Blog Break

Ah . . . summer vacation, a time of lazy days sipping lemonade in a hammock with a good book . . . or not.  Maybe that’s what summer looks like for some people, but not this girl!

I just got back from Forensics Nationals, a super fun but not so relaxing week traveling with another coach and nine teenagers. Needless to say, sleep was somewhat elusive, and despite the best of intentions, I didn’t touch my blog.

Instead, I thought about my blog, a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion, that I am going to be taking a break from my regular two posts a week. I started this blog and enforced a Monday, Thursday posting schedule with myself so that I would write. No matter what, I would sit my ass down in a chair and try to write something that maybe someone, somewhere would read. It didn’t always happen, but it did more often than not.

Over the past year, I have learned a few things:

  1. I found that I liked it – it was really fun to write, to push myself to think of something to write about. I feel like I found my voice in some ways.
  2. People actually read what I have to say – that, to me, is amazing!
  3. Sharing my writing at first was incredibly scary, but I got over that.
  4. Holding myself to a schedule that forced me to write was important to building my skills and confidence, but even if I don’t write every single day, I discovered I can pick up where I left off. Almost every single “writer” book, says to write everyday at the same time. Perhaps in some sort of dream world that doesn’t include kids, a husband, work, coaching, etc. that might happen, but my writing life is much more fluid than that and that’s okay! I managed to blog and finish a novel using my own process.

With those lessons in mind, I’ve decided to take a blog break. I’ll be posting, well, when I feel like it! I have not decided if I will pick my regular schedule back up this fall or not. I think I’ll decide when school starts.

In the meantime, I will be: revising my novel so that maybe someday people will be able to read that, taking a class to keep my teaching credential up to date, hopefully launching a website for teen writers, and maybe fitting in a quilt or two this summer. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Draft #1 – Done!!

A few weeks ago, Nathon Bransford, a writer and blogger I follow, wrote a post asking the question “How long does it take you to finish a draft?”

My first gut reaction answer to that question was “F-O-R-E-V-E-R,” but sadly, I couldn’t figure out how to embed this little video clip into the comments on his blog. It’s from one of my all-time favorite movies ever, The Sandlot.

Then I read some of the comments people wrote in response to his question. Not one single person answered with “forever” – just me, slow writer extraordinaire! In fact, I could only read the first 30 comments or so as they were just a wee bit intimidating.

Some people actually counted how long it took them to write an entire novel in days. Days!! I count down the days until vacation starts, or the age of a newborn baby, NOT how long it takes me to write a novel. Most people were in the 3-6 month range which to me is still mind boggling.

I suppose if I wasn’t teaching full time, coaching, participating in my own children’s lives, and I don’t know, eating and sleeping occasionally, I might be able to do that, but at the current level of “busy” in my life, I cannot see ever writing a novel worth reading in days or weeks time, a blog post or two maybe, but not a novel.  I’m more of a months/years novel writing girl.

With that said, I am happy to announce that I finally finished a very rough first draft of my very first novel, and I did it . . . are you ready? . . . in  460-something days (or just over 15 months). I can check that little to-do off my bucket list!! I wrote a novel – even though right now its in the “shitty first draft” stage, I’m still checking it off! Happy dance!

It’s around 105,000 words.  I’m thinking quite a bit of it needs to be cut, but I think I’d rather cut and tighten the writing up than have to add something.

I have no idea how long revising, getting it to readers, revising again . . . and again will take, but I’m guessing I’ll be true to form and go for months . . . not days. And then someday . . . maybe people will actually read it!

Cool Tool to Organize your Writing

I’m the girl who would rather go into an Office Max or The Container Store than the shoe department at Nordstroms. I love any little doo-dads that might make my life a little easier. I like to be organized; I’m not a neat freak, just organized.

