Sparked by Words

Archive for September, 2014

The Long and Winding Road

I digress. It’s how I write, digressing as my interests take me. Characters slog knee deep through conversations, forging paths in unknown territories. Conflicts erupt like spores from the abrasion of desire and incident. Plots seep to the surface of disparate activities. I wrangle all these ragged bits into a loose framework of narrative. Nothing fits perfectly at the beginning stages but I’ll sand the edges later and make them fit the story development.tuscan-roads-view-winding-rolling-hills-tuscany-near-monticchiello-30916846[1]

I’ve written three books in twelve years but writing is only part of my life, as it is for most of us. I’ve also worked nine jobs, assisted my husband through several serious injuries and surgeries, witnessed as both sons married and welcomed two daughters-in-law, cheered the birth of three grandchildren, buried my father, and am present in my mother’s life as much as possible. Writing, my passion and my aspiration, is carved out of time designated for other more “responsible” tasks, but it can’t be detoured for long. I have to write the way I have to eat and pay taxes.

My discombobulated approach is conducive to production because I never face the meltdown of writer’s block. If the chapter I’m currently writing halts for any reason, I pick up another section and work on that for a while. Eventually, I figure out how to get back to the earlier stalemate and complete it. If I’m not a model of efficiency, I am at least an example of diligence.

Despite my entrenched chaos, I’ve employed a different organizational strategy for each book. Motivated by an unjust incident I couldn’t change, I’d decided to change me, and that meant writing a first novel. I wrote 20 pages in two weeks, 60 in less than two months. I scrounged writing time by staying up until early in the morning, letting the housework go (the house still stands,) and dining on fresh salads added to leftovers and fast food. The first book was one long document on the computer with chapters indicated by titles wherever they showed up. It was also two distinct time periods separated by decades but out of order in the file. About 100 pages in, I wrote synopses of future chapters as well as the final chapter. A table of contents only loosely suggested where a particular chapter might exist. Other files contained historical information, interviews, descriptions of museum visits, all the support topics that knowing my subject required.

When I finished the book it was a tale that rambled as if I’d dropped 500 pages down a chute and picked them up in a jumble. Organizing it into the neatly woven story I’d intended required separating the two sections and putting them back in the correct order. Finding the individual segments became a plodding crawl through pages and pages with me often getting lost. Where was this part, did I repeat that section? Ramblin’ Rose here had built a labyrinth instead of a story, and I needed a way out to find the proper way in.

I wrote a summary of each chapter as it appeared in the long file, printed and tacked up the summaries on a wall in one continuous line. I repositioned them over and over until the chapter order made sense. I numbered them, went back to the computer, and pulled out the sections one by one, putting each into its correct placement in a new document. A few chapter bridges later the book finally appeared in a readable format. It had taken more than four years to get to this point and still wasn’t finalized.

When I began the second book, I realized how easy it would be to avoid confusion. I began with background information, biographies of characters, historical notes, interviews with people familiar with incidents in the story. The book itself started its life in organized fashion. Each chapter had its own file. The table of contents included a one-line summary of the main focus of each chapter. Finding a particular chapter was now a simple reference to the table. When I completed all the individual chapters, I began a new file and put them in, one by one, building a finished book in less than three years. It needs revision, but the format was easier to navigate.

The third novel has been the easiest. I began with what I usually disdain: an outline of sorts. This book has 25 chapters. That isn’t a negotiable proposition. In the summary file, each chapter has a title, a set of incidents, and list of participating characters. I composed the table of contents, a biography for each character, and historical notes, all completed before I began the actual story. I wrote the book in chapter order, a new endeavor for me. The formal structure didn’t prevent me from meandering within chapters, a method I find essential for my creativity to find its voice. Characters took center stage in certain chapters and energized the story, providing subplots, suspense, and dimension. In one year, I completed the third story and am now revising it.

Still, I’d rambled. One of the advantages of digressive writing is that it led me on unexpected journeys. Chapters took on a life as if they were independent of the overall story, looking in some cases like sequel, prequel, or another book. Some of those explorations proved interesting in their own right. One even led to a potential fourth book.

If asked how to begin a book, I would suggest some form of outline, a backdrop of orderly movement. It defines the story and keeps it within reasonable borders while still permitting the writer creative tangents. The only promise is to yourself, and the ultimate promise is to write the best and most engaging story you can wrest from your initial idea. I continue to digress. For me it’s a way into my deepest curiosity and it promotes my most original writing.


Getting it All Wrong to Make It Write, or, Responding Positively to Awful Critiques


I must apologize.

About 12 years ago I sat nervously on the hot seat of my first official writing critique session, having balanced on sword points for two weeks while my new-found group of reviewers read the first chapter of my book. Certainly they were about to skewer me because what else would they do to someone who dared enter the heady realm of Writer with no more credentials than a college degree in Creative Writing and years of doing everything but write? I deserved to be skewered, burned over hot coals, and served a la carte with freshly shaved horseradish.

I can’t even remember what those folks said about my first chapter. Can’t remember because though I tried to listen, I heard nothing. I sat through the crits and quaked, tried to smile but grimaced, to breathe evenly but choked. Should have listened better so I’d have something memorable to tell you, but I have nothing to show for that first critique except the edge of the chair imprinted on the backs of my thighs.

Since then I’ve learned a lot about critique groups, mostly by doing nearly everything wrong. I’ve been so arrogant that I actually thought I was qualified to tell someone else how to write. I mean, I’d read, lots. Didn’t that qualify me to tell other novice writers, many more veteran than myself, how to describe a character’s motives without a melodramatic voice, how to show and not tell? I’d read all those writers’ books and articles (now I read writers’ blogs,) dug up my old college notes (at least the ones that hadn’t molded so much they’d become unreadable,) sat back in my sofa and trawled through my memory to unearth the pearls of my college professors’ wisdom – even remembered a few pithy points. Talk about arrogant, cynical, smarmy, and self righteous. I have been way too insensitive to the feelings of others. (more…)