Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Library Card and Me.

When I was a kid, I read voraciously and continuously.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, our hometown library was a favorite haunt of mine throughout my growing-up years.  We had a lot of books in the house, too, from The Jungle Book to Black Beauty to The Book of Knowledge.  Yeah, I read the encyclopedia!  I also loved coming into my elementary school classroom to see the stacks of paperbacks on the teacher's desk with the little order slips dangling from them, because it meant that the Scholastic book order had arrived!

As I got older, I progressed from animal stories to science fiction.  I think I read The Hobbit for the first time in junior high, and I slogged through Dune early in my high school years.  In fact, our common taste in books was one of the things that attracted me to Patient Husband when we were in college.  I also made a point of reading books from the canon as it was perceived at the time.  It became my habit to read for a bit before going to sleep at night.  I have no idea how many times my parents came in to take off my glasses and turn off the light because I had fallen asleep over my current read, but Mom says it happened a lot. 

When I started college I continued to read some science fiction and fantasy as well as more classic works required for my classes.  I had a great class in "The Continental Novel" that introduced me to Knut Hamsun, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann and Dostoevsky, among others.  I finally read a lot of Shakespeare, and I began reading French literature.  One outcome of my studies was I became a lot pickier about what I read for fun.  After having read Camus, Sartre, Proust, Duras, Colette, Hugo and poets from Francois Villon on, I had a lot less patience for dreck.  These days I read very little fiction.  I'll stop reading a book that doesn't hold my attention rather than read it through to the end.  I much prefer reading memoirs, nonfiction, and biographies, although I often re-read novels I've read and loved in years past.  I've read Sho-gun at least three or four times, and I've read James Herriot's books enough that I have whole passages memorized.  If I had to pick an author that has influenced me more than any other, I'd have to say it's Mr. Herriot, with James Clavell and perhaps James Michener bringing up the rear.  Herriot's style, pacing, and characterization feel very natural to me, so although my first novel takes place in the 14th century I have to acknowledge my debt to the Yorkshire vet.

I try to read books that will benefit my writing, on the "garbage in--garbage out" principle.  When I was writing Isabelle's Confession I often began by reading a few classic poems from a little pasteboard book that my grandmother had received as a Christmas gift from her sister in 1931.  I found that it got me in the right frame of mind to compose the kind of fiction I wanted.  I haven't had to do that with my current project, although I may try it if I get stuck.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Write?

Patient Husband once asked my why I write.  Is it because I love it?  I had to say no; writing is a slow, hard slog for me.  Stephen King says he typically cranks out 2 000 words a day.  I'm lucky if I can accomplish that in a week--when I'm not up to my eyeballs in schoolwork.

But the question remains: why write?  My hobby used to be refinishing old furniture.  I love to strip off old finishes, sand, and varnish wood, bringing it back to life and usefulness.  At some point I realized that I liked it because I got a lot of pleasure from the simple act of accomplishing something concrete.  Teaching is a fairly emphemeral task, and some days can be an exercise in frustration.  I often compare it to tossing pebbles into a pond; it's difficult to see results beyond the ripples you've created, so it's nice to be able to point to something and say, "I did that."

Writing has taken the place of furniture refinishing.  I like researching and gathering notes, learning about my chosen time period, and then working out what the characters do and say.  Sketching out a scene, then polishing the draft gives me a similar feeling of accomplishment, and learning something new is fun as well.  I have yet to realize the thrill that comes with publication, but I look forward to the day when I can point to a book on a shelf and say, "I wrote that."

Monday, April 22, 2013

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you might find you get what you need." Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed (heck, I got a D in Geometry in back in high school because I was lousy at proofs) but one thing I do have going for me is  a vast store of perseverence.  Before I started working on Isabelle's Confession, for example, I finished my Ph.D. thesis while caring for our newborn daughter.  Some days I didn't get much done at all, but I just kept plugging away, and eventually I did get my degree and graduate.

