writing

The scrapping of a novel (and its rebirth)

Last you heard from me, I was coming back to work from my maternity leave, and expressing small (okay, medium) amounts of terror at the thought that it was also time to kick my creative life back into gear.

My creative life had been in neutral for pretty much a year. Plus, with another grey Chicago winter upon us, for the good of my soul (and my family’s happiness, so much of which is tied into my own happiness), I need to be working on something. A ridiculous short story? Sure. An unpublishable novel? Sure. A collection of poems about minestrone? Whatever. As long as I’m excited about the project and committed to seeing it through, I’ll do anything.

How about a project about me, Mom?

Uh . . . all I got is this:

You are so roly

your rolls bedazzle me, son

let me squeeze them now.

(No, it doesn’t rhyme, my son)

(It’s called haiku)

Anyway, there’s something about having gumbo bubbling around in your creative cauldron that just makes it harder to be sad/down/depressed/eating chocolates and popcorn because you’re not sure what else to do. Whether or not the gumbo is edible at the end–well, that’s not exactly the point.

The point is the process.

Everyone says so.

I say so.

Anyway! I blogged about choosing among my bajillion ideas and committing to a project, and I’m back to report that I HAVE COMMITTED.

And the project I picked makes a lot of sense. It’s a project I wrote and revised last year. Then it sat on the computer. I thought about querying it, but then I didn’t. I think part of me realized it wasn’t ripe (good job, Jenna’s Subconscious). When I opened up the document recently, I cataloged its problems. Unlikable heroine (again! Ugh). Slow pacing. Too much gratuitous description. Way too many scenes that didn’t further the plot. A cool set-up with a less-than-cool pay-off. Etcetera, etcetera. The thought of fixing it (mangling it and then trying to restitch it all back together) was too much (not to mention I didn’t want to create a Frankennovel), so there was only one solution:

I scrapped the novel, gathered its ashes into a small, sooty pile, and will henceforth try to birth a phoenix kind of a thing.

In other words, same characters, same story, but new writing. New pacing. New scenes, new dialogue, new structure, new new new.

The benefits of this are clear–I know the characters pretty well. After all, I’ve written a novel about them before, albeit a crappy one. I know the story and happen to love it, too. But there’s enough mystery in how I’m going to pull it off in this new and better-paced, page-turning way that I’m feeling that familiar exhilaration/fear.

Last night I was typing away and I felt a wonderful surge in my chest.

“I can do this!” I said.

Five minutes later,

“I don’t think I can pull it off,” I said.

Then I remembered–this is what it’s like to write a book. A wave of confidence followed by a wave of fear. You’re holding puzzle pieces but you don’t see how they’re going to fit together. You’re not even sure, in fact, that all the pieces are from the correct puzzle.

Sometimes the words flow. The scenes make sense. You’re on a roll. And, other times, like the Grinch, you sit there until your puzzler is sore, without typing a word, and you think I’m never getting out of this one. Then, in the middle of a hot shower as you’re singing Rudolph the Reindeer in harmony with an imaginary Fred Astaire, suddenly the solution comes to you and you rush out only mostly rinsed because you’d better write it down before it all evaporates.

The up-and-down of confidence and fear–it’s been so long since I’ve felt it.

And it’s good.

It’s the process.

It’s what I’ve been wanting. Waiting for. Longing for.

Hallelujah! Bring on the challenge.

writing

Commitment problems

I admit it.  I have commitment problems.

When I started writing in 2014, I followed my spark of inspiration, wrote a novel in what felt like a fit of passion, queried, revised, revised again, queried again. Then I got another idea . . . and did it all again. And again. I was committed to each of those three ideas. Passionately committed. You couldn’t have paid me to walk away from them.

Enter November 2016, when I stalled out with a potential fourth novel.

This sudden creative wall coincided with the time I got pregnant with our new addition, Isaac, now suddenly 3 months old (whoa).

(culprit for creativity low pictured below)

Isaac

(hello cutie)

It’s a verifiable fact–for me–that when pregnant and nursing, I slump creatively. (Yep, this ain’t my first time on the baby-making rodeo circuit)

I truly believe that this is because my creativity is redirected to creating a human, and subsequent to birth, creating nourishment for said human.