This past week, I discovered the mother of all organizational tools on the net. It works with ANY project I can possibly come up with. It’s called Trello and happily, it’s totally free. I don’t get anything for writing this rave review. I just thought I’d share its coolness. It’s designed for working on projects with teams in a business setting. I, however, have decided it is also suited to writing a novel!

Basically, you can set up giant organizational bulletin boards. Each board has any number of lists. Then, each list is made up of cards. I created a board on my novel in progress. One of my lists was be “Characters.” Then, I have a card for each character in the story. The cool thing is that I can drag the cards and lists all over the place and easily re-arrange and visually see it. If you are a visual, big-picture person like me, this is helpful.

Check this out! It is not complete, but enough for me to see that this will work well!

 The cool part is that when you click on a card if “flips” over and you can add ALL KINDS of information to the back of it which means you can store all the information all in one place.  For my current WIP, I have character files in word documents, plot charts in some novel writing software I got, research tid-bits in an excel spreadsheet, research links online, and actual paper notes and sticky notes stuck all over the place. There is information everywhere, online and off.

I’m not sure if I’ll do it all for this novel since I’m about four scenes from being totally done with draft one, but my next ones will definitely be organized with Trello boards. Check it out. I’d like to hear if any writers out there figure out any other cool ways to use it.

I’m still a WIP

1) My blog – I finally updated the “about me” page and changed the name of my blog. This is the third name, but that’s okay. It needs to grow with me. It’s now titled, “Speaking of Words, Quilts, and Life.” In reviewing the collection of posts I’ve made,  most of my posts somehow address creativity in my life through writing, quilting, or even parenting, so I decided to expand the title. My goal for this blog is to write, consistently, twice and week for an audience, whoever they may be. So far, I feel good about what I’ve done here, and I’m also okay with not having a laser focus on my “content.” If I was trying to monetize this, that might be a problem, but I’m not, so I feel perfectly comfortable writing about my writing, my creative process, my quilting, or even my kids if I feel like it.

2) My novel – My goal for the year was to finish my first draft by April 15. I figured that is a national deadline of sorts, so I’d just join the party. Alas, I didn’t make it. My word count goal was 90,000 words, and I’m happy to say I have met and surpassed that goal by several thousand words, but I’m still not done telling the dang story!  I think I have about six scenes left to write which could be anywhere from 6000-10,000 more words.  At this point, I have the end written and 90% of the middle, I just have to get the two tied together. I’m almost there, and I hope to have a first, really rough draft done in two or three weeks. I’ve decided not to beat myself up over this as I’d rather start my revisions knowing that I have to cut rather than feeling like I have a lot I need to add.  For me, cutting and tightening up language during revision is much easier than writing more.

3) My quilts – this part of my life has become a big zero. I haven’t touched a needle or thread in several months, other than to sew a button on a pair of pants last week, but that doesn’t really count. I wanted to sew this past weekend but ended up cranking out several thousand words on my novel, so my fabric continued its lonely existence. Summer vacation is coming, however. I just need to keep that in mind!

4) WhereTeensWrite – Another of my goals this year is to start a website for teen writers.  I am happy to say that this is in the works.  It will be a community for teen writers to share their writing, get feedback, and take online creative writing classes. I’ve had several students “consulting” with me on it, and we’re all pretty excited though it probably won’t be live for a couple of months.  When it is, you will be able to find it at whereteenswrite.com.  That whole summer vacation thing really needs to happen, so I have some time to dedicate to this project too!

5) This is not a goal, just proof that I’m still a “work in progress.” I’ve been blogging for a year and I just discovered that WordPress has a Handy Blog Scheduling Feature! I’m sure this tool has been available since I started blogging, but somehow it escaped my notice, so I’ll share for those of you who haven’t found it yet either. If, like me, you are busy and sometimes aren’t on the computer to post on your regular schedule, there is a solution.  The next time you finish a post, click the “edit” button next to “Publish Immediately” above the big blue “publish” button.  You can then schedule it to go out whenever you want it to and WordPress does the rest. How nice are they? This has made my life as a woman who works full time, has two teens, and tries to post regularly much easier, and I wish I had discovered it a year ago. Oh well, live and learn.

