Tag Archives: novel writing

Giving in to the process

9 weeks vs 33 weeks
(Above: 9 weeks on the left…33 weeks on the right)

So I’ve accepted the reality that I won’t be revising my novel to the extent I’d like. That my novel-writing will eventually return in earnest (hopefully sometime next Summer/Fall), and that my novel will benefit from this break. I believe this, because every break I take from my novel benefits the novel, and because this particular break is a rich and life-enhancing break in which I am still creating something–a person, really.

Which takes me to the topic of “breaks”–not brokenness mind you and not vacations either, but breaks. Ones that result in greater strength and conviction.

A break in my tailbone. A bone that heals stronger.

A break from a relationship. A relationship that reunites later with more conviction and clarity.

A break in my psyche. A renewed set of life priorities.

A break in my my brain. Singular determination, revealed.

I’m looking forward to what the next year will bring me. I’m hoping I’ll be surrounded by support, because it won’t be an easy year, but I hope it will be fantastic nonetheless. I’m excited about meeting my kid. And I’m interested in the writer I will become.

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Stuck

Virgin bloody mary for me!

These days, I’m blogging here and I’m writing in my Moleskine journal–but I’m not writing my novel. I want to write my novel, but it’s just not happening; I’m either forcing something that doesn’t belong in the novel and/or I am on the brink of a breakthrough. Or I have to just admit that I don’t write well at all in the Summer.

There is a small part of me that says “That’s okay, you’re still writing,” but the rest of me is completely discouraged and self-condemning.

I have friends who write everyday–they write through the blocks and they turn in complete novel manuscripts within a year’s time. That is so not me. There are writers who take ten years to write a novel–that’s more like me. Writers-who-take-years-to-write-a-novel are traumatized by that creative timespan. We are asked “How’s your novel coming along?” way more often for starters.

I think part of the pressure comes from the fact that most writers don’t talk publicly about the dark parts of writing–the blocks, and the days you sit in front of your computer and all you do is revise one damn paragraph. And the days you sit in front of your computer and you can’t think of a single idea. Or the day you sit in front of your computer and you delete every single word you wrote in the last four weeks.

We writers like to, in the public eye, present writing as “magical.” We like to prolong the myth of genius. That the words come out of thin air and shine with brilliance on the page. There are movies that show writers in action–like Katherine Turner in “Romancing the Stone” tearing her hair out while writing (but that typing never stops, does it?) or Nicholas Cage in “Adaptation” (okay at least there, writing block is accurately depicted–for like Charlie, I often negotiate brownies as reward for words written). And I love the depiction of a writer-gone-astray by Michael Douglas in “Wonderboys” (but even then, he’s written an over-long novel, and again, the typing doesn’t stop). But those are stories–stories don’t happen without Something Awful happening–and the Something Awful for a writer equals struggling with a long project. But even in movies, the writing happens, and no one in real life likes to talk about those horrible days and horrible weeks and horrible months where the writing doesn’t happen. Because it makes us seem less than perfect. Because it makes us look stupid. Because it’s tragic.

So in sum, I feel imperfect. I feel stupid. I feel tragic.

So there’s that.

And then I think in my case, my novel is waiting for me to grow up. This novel and its story is bigger than I am. And I wonder if I fail it, every day. Even on my best days, I fear to fail my novel.

In my worse moments, I think that even if I don’t finish this thing a lot of good has come out of it–my novel has made me a better person. It has stretched me. It has been the thing that drove me to recover from my stroke. It has been the thing of so many lessons learned–lessons that I could not have learned any other way than facing a blank page and exploring worlds with the goal of seeking understanding and communicating understanding. It has made me grow up. It has given me comfort. And it has kicked my ass. Everyone needs a good ass-kicking now and then.

But on the worst days, I look at my novel and wonder if I should walk away from it. The only things that keep me from walking away is the incredible encouragement I’ve received from my writing mentors–and my amazing writer mentors are not men or women who give out encouragement lightly. So I keep at it. On my very worst days, my mentors save my novel’s ass.

So for now, I am gestating, in more ways than one. The words and ideas will come. It’s just summertime, I guess, when writing traditionally doesn’t happen for me.