It goes something like this:

My brain: “Oooh, let’s write that scene where the heroine decides to kill her brother-in-law.”

My body: “NOOOOPE! Making fingernails today. Sorry. Ten fingernails in production.”

Brain: “Oh, okay. I guess I’ll eat this gigantic pile of French fries instead.”

Body: “Now we’re talking.”

Brain: “Maybe I can write that scene later . . .”

Body: “Hey. Less talking more eating.”

Brain: ”    ”

Body: *munch*

So for the past year, when it comes to writing, I’ve been dithering. Philandering. Writing a chapter of this, a page of that. A poem here, a poem there. A short story that makes no sense. Another one that could be great, except a few pages in I cruelly abandoned it. I’ve probably written the first five pages of about a dozen projects over the past year.

However, now I’m back at work. Maternity leave is over. Life is resuming. Can’t just sit on the couch eating bonbons and crumpets anymore, dangit (because that’s of course what happens during maternity leave).

So. Time to commit.

And, just like the stereotypical bachelor who’s freaking out at the idea of committing to his love interest, I am FREAKING OUT at the idea of committing to one of my many, many, manymanymany ideas. I have to do it. I have to walk down the dang aisle, put the ringonit, and before a host of witnesses I must say: I WILL FINISH THIS PROJECT. Come riches, poverty, sickness health, with or without that zit on my chin that is distracting as all get-out, come sleep or no sleep, in rainsnowsunshine (wait, that’s the mailman), but you get the idea, I WILL FINISH THIS PROJECT.

Now . . . which one?

Publishing · Querying · writing

Don’t believe the dream

“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” sings Cinderella in the Disney movie, “when you’re fast asleep … No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

Okay, I’m not hating on Cinderella here (there’s too much to love about the character of Gus-Gus). Also, the scene where her stepsisters rip her homemade ball gown apart makes me cry to this day.

And yes, I know it’s a fairy tale. But seriously, the lines of that song always gall me.

“Will come true?”

Really?

I wish that believing made things come true. But it doesn’t. All it takes is a little dose of life to teach you that. I mean, there are just so many things that are out of our control. Like meeting the right romantic partner at that perfect moment, preferably when you’re a glowing 21-year-old, un-jaded, free of entanglements and–why not–wearing that perfect dress that makes us look just-so (and, ehem, having someone capture the moment on Instagram, why not). Or having a baby when you envisioned–easily and quickly and at that perfect moment in your career. Or getting that ‘dream job’ that satisfies you on the level of life-meaning and also doesn’t stress you out too much.

Yeah, no. Life just doesn’t deliver dreams on a platter like that. It forces us to leave some dreams aside. And this can hurt, if they’ve really grown into our hearts–think un-anesthetized surgery. I’m talking serious pain. Unfulfilled dreams force us to re-imagine our lives. Bend, and then bend again, and hopefully not break in the process. And then, sometimes, break.

“That’s a grim view of the world,” I can hear some of you saying.

But I don’t believe it is. Hear me out here.

I’ve had the chance this year to do some thinking about the phrase ‘hopes and dreams.’ Those two words are so often paired together, almost as if they were synonymous.

Lightbulb moment for me: they are not.

To me, realizing the difference between the two has been an important part of my emotional health. After being in the doldrums in the early months of 2017, one of my realizations (along with the fact that grey skies seriously, truly affect my state of mind and that I needed to order a full-spectrum lamp STAT) has been: I’ve been hoping in the wrong things. Because I’ve conflated hopes and dreams when they should remain friendly but separate.

Misplaced hope veers you off-course. It takes you down a road that doesn’t deliver.

Let’s back up. So … what is hope?

Hope, for me, is the bright light that I’m walking towards. It’s the vision of the thing I want that propels and motivates me to keep walking every day, to keep working, to let disappointments roll over me and then to keep on swimming. Hope is a direction, a goal, that glimmer of a future prize that makes you happy to be alive and satisfied that you’re working towards something worthwhile. Hope is about what you value–that thing about which you can say, “I want to invest my life and energy and time {or large chunks of it} in THIS.”

Hope is stronger when it doesn’t have a timeline.