Image is Royalty Free clipart from Microsoft Office.

If my characters keep dying, does that make me a serial killer?

A week ago it happened.  It was happily writing along.  One character was telling a story about a situation to another character.  I thought I knew what happened.  I was writing it after all, but then, when the character finished telling the story, he let it slip that not just one, but TWO other characters had died. I had absolutely no idea this was coming; he just spit it out.

I actually teared up as I was writing it, but I couldn’t change it.  It had to happen that way even though I didn’t realize it until it actually happened.  It worked with every part of the story and added a whole new level of emotional trauma for the main character who had been listening to this depressing saga.  While I hate drama and guilt in my life, they’re good for characters to deal with; it just makes everything a little bit, or even a lot, worse which ultimately makes a story more interesting.

When I started this whole process, I thought that maybe one character would die and only if they absolutely had to.  I don’t like death . . . at all, but apparently, murder is becoming my forte.  Several more of my characters have managed to, well . . . pass on, and I’m not even writing a thriller.  Nope. It’s historical fiction, and I’ve learned through research that staying alive in the 1840’s was hard work. In fact, I seriously question if I could have suvived the Oregon Trail and lived to the ripe old age of 42 which I am now. My great-great-great-grandmother survived it with seven children, the smallest of whom was just one, and I have the utmost respect for her and every other woman who managed the trip.

People, especially kids, died frequently on the trail.  Wagons ran over small children who fell or jumped from them as they bumped across the land, guns accidently went off, men drowned trying to get their cattle across rivers, cholera and other diseases took people by the thousands, and criminals were hung.  I think the worse part of all of this death would be getting back into the wagon and leaving the grave site of a loved one, especially a child, out there in the middle of nowhere.

In almost every diary I’ve read, there is mention of the number of graves sites passed. Many people would count the graves and keep a tally as to how many they saw in a day which I find a little odd.  I guess its a testament to not only the way of life, but also how boring the trip would be.  I whine if I can’t get a good radio station after twenty minutes of a road trip or if one of my electronic devices runs out of battery, so I can imagine that if I had to walk 2000+ miles over a six month period with no radio, tv, or (God forbid) iphone, I’d probably find whatever thing I could to entertain myself as well.

Apparently all this tragedy I have read about in my research sunk into my brain which decided (without consulting me) that a few more characters had to die to make this story real. Thankfully (or maybe not), my brain is a compost pile which takes all the random facts I discover, heats them up, turns them over, and then refurbishes them as parts of my story.  It would just be nice if my brain could prepare me for the tragedy it cooks up when I’m not paying attention. I’d like to have a little time to prepare.

Fear of Finishing

Last week I pulled out a bunch of fabric to start a new quilt.  It’s not that I don’t have enough current projects to work on, (there are at least eight).  It’s that I like starting projects.  There’s so much potential at the beginning of a project, whether it’s a new quilt or a new story.  In my mind, it will turn out amazingly well.  I can picture the beauty of the quilt, feel the flow of the words.

The fabric I pulled sat on my ironing board for about five days, right in front of a quilt that is stuck to my mini-design wall and has been either on the wall or shoved in a basket on the shelf for, well, about five years now.  Obviously, that project has not had my undivided attention.  It did at first, when I started and tackled it merely for the challenge.  This project entailed drawing a picture (I don’t draw), enlarging it at the print shop, tracing it all onto butcher paper, labeling each little piece, ironing it to the back of the fabric, and stitching it all back together again.  It was a long tedious process, one of those that you get halfway through, start drinking and then think “what the hell was I thinking?!?” We’ve all had them.

The first part looked like this:

The stars have TINY pieces!

This took FOREVER, so I bagged that plan, and went with this:

The pieces are slightly larger and easier to work with here.

