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!

Literary Black Holes – Part 1

This past year, I was blessed with a student who has an IQ many, many points above mine, probably higher than most anyone reading this blog.  He decided to read Atlas Shrugged.  My Dad had re-read it a few years ago and kindly gave it to me for my birthday last year.  It’s a hard back, weighing at least five pounds, and printed in, maybe, an 8 point font.  It’s well over 1000 pages.  I enjoyed The Fountainhead, so I thought I’d tackle Atlas with my student.  I think we started reading this past January.

He’s done.

I’m not.

I tried.  I really, really did.  Despite my student’s encouragement, it’s still sitting on my bedside table, buried at the bottom of my “to read” pile.  I just checked and I made it all the way to page 126.  I enjoyed some of the characters, but the story never grabbed me.  And there it sits, unread.

Great Expectations is another one.  I should be teaching that.  It’s on “The List” to teach.  I’ve started it four times in the last twenty years, the last time on audio this spring.  In fact the paperback is buried next to Atlas on my table.  Pip’s a funny kid, but the story does nothing for me.  If I can’t read it, there’s no way I can teach it and expect thirty, fourteen year olds to stay with me.  It’s a classic so clearly many, many people have enjoyed it.  I find it boring.

Perhaps it’s the sense of obligation with these tomes that turns me off.   I read The Hunger Games series solely because so many of my students loved it and recommended it.  I  got sucked right into each of those books, reading each of them in a few hours and staying up until 1:00 am one night.

I even drove all the way to town with a student’s gift card to the bookstore to pick up the last one in the series.  She wanted it but could never get into town to use her card (yes, I live in rural Nevada and a trip to town is a minimum hour and a half event).

We made a deal.  I’d pick it up for her if she’d let me borrow it.  It’s a great series if you haven’t read it –  Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” meets 1984.  I loved it as does every student I’ve had whose read it.  That makes me think it’s the action that pulls me in, but in the past few months I’ve also read: The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Sarah’s Quilt by Nancy Turner, The Goodbye Quilt by Susan Wigg, The girl who . . . series by Steig Larssen, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and a few romance novels.  These are certainly not action packed thrillers.

These authors have all, somehow, created stories that pull me in, grab me.  How do they do it?  I can come up with pieces to that answer but it’s different for each story. In some, I fall immediately in love with the characters.  I care about them and need to find out what happens.

For others, it’s the social commentary and internal conflict.  The whole idea of wondering what I would do if I found myself in that same situation.  For others its, I’ll be honest, the romance.  I like a good love story.  Sometimes it’s the history I find fascinating and how the author really captures a time period.  All these draw me in.

When I read the last page and close the book, I’ve discovered that it’s not one single thing that I enjoyed.  It’s all of it working together.  Some authors do every part very well, but I’m learning that most of them do a few well.  That’s good to know.  In my own writing, I can do one or two things really well to draw reader in.  I don’t have to master everything.  That’s kind of a relief, actually.  When it comes to my writing, I don’t want to be a “Jack of all trades master of none,” nor do I want the pressure to be a master of all.

Happily, I don’t have to be.

Quilt Stories (or Quilters’ Obsessions with Anything Related to Quilts)

After I started quilting, I discovered quilt fiction.  I had no idea until I started reading a few books with a quilt focus, but this is almost a genre unto itself and it actually has been since the mid-1800’s.  Apparently quilters’ obsessions with anything at all having to do with “quilting” has existed for centuries.  The first two quilt stories were published in periodicals in 1844 and 1845.  They were both called “The Patchwork Quilt,” and they both idealize the quilt as a symbol of domesticity.  The second story is by an author who is unidentified other than “Annette.”  It’s a sad little story about a woman who spends her teen years making her masterpiece of a quilt for her wedding.  Sadly, she ends up as a spinster and finishes the quilt for her younger sister who does find a beau to wed.   The quilt in this story represents love, marriage, and security, and the sister who achieves these goals gets the quilt.  These were highly valued for women in the 19th century who existed in the world of the “domestic sphere.”

It is interesting that contemporary quilt fiction also often uses the quilt as a symbol of domesticity, safety, and comfort though in these more modern stories, quilts perhaps don’t represent love and marriage so much anymore as they represent female solidarity and relationships.  In any case, the quilt is still a prevalent symbol in fiction.

We quilters are an interesting group.  We are not only obsessed with building fabric stashes and stitching, but when we take a break from sewing, many of us pick up books novels about our favorite pastime.  There are an amazing number of novels and stories all about quilts which I find fascinating.  There is even an index of quilt fiction on the web though it looks like it hasn’t been updated since 2002.  You can find it here.   In a general search of “quilt fiction” on Amazon, I hit 572 books.  That’s a lot for a pretty specific topic like quilts!  In a quick preview of these novels, it appears they can be broken into several sub-genres of quilt fiction (though this is based on a quick review, not any study):  contemporary fiction, historical, Christian, and murder mysteries.  The last two crack me up – they are so very different but both of them frequently use a quilt as a relevant symbol in the story.