As an aspiring writer I think it's easy to be led astray by those who profess to know much more than we do about the craft.  There are classes, conferences, webinars, books, podcasts, and websites galore, all promising to give you exactly what you need to know to write the Great American Novel, the Next Great Play, or The Perfect Screenplay.  There's so much stuff that you can easily spend all your time learning about writing while not actually putting pen or pixels to paper.  It's easy to doubt your own abilities while running around in search of more and better advice.  As I said in my first post, I'm definitely an Old School girl.  I never went to the Web for advice on writing.  I came across Stephen King's book On Writing in a second-hand bookshop in 2001 or 2002, before I even started writing, and I bought it because I like memoirs.  The second half of the book wherein he describes what he thinks are important skills for a writer to have I skimmed over.  It wasn't until I actually began working on my novel that I went back to it for guidance, and it was all I ever used outside of my own abilities as a researcher and an editor that I had honed in grad school.

Ultimately, I think it's important to trust in your own abilities and imagination.  Nobody read my work until I was done with it (one of Stephen's tips), which meant I had to be in it for the long haul.  It's hard to be thoughtful and purposeful these days with so much clamoring for our attention, which is why patience and perseverence really matter in writing.  With your head down and your nose to the grindstone you'll eventually finish, and then you can go looking for an audience.  Not that the road to publication is easy or short...

Friday, April 12, 2013

In Praise of Paper.

I can't compose at the keyboard.  I admire anyone who can, but I've found that if I try I either sit staring at the cursor blinking at me or I change one word for another that I've already rejected over and over again.  For whatever reason, I do much better when I have paper and pen in hand.  Heck, even this blog post started as notes scribbled in one of my many spiral pads.

In my notebooks I feel free to write whatever and however it occurs to me.  Sometimes, when the synapses are firing nicely, the words tumble out in nearly final form, requiring only a bit of polish before adding them to the rest of the work.  Sometimes I write the scene as it appears to me, sketched out in a fairly omniscient third person perspective (so far both novels are written in first person).  And sometimes I talk to myself, making suggestions, proposing scenes, making corrections, and notes for further research.

I suppose I could do all of this electronically.  I've used the review function in Word with my students, but if I had to wait for a computer to boot up every time a snippet of dialogue popped into my head in the middle of the night I'd forget what I wanted to say and it would be lost.

Looking at my notebooks, it's easy to see that writing is a process as our English teachers told us.  There are additions, subtractions, word changes, rewrites of all sorts.  I use highlighters to indicate which word or phrase I ultimately decide to use.  When it's as perfect as I can make it, I finally type it into my computer, where I print out the file from time to time and edit it again. 

I think the moral of the story is, use what works for you.  Respect your process, no matter how hopelessly archaic it may seem to anyone else.  After all, people have been writing on papyrus, parchment, and paper far longer than they have in pixels.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"There's no time for us..." Queen

A publishing consultant once told me that only five percent of all writers make a living from their work.  That means the vast majority of all writers, aspiring or already published, need a day job to keep a roof over their head and their bellies full.  This leads to one of the great conflicts in a writer's life: trying to find time to work.

When I began writing Isabelle's Confession I was working as a substitute teacher, which meant I had time to write nearly every day, but when I went back to teaching full-time lesson plans, grading, and my students' needs had to come first.  Writing got pushed to the end of a very long "to-do" list, which meant that sometimes weeks would pass before I could find time to get serious work done.  I also had to develop some strategies to help keep my writing in the forefront.  I began carrying little spiral notebooks in my purse, in my jacket, and in my jogging coat.  I exercise in the morning before going to work, which means most of the year it's dark.  With nothing much to see by streetlight, I find I can focus on a scene and think about where it needs to go without distraction and I can put it in my notebook, which I then transfer to my main notebook to be incorporated into the book.  I also got a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones to help me focus on my writing when Patient Husband is home.  Reading over what I've already read usually helps me pick up the thread of what I was working on and allows me to move the story along, as does research, although I have to be careful not to get lost in the stacks of research for its own sake.  I also had to learn not to get overly frustrated by my often glacial writing pace.  The muse speaks when she's ready, and if you're doing all you can to create a comfortable place for her you just can't force things.  Thinking about your writing is work, as is editing, and both constitute progress as much as new words on the page do.  And, ultimately, as Stephen King said in his book On Writing:  Life isn't a support-system for art.  It's the other way around.