The entire quilt is now done except for the hands.  I appliqued them on, decided they looked like lobster claws, and shoved the thing back into the basket for another year.

                                

Last summer, I got it out again and added some thread to try to add some shadows and fingernails to the hands.  It helped, but they still don’t look like I want them to look.  So I shoved it back in the basket.  It came out a few weeks ago.  Now, it’s on my wall, sitting right next to where I write.  Or, more accurately, where I haven’t been writing, but where I’ve been sitting, staring at the screen or the paper, trying to finish the last stretch of my novel.

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks thinking about “finishing.”  I have two projects that are two of the most difficult I’ve ever done: my hand quilt and my novel, and I’m struggling to finish them.  I’m learning that I have a hard time finishing hard projects. I start to doubt myself, decide it’s going to stink anyway, and start on something new and easier.  I realized that’s what I’d done this past week when  I pulled fabric for a new and easy quilt, one that I know will turn out, and also one that I know won’t challenge me at all.

I have never thought of myself as someone who avoids a challenge; I take them on all the time.  My hand quilt, my novel, even this blog are all challenges I’ve taken on.  However, somewhere along the way, I must have decided that it’s the finished project that is the most important element.  Intellectually, I know that is a fallacy.  The finished project is not the most important thing.  Really.  I learn something every time I work on the damn hand quilt as I do every time I sit down to write. It’s all about the journey . . . right?

Emotionally, I’ve decided my problem with finishing a difficult project is that it just might suck.  My hand quilt might look like lobsters trying to sew and my novel might serve better as kindling for the wood stove, but if I don’t finish, they’ll always have the potential to be perfect!  I’d love to say I’m mature enough to finish a hard project, accept the lessons of the journey, and move on, but I’m finding that the reality is, I’m not.  I’d clearly rather keep working on these projects indefinitely rather than face the fact that they might not live up to my expectations.  I might let myself and everyone else down.  That’s scary, and in a nutshell, I don’t like it.

However, to try to overcome this new little core belief I have discovered about myself, I’ve decided that I’m not starting any new projects until the hard ones are done.  I put all the fabric I pulled for the new easy quilt away.  I’ll try to make the lobster claws on my quilt magically transform into hands, and I’ll also create a fabulous resolution for my novel . . . hopefully.  In any case, they’ll be done, perfect or not, and I can start fresh.

I’m Free (from an outline that is)

I’m at the point in my story where I’m no longer glued to my outline.  I’ve got about 15,000 words left to go, and I’m finally FREE.  I know some of you are probably thinking that I’m almost done, so really, am I free from my outline?

The answer is clear to me. Yes. I am.

My story has gone in different directions than I had anticipated, but I like it better.  At first, deviating from my plan scared the crap out of me. Ack! I thought, I’m not following my outline, and I am NOT one of those people who are labeled a “pantser” in all of the articles I read about writing.  A pantser is defined as someone who writes by the seat of their pants, no outline, no plan, just a pen (or keyboard) and the muses.

That just would never happen in my life.  I need a plan.  Just about always.  I aspire to be a spontaneous free spirit, but ya, it’s not happening. I have to-do lists for my to-do lists.

I actually have to stop myself from asking my two teenage children the “what’s your plan for the day” question.  Let me preface this by saying that I am not asking them to do chores or anything else. I just want to know their plans so I can plan my day as their plans almost always require something of me, and they generally give me five minutes warning before they need me to drive them to town which, living out in the middle of nowhere, is a 50 minute round trip event.

A typical Saturday morning conversation at our house goes something like this:

“So, what’s your plan for the day?” I ask, perfectly innocently, after they have finally drug themselves from their beds at the alarmingly early hour of ten thirty or eleven am.