My novel will definitely land in the first two categories; though I realize that contemporary and historical might not mesh, in my case they do.  We’ll see how it actually turns out.  In any case, they are the categories I am the most familiar with and the ones I enjoy reading, so it seems that’s what I’m drawn to write.  It’s also fun to combine two of my favorite pastimes: quilting and words (reading or writing) in this story.

I have no idea if publishers consider quilt fiction as a genre unto itself, but I do, and judging from the searches on Amazon and the shelves of fiction books available for sale in my favorite quilt shops, quilters do too.  If anyone who happens to read this blog is interested in reviews on quilt fiction, let me know, and I can add that as a monthly or weekly feature.

Starting in the Middle

I’ve been surprised over the past few weeks how this project is coming together, kind of piecemeal, not all orderly like I approach most of my life.  I am a list maker, an outliner, a planner.  My kids tease me that “Mom, it’s okay not to ‘have a plan’ for the day,” assuring me that it’ll be “alright.”  Really, it’s that bad sometimes.

When I started this novel adventure, I approached it how I usually approach a writing project.  I gathered all my resources; I researched, read, and took notes; I outlined and plotted; I developed characters.  And then, I thought I would start at the beginning.  That’s where I’ve always started every paper, essay, my Master’s thesis etc. – the beginning.  It seems like the logical place to start.  Apparently not.

Either I’m starting to let go and listen to my creative self a little bit better, or I just approach fiction a little differently, or at least a long fiction project, than I do non-fiction projects.  The short stories I have written I have started at the beginning and worked through until the end, but for my novel, I have random scenes written throughout.  I work on whatever I feel like.  If inspiration hits, I write that part.  It’s been so fun – who knew?

The other day I was reading a stack of 9th grade papers.  My students wrote them as a culmination of a fun end of the year Writer’s Workshop unit in which we studied “using punctuation in interesting ways to create voice.”  “How do authors use dashes, ellipses, fragments etc?  What do they achieve when they use them?” were the questions we asked as we read quite a few mentor texts, and they wrote practice pieces.  They could write their final piece on any topic; they enjoyed this assignment.  How do I know?  The final papers were super fun to read; they got it, the whole idea that language is fun and they can play with it to achieve an emotion or a mood in their writing.  As I was reading, twice I read lines that made me think of my story.  I had to stop right there, grab a piece of paper and write segments of scenes.  When I got home that night, I expanded them, and I still like them.

My muse is a funny thing.  I have no idea when inspiration will strike or what it will inspire.  However, I think my planning (or over-planning according to my kids) has been helpful because now when inspiration does strike, I have a good idea of where that piece will fit in the larger picture, but it’s certainly not exact.  I’m trying really hard to just go with it.  To let go, to allow this process to teach me whatever I need to know about how I work and the best way for me to work.   This is new territory for me, to work organically and not in a completely linear fashion.  But, overall, I think I like starting in the middle.  Now, if I could just think of a really great first line, life would be great.

Blogs, novels and . . . piles of fabric?

I am apparently compelled to create.  I finished a large scrappy quilt project last night, finally putting the last hand stitches in the binding and the label on the back for posterity’s sake.  I made the quilt for my sister for her 43rd birthday.  It’s a scrappy “fairy garden” for Megan.

My sister has an affinity for fairies.  I love the quilt – it’s scrappy, colorful, and fun.  The design process was especially fun, playing with all the fabrics on my design wall until I felt like the light fabrics reflected the sun shining across the garden just right.  Actually pulling each individual block off my wall and sewing got a little bit tedious, but the entire time I completed this mindless step, my mind wandered to my story.  I would sew, and then grab my notebook to take notes, sew some more, jot down a few new ideas etc.  But I kept viewing the sewing as a hindrance to my writing.  “If I could just get this quilt done, than I can really focus on my writing,” I kept thinking to myself. So last night, when I put those last stitches in, I headed to my sewing corner to clean up the last remnants of this project, determined to put my sewing projects away for awhile.

Finally, now I could focus on my writing as my sole creative endeavor.

But . . . nooo . . . apparently NOT!  That would make my life far too easy.  As I began to tidy up, I spied a really cute quilt pattern a friend gave me a few months ago.  And then I started thinking of another friend who “needs” a quilt.  I spent the next hour perusing through my fabric stash pulling browns, blues, creams, grays, and some unexpected pops of orange and red.  It’s going to be a great quilt!