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Filed under Novel, Revision, Writing

On Revision

THINK

I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on novel revision over at Necessary Fiction where my good friend and excellent writer Matthew Salesses has launched a month-long series on revision as their July 2012 writer in residence.

I talk a little about my process, and my approach to revision–here’s a little bit of an excerpt to get you started:

“Starting over and rewriting is revision, at least for me. Saying I am rewriting gives me more creative freedom, less of an obligation to retain old words, much of which while beautiful, did not work inside the whole. The word revision, for some reason, made me more unwilling to recreate worlds.”

Hope my experience and perspective on rewriting/revision helps you out.

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These are the things I do in order to sabotage myself (and because I hate feeling helpless, I propose solutions)

karate sidewalk graffiti

When I write, my aim is to unleash my inhibitions and thus my imagination. On the very very best days, I am able to explore new worlds and write them with courage and truth. On the very very very very very verrrry best days, I write many words with courage and truth. On these days, I am elated. I would take these days over the most delicious cake. That’s saying a lot. Because I love cake.

Unfortunately, when I unleash my inhibitions and imagination, among the many things released include insecurity and fear. If I channel and examine my fear in a positive context, it can help produce the very best writing. Under certain circumstances (and I’m no scientist, but it’s kind of like the optimum conditions for bacteria proliferation), my insecurity and fear rocket. Fear is a very very selfish and abusive state of mind that demands the entire floor. Fear’s best friends are helplessness and insecurity and together, they often plan out acts of self-sabotage.

And sadly, I occasionally enact self-sabotage as a writer. I do so because I am afraid to fail, afraid to (yes) succeed, afraid to confront my feelings, afraid to confront the page, afraid to write the words, afraid my words are not good enough and will never be good enough, afraid to tell the truth–the list goes on.

And these are my acts of self-sabotage (self-sabotage meaning things you do that hamper/damage your writing) as a writer…

1) I don’t do this very often anymore, but when I do, it’s the most destructive thing ever: I compare myself to other writers. It’s a sick act that’s covered in the goo of jealousy. I think it was Craig Ferguson who said that envy is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. It’s so exactly like that. And I avoid it.

I avoid it by surrounding myself with supportive writer friends, and by supporting my friends. A mentor once told me that a writer who helps other writers will be blessed. The more I support my friends, the less I compare myself to them. Because in a way, I am participating in their success, as opposed to being a bystander.

When I was a kid, I took swimming lessons. I was horrible in swim class, and I was a horrible swimmer. I was horrible because when we swam, I always stopped swimming to look around to see where I was relative to my classmates.

Of course, as soon as I stopped swimming, I would sink. And I’d come in dead last (not that it was a race just like writing isn’t a race, but it sucks to come in dead last). I didn’t learn, because I was comparing myself to others more than I was doing the act of swimming.

I didn’t know I was doing this at the time, but in hindsight and through my mom’s anecdotes (“You keep looking up and sinking. Why aren’t you swimming?”) I was able to synthesize this lesson.

So when I compare myself to other writers, I also think about my swimming lessons. If I’m comparing myself to other writers, I’m not writing. I’m sinking.

2) I psyche myself out and tell myself I’m not good enough. And then I wallow.

This is the thing with which I struggle most. My waning self confidence kills me. It really kills me. It is rarely brought on by others’ achievements, but the lack of my own. Or a feeling of lack of progress.

This is when I often do some low-stakes writing, like blogging. So I keep writing without pressure and without judgment. Or I call a very good writing friend (they are so important). Or I call a very good non-writer friend (they are just as important).

Most important, I just go heads down and write again. Because I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I know that I won’t stop writing. And the act of writing is the ultimate cure.

3) I am not honest about my writerly needs.

In my case, this is one of those “room of her own” situations–where I do not have a proper psychic and physical space for me and my writing. This is when I’m not honest to myself, and I insist on writing at home, even with a houseguest not understanding of my life as a writer–instead of going to a café to write. It’s been difficult to admit, but I’ve learned that I cannot write in my own home on a regular basis. There is too much temptation to be distracted. And if I cannot write–see #2 above: my confidence starts waning.