“OH. MY. GOD.  Seriously?” They respond and glare at me with sleep encrusted eyes. “Mom . . . is it necessary to always have a plan? Do I have to know right now? I JUST got out of bed! Can you at least let me pee first?” They look at me like I’ve lost my mind, and they lack any appreciation of the fact that I’ve already marked two items off my to-do list and outlined an entire scene.

Yes, I realize it’s a problem, and I’m working on it, so the fact that I am no longer glued to my outline is progress, exciting progress in my mind, even if it’s only for the last ten percent of the entire story. Maybe I’ll morph into a middle-aged free spirit after all.

If you’re an outliner, does writing without one strike fear into your heart like it does me? Or if you’re a pantser, does using an outline completely diminish your creativity?

Just curious.

Tying Up Loose Ends

Last week, I got inspired to create a denim soccer quilt for my daughter.  She made the varsity squad as a Freshman, and her team made the 3A state playoffs.  I had a pattern that I bought probably twelve years ago, and I had all the denim, so I decided I could whip it out by the end of the weekend.  The universe had another plan for me.  Instead of writing (which I wanted to do this weekend) I sewed and sewed and sewed.  I went through almost four bobbins of thread and the quilt is not even one quarter completed.  For those of you who don’t sew, four bobbins is A LOT of thread.

The pattern required me to cut out 180 of denim and fleece circles.  The palm of my hand is still bruised, a week later, from this delightful step.  I should have known then.  After cutting, I had to stitch together a denim circle and a fleece circle to make one piece.  Then, I sewed the circles together which made tons of “circle flaps” that have to be sewn down.  It’s taking me forever to stitch all these loose ends down.

As I was sitting at my machine yesterday grumbling that my daughter better appreciate this, I actually started to laugh.  Somehow, the universe has consistently managed to point out the parallels between writing and quilting.  I hit the same stages in the creative process over and over again.

I am also at the “lots of loose ends” point in my novel.  The working title of it is The Overlander’s Daughter.  There are two parallel stories, a contemporary one and a historical one.  Last weekend, I hit 60,000+ words, and I think I have about 15,000 words left to write on the contemporary section, though who knows.  That could change too.  I began my project with this great outline, and I started writing the story at the beginning.  For my first novel, this seemed like the logical place to start.

It didn’t take too long to discover that the outline bogged me down.  It provided good structure, but I found that I liked writing on whatever section struck me.  This means that my story took off in all
sorts of random directions, and now I have a lot of scenes for the main plot and sub plots, but I haven’t put them all together yet.  I am discovering that, like my quilt, this could be a nightmare to put together.

Last week, I printed all the scenes and tried to put them in some sort of order.  Oh my.  I have lots of loose ends to connect and stitch down.  One example is with the seasons.   The main character seems to flit through the year like some sort of time traveling fairy.  At one point it’s Christmas and in the next scene, she’s sitting outside enjoying the sunshine and looking at the garden.  Since the story does not take place in the Caribbean, this is a problem.

I will spend the next few weeks attempting to stitch it all together, both my giant denim nightmare and my pile of seemingly disparate scenes.

Writing Lessons from an Ugly Quilt

I’ve completed one quilt that is truly ugly, and that is because I decided to use only what I had on hand to make it. It’s hideous; there’s no other word for it. I used a focus fabric that had teals, rusty oranges, some purples, and pops of yellow. I actually liked that fabric. Then I hit my stash. I pulled out a whole bunch of fabrics that I thought would work well with it.

In a pile on the floor, they looked lovely. In the quilt? Not so much. I had not yet learned about the importance of value. The entire quilt is in medium values with one or two darks and no lights. It desperately needed something else, but at the time, I didn’t really know what it needed. I was also trying to save money and make a baby quilt by using just what I had on hand, so I never even visited the quilt store to see if I could fix the problem. Instead, I relentlessly stuck to my goal of not spending a dime on this quilt. Big mistake as I ended up spending money on another (read not ugly) baby gift anyway.

