I need to write about writing.
That’s what I've been telling myself for the past several weeks as my website blog stagnates.
But what writing wisdom could I possibly offer? The internet is smothered in writing wisdom. It is everywhere because, well, writers write. It’s not like horseshoers or knitters or firemen. You could write about those things on a blog and fling it out on the internet and there would probably be a great need and a great audience to find. (Not that horseshoers or knitters or fireman don’t write—some probably do, it’s just that all writers write.)
I tossed ideas around in my head all week. What could I write about that isn’t already being written in five thousand gazillion other ways by writers far more successful than I? What unique writing wisdom do I have to share?
How about How Starting a New Group on Facebook Allows You to Waste Time Legitimately’? (You’re building your platform!)
Or, The Millions of Ways You Can Wander twitter Aimlessly and Still be Working’? (again, platform, baby!)
Or, The Ten Best Teas to Write With’? (Most writers drink tea. Okay, nevermind, most writers drink coffee, but my kind of writer drinks tea. There that’ll set off a controversy! Bring on the comments!)
Or, Search and Rescue of Forgotten Documents? (this wouldn’t be a technical treatment of the subject, it would be more about interpreting the weird titles you gave your work ten years ago)
Or, Writing for Your Dog? (something completely new!)
Or, What it Says About You as a Writer if You Answer Instantly When Someone Comments on Your Facebook Post? (For some reason unknown to me, a little Facebook thought bubble pops up in the lower righthand of my screen every time someone comments on my posts on Facebook. Of course, I take that click bait!)
The possibilities are endless.
So, today I’m writing about nothing.
But you probably figured that out by now.
The reason I’m writing about nothing is that writing about nothing is still writing. It’s still exercising the writing muscles. And that’s what it usually comes down to. The writers who succeed are the writers who write. I know lots of very talented writers who don’t write. They think about writing. They plan to write. They say they are writing. But success really does come down to actually writing.
Talk later. I’ve got to get back to writing.
Summer is here and writing time is at a premium. Even so, I’m diving into a new story and loving every moment of it. I restarted/rewrote the first few chapters five times in different point of views and tenses trying to figure out which one was best and finally landed on the winner yesterday. Now, I can just write, write, write if I can find the time, time, time.
Girls’ Weekend is off and running and while I should be doing the real work of promoting the novel, I’m distracted by the new story. It’s like this illicit affair I’m carrying on that’s keeping me from paying attention to my spouse.
The gardens are overrun with weeds after the monsoon, I mean May, but even as I yank and toss weeds, snatches of dialogue float through my mind.
Dylan said, “Can I ask you something?”
“On whether it’s a good question.”
“How would you know unless I asked it?”
“I wouldn’t, but you would.”
He looked confused. She got that a lot. She stopped wiping the table, put her hands on her hips and peered over at him.
“Do you think it’s a good question?” she asked.
He was quiet for a moment, but he looked at her intently, as if he was trying to see if he recognized her or maybe, she thought, he was checking to see if she was crazy.
He nodded. “I think it might be a little borderline crazy, but you seem like the kind of person who could handle that.”
“Okay, shoot,” she said.
My current foster dog requires a minimum of 4 miles walk/run every day and as we truck down the road, twists and turns of my plot keep my mind so busy, neighbors pass by and I forget to wave or Gingersnap stops to pee and I drag her for a few feet before realizing why she isn’t following me.
The kids are all home now, so there is a daily negotiation over car rights, snack food, and the Netflix password that was mysteriously changed. I try to be present with them, even as my mind is drifting to the Cayman Islands where my characters have now landed.
The plane rolled to a bumpy, tilted landing. Kat watched the palm trees and ragged shacks rush past her window. If you’re going to be poor, living on the edge of a runway in paradise was probably a great place to do it.
As the plane taxied to its gate, she watched a dog running along the other side of the fence that separated a sad little neighborhood from the runway. He was sandy colored, with pointy ears. He barked and lunged at the plane, then sat down and wagged his tail as the plane passed – his job done. A heavyset woman in a tank top, kicked at him and then turned to wave at the plane before going back to hanging up laundry on a line. Kat lifted her hand to wave back and pressed her fingers against the cool glass. The woman scowled. Surely she couldn’t see Kat. The sun was so bright – a few shades brighter than back in Campbell. What am I doing here?
The planed slowed as it approached the terminal. Two men in tattered cargo shorts wearing bright orange gloves leaned against a fence smoking cigarettes and watched the plane maneuver itself into its parking spot. A little boy clung to the other side of the fence behind them about halfway up. One of the men banged the fence and he tumbled back to the ground. They laughed and ground out their cigarettes before ambling towards the plane.
Dylan was still sleeping, so Kat waited until everyone else was off the plane before nudging him awake.
“Huh?” said Dylan. He looked at her, surprised for a moment, but then she saw reality wash over him. “Shit,” he said.
“Precisely,” said Kat. “Now get your ass up. Everyone else is off the plane.”
My summer goal is to finish the first draft of this story – following it where it takes me. And while I’m excited about the strawberries that are nearly ripe, the beach vacation at the end of June, and the warmer weather for riding, I’m even more excited to see what happens on my laptop.