Instead of writing at home, I write at The Writers Room in NYC, or at the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Both spaces have been very kind for my writing, and I’ve learned what I need from my time at both.

For others–your writerly needs may mean other things, like sleep or a writing residency. Learn what they are, and make it happen.

4) I allow myself to be distracted.

There is a fine line between meeting up with friends for your psychic health and doing necessary chores….and meeting up with friends and doing chores in order to procrastinate on writing. You know what they are. What matters most in a year? What will matter most for me in a year is a finished novel revision. So get on it.

5) I allow myself to become too isolated.

Haha. On the flip side of socializing-as-a-form-of-procrastination, I often allow myself to become isolated. You gotta get out. Meet like minds. Get support. Crack a few jokes.

I’m on twitter–sometimes, I feel like if I didn’t have twitter, I’d be a total writing hermit. And I love my community there, and in real life. It helps to keep a real conversation going with someone other than my characters. It helps me energize. It helps me gain new experiences and new ideas. It helps me realize there is a world outside my novel.

6) I don’t read enough.

I totally self-sabotage by not taking time out to READ. It is the most important thing I can do for my writing (other than write). And I mean read the good stuff. When I do not read, it gets bad.

7) Seek approval from those who will not understand or approve. Or seek approval from those who will never tell you the truth and will too easily give your manuscript their approval.

Know who your audience is. If you’re writing a memoir about being a left wing liberal radical, think twice before showing your manuscript to someone who is staunchly tea party (or vice versa. Giving your manuscript to heavily biased people who will guaranteed-criticize your work is self-sabotage. What are you doing it for? What kind of feedback do you expect, and how will it help your writing?

Also, don’t just show your manuscript to people who so easily approve you will never learn. Again, it’s self-sabotage and over-protection. Will your manuscript improve?

I made these mistakes often in my earlier writing days–and all it did was lead to feedback that rarely helped me.

What things do you do as acts of self-sabotage, and what things do you find helpful to keep yourself in a healthy writing state?

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Marching orders

backlit daisies

There are a lot of new directives in my life these days, all to a good and healthy end. And so I thought to myself, if everything is on a timeline and I’m to be so disciplined, I’ve got to do the same with my novel manuscript.

Truth be told, I’ve been revising rewriting my novel-in-progress like it’s a day at the spa–with languid leisure. A page here, a page there. An occasional chapter. When I’ve come across a bump in plot or character, I let the mystery wash over me and then when the uncertainty became too uncomfortable, I’d go do something other than write, something other than stick to my chair and computer screen.

Writing has been a daily part of my life, but the great urgency I felt after my stroke (as only a brush with death can achieve) to finish a draft of my novel-in-progress, the very thing that got me to finish a draft, has been languishing for some time.

But I am now once again writing with exigency. Because I have to finish a major rewrite of this novel by the end of 2012. Because if I don’t finish a major rewrite, I’ll have deep regrets, and any discomfort I feel now as I navigate the interstitial spaces of my novel is going to be nowhere near the pain I’ll feel next year when I look at a half-finished novel revision.

I am the slowest writer I know. Writing with urgency for me means muscling through the pain and making a deep commitment to stick with my manuscript even if tomorrow is another day. It means I am still a slow writer. It does not mean writing two thousand words a day, because for me, five hundred words a day is a good writing day. But I know I can and will do it.

So I’m making it public: I’m finishing a major rewrite of this novel by year-end. That gives me about seven months, which I think is completely doable, even at my elephantine writing pace.

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Writing is Hard Work and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Different

new camera + new lens

Writers (and I’m talking about creative writing) who in the debate about whether or not writing can be taught say that “writing cannot be taught,” or writers who say they “don’t revise” are engaging in a game of intimidation.

Whether they are accurate or not in their assessment (if you are 140% talentless, I guess writing cannot be taught…and perhaps some brilliant writer out there really doesn’t revise their work), I hate it when writers try to make writing “magical” and solely about “talent.” It’s such an arrogant thread of thought to imply that you either have it or you don’t. Certainly, talent is a crucial part of the pie–but people with talent still need coaching, mentoring, and practice. Tons of practice and hard work.

