling, tossing up possibilities like — well, like a dog that offers one behavior after another because it doesn’t know what its person wants. I didn’t know what I wanted either.

In early February, I took a break from Squatters to work on an essay about a controversial statue. (See “Get Me Rewrite” for details.) I also started this blog. When I got up in the morning, I couldn’t wait to sit down in my chair and start writing. I finished the essay. I kept going with the blog. Whenever I thought about waking Squatters from its winter snooze, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to play endless games of Spider solitaire.

I’ve been here before. You probably have too. Is this procrastination, pure and simple? I wondered. What’s really going on here?

As I set out on the path that led to The Mud of the Place, looming up ahead was the 40-Page Barrier. It was high. It was wide. It was solid. I’d written essays, reviews, poems, stories, and one-act plays, some of them pretty good and many of them published, but at 40 pages I choked. I was the cartoon character that runs off a cliff and keeps running — till she looks down, realizes the ground has disappeared, and plummets.

Build it scene by scene, I was advised. Brilliant! Scenes were shorter, often lots shorter, than the essays and such that I’d managed to finish. I could write scenes. Scene by scene I left the 40-Page Barrier in the distance. 100 pages, 200 . . .

As I closed in on 300 pages, a supporting character said something I hadn’t suspected. It changed everything. Prospects had been looking grim for Jay, one of my protagonists. With one character’s revelation they improved immensely. OK, I thought. I’ll finish this first draft, I’ll beat the 40-Page Barrier once and for all, then I’ll go back and rewrite.

But I couldn’t. After happily running on air for nearly 300 pages, I looked down and saw how far down the ground was. I didn’t plummet, but I couldn’t keep going either.

I went back and started rewriting. Thanks to my outspoken character, I noticed things and sensed possibilities I’d missed before. The first 300 pages went much faster this time. I charged forward. I completed a draft that needed plenty of work, sure, but it was still pretty good.

Nevertheless, the standard advice of more experienced writers is Keep going, no matter what! With Procrastination fighting for control of my time, I tried to follow it. But Procrastination was gaining the upper hand.

Then a Facebook friend linked to an article that said procrastination wasn’t all bad. An email from a novelist whose list I’d just joined assured me that writing could and should be fun. And a member of my writers’ group mentioned a paper he’d co-authored about working with survivors of incest and other abuse. I had no idea he’d done this. He had no idea this was a emerging theme in the “Wolfie” manuscript.

These had to be omens. Reassured, I’m running with “Wolfie.” But I’m still nervous. The end is a long way off, and the ground is a long way down. Wish me luck.

 

Confessions of a Less-Than-Avid Reader

As a kid my nose was always in a book. I made a tent with the bedspread of my lower-bunk bed and read under it with a flashlight. When I went into the woods, it was usually to find a tree that I could climb and read in without being bothered.

I’m a writer.

I’ve reviewed books. I’ve sold books. I’ve written a novel.

I make my living as an editor.

I rarely read for pleasure any more. It’s not that I don’t have the time but that I’ve got more interesting things to do with the time I’ve got: write, go walking with Travvy, sing, drum, read e-mail, post responses to the e-lists I’m on, mess around on Facebook . . .

When The Mud of the Place was approaching completion, I circulated the manuscript to pretty much everyone I knew who was willing to slog through 400+ pages of typescript. Close to three dozen people in all. Their ages ranged from early 20s to late 70s. Nearly all of them liked it. Many waxed seriously enthusiastic, and many gave me useful comments about it.

Several of those people told me that they hardly ever read. They probably didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t either.

Educators and people in the book trades are forever bemoaning the decline in reading. The decline is well documented and ongoing. And I, writer and editor though I am, am part of it.

What to say about this?

I spent years working in a community — the women’s community of Washington, D.C., and the larger feminist movement — where words saved lives, words saved sanity. As a bookseller, I saw it happen over and over again. It happened to me. We knew books were important. Not a luxury. Not a duty. Important.

In theory I know there are books like that out there today, but I wouldn’t walk very far out of my way on the off chance that I might find one of them.

On the other hand — since I got my first e-reader in December 2011, I’ve been reading more books. Nowhere near as voraciously as I did growing up, or in my bookselling and reviewing days, but considerably more, and more enthusiastically, than in the previous 15 years or so. Most of these books have been recommended either in the (few) blogs I follow or by friends, often on social media.

I think not enough people have had their lives changed by a book, and if they have, they don’t know where to find another one like that. Neither do I. I have an especially hard time with general fiction. (With fantasy and science fiction, I know how to find the books and writers worth reading.) My life has never been changed by the technically flawless prose of a writer who wouldn’t know a moral conundrum if s/he met one on the road.

I’m looking for books that show me the world from new angles. I’m looking for books that can disturb my dreams without putting me to sleep.

Longhand

By the time I got to college, my once-impeccable handwriting was barely readable. Typewriters were a blessing, even before I learned to touch-type. Computers were even better. I got my first PC in 1985. I fell in love with WordPerfect. I did all my writing on the computer. Then I’d print it out, edit in pen or pencil, type in my edits, and print it out again.

I wrote my novel, The Mud of the Place, on the computer. Mud was a five-year journey punctuated with stalls, stops, and detours — every kind of block you can imagine. I’d stare at those crisp words on the screen and have no idea what came next. Pretty soon the stall would turn into a downward spiral and I’d know for absolute sure that I was never going to finish the stupid thing.

Around that time I was one of several women writers who gathered from time to time to share writing and talk about writing. Each meeting we’d do at least one freewriting exercise. We took turns picking a word or phrase to start with and setting a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. When the timer went off, you didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but we almost always did.

I was continually astonished by what I could write in 10 or 15 minutes with only a ballpoint pen and a few sheets of lined paper.

Finally I put it together. When I stalled at the computer, I’d stuff a yellow pad and a couple of ballpoints into my backpack and go somewhere else. In good weather this might be just outside. Other times it might be the Get a Life Café in Vineyard Haven. The key was away from the computer.

My key phrase was usually something like “I can’t write this fucking scene because …” And before I ran out of steam, I would have written, or at least sketched, the fucking scene whose elusiveness had been frustrating me so.

Gradually I figured out that scenes often stalled because I didn’t know a character well enough or, especially, because I couldn’t visualize where the scene was taking place. So before I got to the hair-tearing stage, I’d take pen and yellow pad and let the character talk. Characters, I discovered, were often good at describing places that I couldn’t see.

After finishing The Mud of the Place, I went into a tailspin. What pulled me out was Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook. I bought myself a fountain pen and a bottle of green ink to write my “Morning Pages,” the daily freewriting that is the foundation of Cameron’s method. Writing in longhand, I began to see, could be more than a method of diagnosing and solving problems.

For years now I’ve been doing nearly all my first-drafting in longhand, for both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve got more fountain pens and more bottles of ink than anyone needs, but currently six pens, each filled with a different color ink, are in active use.

Why does it work? For me writing in longhand makes it much, much easier to bypass the internal editor and just write. My handwriting is messy enough to flummox the internal editor but legible enough that I can transcribe it into the computer, which is where I do all my editing, revising, and rewriting. And — not to stray too far into woo-woo territory or anything — words seem to flow more easily through my fingers to a piece of paper than they do through my fingers to a keyboard.

The moral of the story isn’t that pen-and-ink rules. It’s that tools matter. If one isn’t doing the trick, try another one. I haven’t tried a tape recorder yet, but I do read aloud a lot both when I’m writing and when I’m editing, so that may be next.

Whatever works.

This morning's pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with

This morning’s pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with. The dark orange scrawl at the bottom is a reminder of where I’m supposed to start tomorrow.