Hope births resilience.

Hope is your pair of shoes for the long haul.

Hope is stronger when it’s about a personal journey rather than that very specific (and frequently time-bound) goal that requires the elusive “luck” ingredient. In other words, hoping to become a better writer will have more satisfying results than hoping to make it as big as J. K. Rowling.

And dreams–what are they? To me, dreams are shiny fantasies. They can look suspiciously like hope–that pot-of-gold glimmer that makes you get out of bed and run hard after it until you fall into bed exhausted. But unlike the line in Cinderella, “the dreams that you wish will come true,” so frequently our dreams don’t.

Dreams I’ve had that will no longer happen:

-Being a curvaceous bombshell like Marilyn. Sorry, thirty-three-year-old body, it ain’t in the cards.

-Becoming a world-famous actress. Yep, that dream died the day I stepped on stage at twelve years old, completely fumbled my lines and realized that I hated every part of acting and seriously sucked at it.

-Winning the lottery. (Of course, I’d have to actually play to win.)

See how dreams aren’t exactly dependable, solid-ground type things?

Dreams can be fun. I’m not dissing on dreams. And as long as it’s not unhealthy for you on an emotional level, go nuts in your imagination every now and then. Imagine yourself on the red carpet, or eating sushi on a yacht,  or rocking out on stage with guitar skills that rival Jimi Hendrix’s, or whatever.

Have dreams–but know that they can and will die. Not always. But frequently.

Maybe there’s a reason why the word ‘shattered’ often gets paired with ‘dreams.’ Shattered dreams. Only fragile things shatter.

Hope is not so fragile. Or rather, we should aim to strengthen it so that it can’t shatter as easily as a dream.

When it comes to hope, I find that I’ve got to divorce it from my dreams. For my sanity and ability to run the long race, my hope has to stay rooted in reality–in things I can actually accomplish. Things that aren’t stars in the sky, but earth underfoot. When hope gets tangled into dreams, the disappointments, the rejection, the delays–all that stuff–can become damaging and leave you limping along the road like a wounded animal (read: me earlier this year).

Dream big. But be careful where you place your hope. It requires special care and special safeguards, because it’s the thing that keeps you going.

From my perspective as a writer?

My dream: to get a literary agent in the next few months, followed by a traditional publishing deal within the year, followed by many other book deals in years to come, until I’m making enough to support my family by writing.

My hope: to become a better writer. To grow in the craft of storytelling. To get my work out there some day (which, ultimately, I can decide to do via self-publishing). And to make a little money off of my writing (which I can also do, because my sister will totally by a 99 cent Kindle copy of anything I put out there, so there’s a buck in the bank!–thanks, Erica). And I’m not putting a timeline on any of this, because I think timelines can be real hope-killers.

See the difference?

And what about my ultimate hope?

Well, anyone who’s been following me for a while knows about that.

And I encourage everyone to find that solid ground upon which to plant their hope.

Only firmly planted hope can get us through a life that will include delayed, shrunken or just plain shattered dreams. And this isn’t a sad or cynical view of life. It’s hopeful. We were made to last. We were made to weather. We were made to persevere.

Dreams don’t define you; they come and go. But your hope will define you. It has the power to make you road-weary or road-worthy. So invest wisely.

So, friends. Allow me a battle cry:

Find your hope, plant your flag in it, and march on.

writing

Pausing is not quitting

I read a book recently. I couldn’t for the life of me quote the exact line, but the gist was this:

There’s a difference between pausing and quitting.

They can look the same at first: you start a task. It gets really hard. You don’t feel like you can do it. Strength spent, you stop.

If you never come back, if that’s the end of it, you quit.

But if you come back the next day, or the next month, or the next year, and do it again, you just paused.

Last fall, I started a fantasy project. About 40k words in, I got completely stuck. The story ran out of steam.

Okay, okay, it’s fine, don’t panic, I told myself. I reasoned that not all my drafts had to come together in a month (like my previous three projects had), and that I was just facing an exciting new challenge.