This bucket of sick giraffe bull reminds me of my high school. I have a lot of wrath toward my high school years, so be forewarned. I went to a super cut-throat competitive high school that happened to be a public high school. The counseling office would actually publish the top 100 GPAs of students in descending order every semester. They didn’t list names, but they did list student ID numbers. Who were they kidding? You think we ultra-competitive students hadn’t memorized each others’ SIDs? We knew exactly where we all stood.

But I guess the counseling office was bored, and needed to generate work. Because I’m sure after those rankings, they’d have to do a lot of counseling. And I’m not talking about the academic kind.

Anyway–I’m talking about people who front about how easy shit is, just to intimidate other people in a competitive atmosphere. And I was talking about my high school, which was full of students with gray bags under their bloodshot eyes saying they had a full night’s sleep, didn’t study for the test at all, and the test was a cinch. For awhile I believed them. Until my father said, “Are you an idiot? Of course they’re studying. They’re just psyching you out! Now go to your room and study all night until dawn breaks.” My dad is such an Asian Dad. Literally. And figuratively. Okay. I just wrote notes to my friends all night long. Like, twelve page handwritten notes. I was destined to be a writer. But I did study, just not as hard as my father wished I would.

The claim to a well of genius/brilliance without the investment of hard work stems from deep arrogance and/or fear.

You mean to say that Jackson Pollock just threw some paint up on a canvas and that was it? That dude worked long and hard to attain those splashes. There is an entire history of Pollock paintings preceding his “drip canvases” that attest to that. You mean to say that Itzhak Perlman fell out of the womb playing a violin? That Lance Armstrong just rode his bike and rode it to victory from the start? No shit. They all worked hard. There’s the equivalent of about 100,000 bottles (probably more, but I don’t feel like researching the amount of sweat a bicyclist would exude in his/her training) of Gatorade that Armstrong had to suck down to replace the sweat from training exertion. They played until their fingers bled. Or at the least, had whopping callouses.

I know someone who was a concert violinist earlier in his life and even if he did not make it his lifelong career, he has a little hollow in his jawbone; he practiced so often and for so long, the bone grew as if his face were attached to his chinrest. Which it was. Because he practiced for hours and hours as a small child.

At AWP this week (and I’ll be quoting from AWP for awhile to come), Nami Mun at her Works in Progress panel said you can’t succeed solely on talent–that there is the concept of practice, citing Yo-Yo Ma. That the only difference between an average person and a successful person is focused practice; a “willingness to practice, develop your craft, and understand the difference.”

And Margaret Atwood, in her keynote said, “I’m startled by people who say they want to write but don’t like reading. Those people want an audience for them to listen to their sad story and that’s the end of it. They’d be happier on reality TV, because that’s less work. And yes, I said the ‘w’ word: WORK.”

PREACH.

I know that my novel certainly has waited for me to grow and develop as a writer. And that it’s guided me through my own maturity as a human being. I molded the novel into shape, and in recent times, my novel has been the thing to mold and shape me in return, and it has led me into amazing life adventures, calling to me with its needs such as much time spent on wikipedia and google and sometimes twitter for novel research. That I couldn’t write this novel eight years ago didn’t mean I could never write the thing.

It takes practice. It takes hard work. It’s pain. And it’s joy. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes my novel sucks. Whatever. Work more.

I am one of the legions of writers who has been married to a novel-in-progress for more than five long years (and I am not close to being finished). We, the slowest of writers, salute those who write a novel a year (I’m looking at you, Joyce Carol Oates). At AWP, Don Lee said he takes two years to write one novel: the first six months spent on generating ideas, another year to write the draft, and then another six months of revision. I salute you too, Don Lee.

But over cocktails, my tongue freed up by a gin and tonic at the AWP conference headquarters bar (by golly, all ten thousand writers BROKE that bar–it was four people deep, and it took 20 minutes to get a drink order in–it’s a wonder that ANYONE even got tipsy)…I announced that my novel dictates the speed at which it is written. I think at least one person said “Amen” to that. Who knows. I get drunk off half a cocktail. Some stories demand a long time. And some stories demand to be told immediately.

My novel is better than the person I am. And it’s being patient. And asking me to be patient, in turn. And to work my ass off so I can deserve the novel I end up showing the world.