I kept “yelling” at myself as I was pulling fabric.  “Really Amy, what are you doing?  Remember, you wanted to finish quilting for a while! Do you need to do this?”  But I finally had to admit to myself that it’s the creative process that’s important.  My mind runs a zillion miles an hour, but sewing is almost meditative for me.  I can think.  So maybe that pattern I spied in the corner was God’s little nudge saying, this is part of how you write.  Use it.  Okay God, I get it.  So now, I still have, a blog to write, a novel to plot, and . . . a pile of fabric to play with.

Story world? What happened to plain old setting?

In this whole novel writing process, I’ve learned a whole new term – story world.  What happened to plain old setting?  I teach high school English and one of the basic standards is that a story takes place in a setting ie. it has a place, a time, and a mood.  However, novelists apparently don’t place their novels in a mere setting, they create a world.  I actually like this idea, though I think it’s interesting that the production end of books (novelists) have a different language and possibly even definition of place and time in their novels than the receiving end (readers) – well, maybe not all readers but at least the English teacher types like myself who have to teach literary terms!

One of the loveliest elements of a great novel is to be carried away to a new place, to really live and get a sense of that place and time.  That’s one of the reasons I read.  So I’ve decided that the idea of a story world is much more interesting than a mere setting.  But I’m learning that creating an entire “world” is tough!  It can’t be too vast, filled with boring descriptions, not detailed enough, or full of irrelevant or gratuitous details.  In thinking about this, I’ve decided that great writers make both vast and confined story worlds feel intimate and incredibly relevant to the characters.  A specific character in a great novel just could not experience this story in any other possible place or time.   Can you imagine Scarlett O’Hara in any place or time than the south during the Civil War? Or, Frodo any place other than Middle Earth? I can’t.  Mitchell and Tolkein so beautifully created their worlds that the characters live there, and we can’t possibly imagine them any other place or time!  Now, I just have to figure out how to do that.  My setting is vast and encompasses a journey, so the story world is physically shifting as the main character progresses across the terrain, but she also evolves emotionally.  This adds a whole new element of . . . ack!!!  I have a changing setting that must remain as vast as it is but with relevance and intimacy to the story and the characters.   I think I’m going to put my scrapbooking skills to work this weekend and create a giant map to put on my wall to get started with this world.  I need a visual.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

A Visit from my Muse

I started a new book called The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  It was published in 1980.  I’ve been writing and thinking about muses/inspiration, and on page 3, Eco writes in the introduction to this historical novel, “There are magic moments, involving great physical fatigue and intense motor excitement, that produce visions of people known in the past . . . As I learned later from the delightful little book of the Abbé de Bucquoy, there are also visions of books as yet unwritten.”  A Muse strikes again!

Now this may sound weird and woo-woo to some of you, but if you’ve ever struggled to come up with an idea, for any extended period of time, and then all of a sudden that idea comes as a complete whole to you, you may know what I’m talking about.  And I’m not talking just about writing; I think this applies to any creative endeavor whether it’s writing, sculpting, quilting, drawing or even just imagining.  I think when we are ready for the idea and at a place in our lives where we can act on them, they come.  Let me tell you about my novel idea and meeting my writing muse.

About a month ago, we went to my Mom’s house, and I actually got to sleep in on Sunday morning.  A miracle happened and there were no hockey, volleyball, basketball, or Forensics tournaments on the schedule!  When I woke up, I dozed and lay in bed for another hour and a half or so. (It was heavenly!)  During that sleepy, half-awake, perfectly content state, I got an entire idea for a complete novel.  It was like my muse had arrived to tell me this story.  When my husband got up and headed for the shower, I grabbed my journal and wrote down the whole thing. It was quite exciting.  But now comes the hard part. I actually have to make a commitment to write the thing or as my teacher Janet Conner says, “earn my AIC (ass in chair) degree!”  That’s the whole self-reliance piece Emerson was talking about in 1841 that I mentioned previously – it still applies.

I’ve spent the last month beginning to research and fine tune my early morning novel download, but then I got stuck.  The devil on my left shoulder started yelling, “Really?  You think you can do this? Ha! That’s funny!  Everything’s already been written!  How could you possibly think of anything new and original to say?!?  Who do you think you are anyway?  Your responsibility is to your family and you won’t ever make any money as a writer, so why even try?  Live the dream and teach high school F-O-R-E-V-E-R” (said really slowly like the kid in The Sandlot).  I hate that little devil.

This blog is my giant broom sweeping him off and away F-O-R-E-V-E-R!!!  And hopefully, I’ll be writing and honoring the muses and inspiration that comes to me.