As a pantser (a writer who does not outline, rather follows a story wherever it leads), I meet many of my characters when they appear on the page.
I do know the main characters before I start, having spent perhaps months getting to know them before their adventures begin. I interview them and write dozens of pages filled with their answers, my observations, sudden inspirations (he’s obsessed with peanut butter, she always speaks with full words instead of contractions).
I imagine them while running, driving, cleaning, even having conversations with strangers. Sometimes I forget what I’m doing and wind up arriving at the school or ball field having driven there on autopilot instead of the store or appointment I set off to visit.
And then I begin a story with those characters by my side, ready to lead me in.
But the other characters – many times the ones who carry the story and make it interesting, those characters surprise me when they turn up on the page.
At a recent bookclub gathering I attended, one of the members said, “Oh that Leroy – I hated him. He was scary!”
I said, “Me, too! Whenever he turned up in a scene I got really nervous.”
They all looked at me in surprise as I explained I had no idea who he was until he walked onto the page.
“But where did he come from?”
I thought about it and told them I thought he was a blend of a couple awful men I met at a trailer park where I went to pick up an underprivileged teen I was mentoring when I was a young adult. Each week when I arrived in my little pickup truck with the vinyl seats, no air conditioning, and a radio propped up on the dashboard, to whisk my charge off to the library to study or my apartment to cook a meal, I had nervous conversations with them as they smoked their cigarettes and regarded me suspiciously.
Returning my charge there in the dark, I was always anxious when the trailer door opened and her step-father grumbled that we were late. He scared me, but she had to live with him. I wondered and worried about her for years.
Twenty years later that man who frightened me so, still frightens me, but I controlled him on my page.
Another character who turned up as I wrote I’m Not Her was Trevor, a precocious first grader. Carin opened Leann’s door, and there he was! I was as surprised as she, and quickly fell in love with him, too.
Trevor is the innocent kid I see being dragged along crying into the Wal-Mart or playing with the boxes on the shelves at the grocery store until his mom smacks his hand away. He is all the children who catch my attention when they wiggle in church, fuss standing in line at the post office, annoy their overwrought parents by their sheer curiosity and energy. “Kids are resilient,” I was told when I mentioned my concern for kids I witnessed in my work volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. They bring sunshine into dark lives on a daily basis. Reading The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, I was captivated by the character Holden Caulfield, but not because he was such a cynical oddball bucking the system, but because he revered children and wanted to protect them from the world he viewed as unworthy of them. That’s where Trevor came from. He is the kid I wanted to rescue.
I would guess that for most writers, characters come from their own experiences. My son, also a writer, has a t-shirt that says,
“Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel.”
I would contend that there is an inherent danger in befriending a writer for this very fact. We can’t help but write from what we know. It’s not deliberate. None of us set out to write a character based on someone we know- at least I don’t. But when a mind is freed to wander, you just never know who might turn up.
Recently, I’ve had the tremendous privilege of speaking with several book clubs about my novel, I’m Not Her.
I love chatting with people about the story. They are always surprised when at some point I reveal that when I started writing the book, I had no idea how it would end.
And then they are even more surprised when I tell them I was as shocked as they were when Leroy turned up.
After that, I’ll confess that I wasn’t even certain what the story was about when I started. I just turned it loose and followed where it led.
Wait! That’s it? You didn’t have it all worked out ahead of time?
I feel like I’m letting them down as a writer.
I explain that I started with a character and a simple premise – What if a skinny, privileged young woman ended up in the body of an obese, impoverished young woman? What would happen?
With my forthcoming novel, Girls’ Weekend (May 3, 2016!), I started with- What if three overwhelmed moms went away for a girls’ weekend and decided not to go back? How would that work out? How would their families deal with it? What would they do?
No outline. No planned plot. Certainly, no ending in mind. I feel guilty when I explain this. I’m an author – it really should sound way more organized.
Truth is, I’m a pantser.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it has nothing to do with pulling down the sloppy sweatpants of an unsuspecting friend in the locker room. A pantser is a writer who writes by the seat of her pants, pulling stories from her mind without a net. No outline, no long thought-through plan. For me, it means tapping into an internal muse and listening to the story.
The flip side of this is a plotter. This is a writer who follows a pre-thought-through outline. I wish I were this type of writer. It’s a more efficient process and a very successful one for many big-time writers. They most likely know they have a best-seller on their hands before they write a single word.
Me? I don’t know if I even have a cohesive story until I’ve spent several weeks typing away – flip flopping between being certain I’m the next Tolstoy and flinging myself on the floor in disgust because I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. I can do this multiple times in the span of an hour.
As the words pile up and I know the end is near, I become anxious. How will this end? I find it hard to focus on the rest of my life, always distracted by the laptop in the corner. And when it ends – such relief, even if it was certainly not where I thought it was going.
Writing that first draft is the best part of the whole process! It’s like watching a movie. I never know what’s going to happen. It’s crazy-fun and puts me on a mental high that resonates through my days.