And yes. I revise. Everyday I’m a better writer than the day before. I’m learning to write everyday damn day. I also had eyelid surgery so I could have double eyelids. And I hate bell peppers.

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“How’s your novel coming along?”: talking about my novel-in-progress part 1

“How’s your novel coming along?”

When non-writers people ask me this question, no matter how sincere the intention, I hear it spoken in an impatient or mocking tone, ala Stewie from the Family Guy (so painfully hilarious). [1]

Non-Writers People ask me about my novel a lot these days. Of course they do–I quit my tech job last summer, and I’m on sabbatical from my teaching job (yes, I had two jobs for awhile), and my life is to now write/revise my novel everyday. It’s clearly my passion, and they’ve no idea what else I must be doing.

This question is asked of me every time I’m at a cocktail party. As a conversation opener. And about 30 seconds after I’ve crossed the threshold of my former office (and my husband’s current workplace). They ask about my novel, even before they ask how I’m doing.

“Hey Christine! How’s your novel coming along?”

My non-writer friends, when they hear me whine about this, say, “At least people care.” As in, “It’s a normal question.”

Do you really all care? Will 100% of you really buy my book when it’s published? Do you know what an agonizing query this is? One that makes me feel tired and self-doubting and judged and scared and naked? One that then makes me feel guilty, because I do understand you ask out of good intentions, even though it makes me wince?

Do you know that instead of asking me “How’s your novel coming along?” you could say any of the following things:

  1. “I can’t wait to BUY and read your novel when it’s done!”
  2. “I know your novel will be amazing.”
  3. “I think it’s so exciting that you’re taking a leap and writing your novel.”
  4. “I support you in your novel writing/revision.”
  5. “May I bake you some cookies or raisin walnut bread to eat while you rewrite your novel?”
  6. “I hope your novel revision/rewrite is going well! Would you like some chocolate?”
  7. “When will you be finished writing the novel?” OHWAIT. Don’t ask that, either. I have no idea. I thought I’d be finished by now. My friend, when pregnant with triplets was understandably HUGE by her fifth month of pregnancy. People would ask when she was due, and when she stated a date four months into the future, their eyebrows would raise and they’d say things like, “Oh wow! You’re HUGE.” And another friend, who is pregnant with twins, gets the same things. Needless to say, they HATE the “due date” question. Same here. I think I’m having novel quintuplets, and I’m about four months pregnant with this novel in “novel-time.” Yah, it’s going to take awhile.

My writer friends know that “How’s your novel coming along?” is an agonizing query. It’s like getting asked how your fetus is doing–an intrusive question at best.

So here’s how my novel is coming along…

It gives me heartburn. Sometimes it kicks me from the inside at an inconvenient moment, or perhaps close to my liver and it gives me pain. Other times, the kicks delight me.

I felt my novel quicken and kick me last year, after I finished the first draft.

Now I feel it swirl and dance.

My novel makes me feel bloated.

My novel makes me nauseous.

My novel makes me crave certain foods.

My novel makes me feel alive. My novel has a heartbeat.

I often fear that this novel won’t make it. That somewhere during the creative process, I’ll lose my grasp on it. That it will just wither and die. And that it will all be my fault. And that you’ll all ask me how it’s going, when in fact, it died inside of me.

I want this novel to be amazing. I am putting all my hopes and dreams into this novel.

I fear this novel won’t be amazing to anyone but me. That I will send it out into the world, and no one will like it.

If no one likes this novel, I will have to put it in my closet, where it will live to the end of its days, visited by no one but me.

I project all my fears onto my novel.

I project all my hope onto my novel.

My novel is getting heavy.

My novel gets bigger every month.

My novel’s features are beginning to sharpen.

My novel looks a little like me, but not really like me, either.

My novel takes everything I have.

That’s how my novel is doing. It’s not done. It will be done. It cannot, at this point, live without me as a host. The only people who get to “see it,” are people who can read a rough draft manuscript, which is the “ultrasound-equivalent” of writing. I love my novel. I hope you will love, it too.

The second question is “What’s your novel about?” And I”ll talk about that in a subsequent post.

[1] Stewie’s monologue on “How’s that novel coming along?” used to be my cellphone ringer.

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