In subsequent weeks, I hunkered down and did what I knew how to do: I plotted. I mapped out a progression of events with multi-colored sticky notes on a massive section of my bedroom wall. I went back and rewrote a main motivation and followed its trail all the way through, hoping the story would surge ahead (it didn’t). I brainstormed. I scrapped, I rewrote. I read blog posts about how to deal with story blockages and found lots of great advice. I took long hot showers, a place where plot tangles have traditionally come unwound.

Still, the novel was stuck.

Discipline, I told myself. Discipline is the secret. This is where the rubber hits the road. You can’t always feel high when you write. You have to learn to write from a low place too. If you want to make a career out of this, you need to learn to butt-in-chair, push-push-push, take the muse by the roots of her hair and yank her back into her place.

It didn’t work.

In my non-writing life, I can be quite disciplined (or maybe I should say stubborn). I’m the kind of person who is sometimes a little too determined to succeed. This streak kept me at a job for three years that I should have quit as soon as I realized that my boss was a narcissistic megalomaniac and most certainly a psychopath. But no–I had to succeed. I stuck it out, through emotional abuse and tirades and general misery.

I wish I’d clung less to my misguided vision of success–but that’s another story for another time. The point here is, I can be dang stubborn. I can stick to things through difficulties, tears, and beyond. Certainly I should be able to apply my fingers to a keyboard and bang out a dang novel.

I couldn’t.

Why am I failing at writing? I asked myself over and over.

But see, already I’d made a big mistake: equating stopping with failing.

Stopping doesn’t have to be a failure. Stopping can be pausing. Stopping can be natural, and healthy, and sometimes even necessary.

What I saw as a massive creative failure was just a big old pause button.

By the way, the pause button on that particular project is still deeply pressed. I sense it’s not done forever, that it would be nice to take up in the future and see if I can make something of it (I really do love the setting and the main character) but I’m not planning on picking it up for at least another year.

As the sun comes back, my seasonal sadness is lifting, and life seems all-around a happier place than it did in bleak January, I’m working on a new project birthed from an old idea in a voice completely different than anything else I’ve written.

Will I see it through?

I don’t know. We’ll see. But I certainly don’t plan on freaking out at each pause like I did with the last project.

Writing friends, there’s something to be said for butt-in-chair discipline.

BUT. Don’t recriminate yourself for pausing either.

Pausing is a necessary rhythm in the long race of life. Without pauses and rests and breaks, you will burn out.

The creative side of me, I’ve been learning, has surges and lulls that don’t seem to be entirely in my control. So my goal for this year: learning to work with them. Learning to pause without letting my self-doubt fill my head with shouts of “quitter!”

I’m not a quitter.

 

I’m a pauser.

And I think that will enable me to run longer and get further in the end.

writing

Why I write

For my brand-spanking new writer’s website, I thought I’d go down to the roots of the roots so to speak.

Why the heck do I write?

I could say, it’s meaningful. Stories have shaped how I see the world. Stories teach empathy. What more natural way than a beautifully written story to help a reader put herself in someone else’s shoes? And if we can’t put on other shoes, we become cold, hard people who judge others. Reading has taught me to see from different eyes. To suspend judgment. To strive to understand. So: I write.

I could say, because it’s fun. And it is, a lot of the time. There’s nothing (nothing, I say!) like the rush of a story that feels like it’s taken you over. Those are beautiful, powerful moments–when your fingers become divine conduits and it feels like the words are writing themselves. However, there are many parts of writing that aren’t fun. Namely, writing on uninspired days. Opening up that blank document–or worse, that document that’s just a plain old mess and has gotten completely lost in the maze of itself–and realizing that you have no idea what the crap to do with it.

I could say, because one day I realized life was too hard and I needed to escape my world, so I opened up a Word document and began to write what would become my first novel.

I could say, because a stretch of time came when I was mourning the breaking up of my band (my wonderful bandmates moved away–still makes me weepy to think about) and the creative lull (read: desert) that came after, and writing was something I could do by myself, for free, and with no planning necessary.

And all of these are true–in part.

But ultimately, none of them explain it all the way. I have to say, deep down, I don’t know why I write.

Lyrics from an old song about a boy who liked to boogie-woogie come to mind:

“Let that boy boogie-woogie. Because it’s in him, and it’s got to come out.”

Writing is in me. And it’s got to come out.