But the months of editing that follow – that’s a grind. That’s not fun at all. Tearing apart something that spun itself out of my heart seemingly of its own free will is not easy. Not easy at all.
Welcome to my life this month. Sigh. I’ll get through it, in fact, the end feels near.
Meanwhile, a new story is brewing. I catch glimpses of characters and hints of their predicament almost daily now. I can hardly wait.
I used to hate twitter. I complained about twitter on this very blog as recently as a few months ago. I resisted twitter for too long and now I couldn’t really tell you why.
Actually, I could.
I resisted twitter because it seemed so anonymous. It was too focused on quantity, not quality. When I surfed my feed it seemed filled with an awful lot of blather and retweets of the same blather. All those hashtags of gobbledygook made no sense. #I'mtoogoodfortwitter
I would still maintain that is the case, but I’ve discovered how to make my own twitter experience more substantial. #buildabettertwitter
I’m going for a quality twitter that is full of relationships and real people who could be and might be- friends. #realtwitterfriends
It is taking some intentional efforts and not a little time (but I try to do it mostly while walking on my treadmill desk so I don’t feel too guilty).
Instead of following anyone and everyone willy-nilly, as seems to be the strategy of many. I’m being picky. I’m following people who seem like people I’d enjoy sitting down with for a cup of tea or a glass of wine. (Except the dogs that I’m following, I don’t like dogs who wine. Badabumpbump. There seem to be an inordinate number of dogs with their own twitter feeds). #bepickyandfollowdogs
This takes time. I have to read bios. If I like the bios, I have to visit the twitter page. And read it. And maybe click a link and read that. #Ifollowcoolbiosandthatrhymes
Some people are easy. I can simply read their bio and know I like them – they mention dogs or horses, writing, my politics (notice I’m not mentioning the color of those politics), wine, annoying children, or something bizarre, like one woman talked about her affinity for mashed potatoes. Those people, I automatically follow. #kindredspiritsandmashedpotatolovers
Others, might pique my interest, but have too many hashtags or braggy stuff in their bios. I don’t want to follow people who are all about numbers or contests or free stuff or only pushing their product. Still, I give them the chance and check out their feed. #nojudgmentuntilnecessary
My process is getting faster as I’m learning to assess a twitter page more quickly:
Naked people? Nope, won't follow that. #nonakedpeopleonmyfeedkidscouldbewatching
Too pushy or judgmental with the politics? I’ll pass. #noobnoxiouspeopleormeanpeople
No original content- only retweets? Not for me. #nolazytweetersbeoriginal
I love the people who post their own pictures and thoughts. I love funny people, but I love sincere people more. #lovesincerityandrealpeople
When anyone follows me or follows me back, I always message them. I look for a connection to mention or a post I liked. I try to find some way to put some substance to our connection. Sometimes this goes, unmentioned, but most people message me back. Sometimes we start chatting. Sometimes we become friends. #FRIENDS!
I’m going to be one of the guest hosts for a Facebook Book launch party next week for another author I met through twitter. #TEONJAN19 (that’s the actual hashtag for the event! But you can sign up HERE to join me on Monday and win free stuff)
Another new friend on twitter, who is a lawyer, agreed to read the court scenes in my YA manuscript to be sure I got it right. #newcontactsareawesomebenefit
I’ve chatted with friends all over the world. I’m even considering putting up a map in my office and placing pins in the spots spots where I’ve made twitter connections. It would fill up fast. I’m friends with a third grade class in Kansas, folks in countries I've never even heard of, a bunch of people in Oz, and several neighbors who live right down the road. Maybe someday I’ll take a twitter road trip and meet some of these people! #twitterroadtriptomeetmytwerps
I suppose twitter is a chameleon. It’s whatever you want it to be. If you just want to amass numbers and impress the world (or an agent/editor/publisher), you can do that. You can even outsource it. There’s a gazillion businesses out there who will do it for you. #buyyourownfollowingifyouwant
But if you want to learn something, meet interesting people, make friends, network with cool people, and explore the world, you can do that, too. I’m reformed. I love twitter. #Ihearttwitter
I’m only beginning to think of myself as a writer.
I’ve always written – for work, for fun, for my sanity. But up until now – when total strangers review my writing and pronounce it good – do I feel almost like a real writer. (I still worry that someone will find me out and expose the fact that I’m really an average, annoying mom-type who has way too many animals and drinks way too much wine.)
Plus, I have this amateurish habit of starting sentences with a conjunction, know frighteningly little about grammar (I couldn’t even tell you what a predicate is), and took only two English classes in college (the two that were required).
Yet, (see?) here I am expecting people to pay money for my writing. Crazy.
Still, I have to wonder if everyone doesn’t feel this way. Masked insecurity seems to be a common human trait. Very few of us feel “good enough.” And the ones that do tend to come off very Donald Trumpish.
Where am I going with this little essay?
Good question. If I was a real writer, I would know. But since I’m only a pretend writer, I’ll just say that right now, in my life, I feel incredibly blessed. And grateful. And I promise to stop using so many conjunctions to start sentences. Maybe.