While the experience frustrated and annoyed me, I did learn two important lessons: 1) Do not limit myself to preset parameters as it dramatically hinders my creativity and the end product won’t be what I want it to be, and 2) It is crucial to pay attention to value as well as to color in a quilt.

My ugly quilt still sits in a tote underneath my bed with other quilt tops that are pieced but not yet quilted. I would put a picture of it here, but I can’t. It’s that bad.

A few weeks ago, I pulled it out. As I looked at it, I realized how helpful its lessons have been with my writing. As a writer, I am definitely a planner, an outliner. When I started this whole novel project, I plotted it all out, made outlines, and sketched out scenes and characters. I’ve followed my outline generally, but my characters have taken me in directions I never suspected, directions that I didn’t have on my outline. At first, this panicked me, but then I remembered my ugly quilt lessons: 1) I cannot limit myself to sticking with my outline, and 2) I must vary the levels of tension in each scene I write, just as I must vary the value of color in each block I stitch.

I’m finally thankful for the time and energy spent on my ugly quilt. Perhaps I might even quilt it, hang it near my writing space as a reminder of the lessons it taught me, and also as a reminder that my writing, like my quilting, will improve. That’s a good feeling.

Stay on the “Write” Path – No shortcuts allowed

Yesterday I stole a few hours to myself and drove up the Ruby Mountains to a trail head near my house.  For some reason, it is a place that inspires me to write.

My favorite place to write on the slopes of the Ruby Mountains.

I set a chair in the shade next to a willow and for the first time in a few weeks, I got a lot of writing done.   A soft breeze blew; the air smelled like fall.  The creek that usually burbles down the mountain was just a muddy strip, so I didn’t get to enjoy the sound of the water, but I didn’t mind.  I wrote in my journal and then wrote a character sketch, an entire scene, and the rough outline of the next scene.

For the first time in a few weeks, I got into the zone, that space where the words just come.  Sometimes those words flow; sometimes they don’t.  I have the big picture in my head of my whole story, but it takes a whole bunch of words, written one at a time, to create that picture.  I’ve learned that there are no shortcuts in writing.  I can’t make the process shorter or easier.  It is what it is, and I have to write every single necessary word, one at a time.

At one point I looked up and realized that I was looking at one of the most fateful shortcuts in American history.  I felt like it was God’s little reminder of that lesson.

From my perch on the side of the mountains, across the valley I could clearly see a portion of the Hasting’s cutoff, the “shortcut” the Donner party took as they followed the South fork of the Humboldt river which meets up with the California trail just on the other side of the canyon. 

The Hastings cutoff  looped south around the Ruby Mountains and then back north to meet the California trail near present day Elko, Nevada.  Unfortunately for them, the route was incredibly difficult and actually added more than 100 miles to their journey.  It was this shortcut that led, in part, to their tragic demise on the eastern slope of the Sierra Mountains.

I feel like I’ve been on my own little Hasting’s cutoff for the past month, floundering around, trying to figure out how to teach full time, participate in my kids’ activities, and make sufficient progress on my novel without completely beating myself up and feeling like a failure.

As I sat looking at the route they took, a route that goes literally within fifteen miles of my house, I realized, yet again, that there are no shortcuts no matter how much I like them.  I like to take shortcuts, to mark items off my list just a little bit faster, so I can move on to the next item.  Writing doesn’t allow that.  For me at least, I’ve learned it is a slow process.  I’m learning to be okay with that.  It’s a lesson the Donner Party didn’t learn, and look what happened to them.

Even if I don’t make as much progress as I expect of myself, at least I’m not on the real Hastings cutoff.  My slower than expected pace will only add a month or two to my projected finish date.  Fortunately, it won’t lead to eating my neighbor for dinner, literally.

For that, I am thankful.  So, thank you God, for the very visual reminder, that I need to take this entire journey one word at a time.  It will take me as long as it takes as long as I just keep on writing and don’t detour off the “write” path.