Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On Perfectionism

We began our first writing class of the term by talking about perfectionism. Anne Lamott wrote in "Bird by Bird" that "perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness." We were asked to do a seven-minute fast write on perfectionism and how it did or did not affect us as writers. Here's mine:

Would I call myself a perfectionist? Just look at my messy handwriting. My cluttered desk. My dish-filled sink. My three pairs of shoes laying about the living room. I'm not neat; I don't think everything has its place.

But then look at my writing--not the awkward loops and uncrossed t's but the words themselves. I try to make those as perfect as possible. Best words to convey the best ideas.

I'm a slow and deliberate writer, finishing 1500 words on the best days and 600 words on most. It might be a problem if I didn't make progress. If those 1000 words and 800 words and 1500 words didn't add up to one-hundred and fifty pages of carefully chosen words.

Could I write faster? Could I let go of my inner critic and get more words on the page? Maybe, but I don't know if that would be a good thing.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... me?"

I did something crazy. Yesterday, I paid money to jump out of an airplane that was 13,000 feet in the air. That's more than two miles. Luckily, I have the pictures to prove it, because I'm not sure I'll ever do something like that again!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A day's work

Earlier this week I listened to a Diane Rehm show on NPR where she was interviewing author Laura Lippman. Before becoming a bestselling novelist, Lippman started out as a writer for a newspaper in Waco, Texas, where she covered local politics and wrote feature stories. After a few years she became a writer for the Baltimore Sun, where she also wrote many different kinds of stories.

In the morning, as a newspaper writer, she would be given an assignment and a deadline. Usually she'd have that eight-hour day to research a story and write it. She could never say, "Oh, I'm not feeling it today," or "The words weren't flowing." She had no choice. She applies that same work ethic to her fiction writing. Every day she sits down at her desk and gets to work.

My friend and fellow writer has a similar work ethic. Here she describes "approaching writing as [she] would approach a project in the workplace." She has a limited amount of time that she can work on her novels, and so she makes that time count, producing one or two chapters in a three hours.

Today was the first day I've tried to write since late last week. I wasn't sure where I wanted to go with a chapter, and I found myself staring at the open word document. Then I looked over at my keyboard--maybe if I played for a few minutes I'd find my muse? No, I needed to focus. Maybe if I visited the New York Times website I'd get some ideas? Checked out the latest Voices of August post at Rough and Rede? No, I know how ten minutes of web browsing quickly turn into an hour for me.

So I thought about my friend. I thought about Laura Lippman. I turned off the wireless network on my laptop so that even if I open my browser (which I did more than once), I wouldn't see anything. I would quickly close it, reminding myself to focus. I started writing--it was okay, not great--and just kept writing. Push through anything I thought was mediocre, knowing I'll be able to go back and revise. In all I wrote almost 1300 words. It was a decent pace that I can replicate.

My reward? Writing this blog post and playing the keyboard!

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Do you still play?"

Representative Jean Schmidt--yes, that one--was a guest at my grandmother's 90th birthday party last week. She and her twin sister, Jennifer. Both asked me (not having seen me in more than seventeen years) if I still played piano: "You were so talented," they said.

I replied that I no longer played. After my accident, which seemed to erase the previous years of study, I never took piano as seriously. I still tinkered; I took a couple semesters of lessons in college; I played from the Reader's Digest Book of Christmas songs each December. But I never pushed myself to excel and get better like I had as a child.

A strange thing happened since my conversation with the twins: I got a new keyboard! It's a Yamaha, has 88 weighted keys, has a bunch of different voices and features that I don't understand. It is wonderful, and I love it. My boyfriend bought it as a combination birthday/Christmas/futurebirthday/futureChristmas present.

In addition to teaching him how to play (he plays guitar and played trumpet and other brass instruments in high school), I am pulling out my old sheet music. From Bach and Chopin to Carole King and Coldplay, I've spent hours at the keyboard since it arrived on Thursday.

Next time I see the Congresswoman, either at a protest at her office or my grandma's 100th birthday party, I can say, truthfully and happily, "Yes! I still play!"

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Voices of August: Rough and Rede

All month, a friend of mine has been hosting guest posts at his blog, Rough and Rede. Calling it the Voices of August, George Rede has invited people from his wide list of contacts to contribute pieces for each day of the month. From a woman poignantly describing her journey through despair and grief after losing her husband, to a principal-in-training reflecting on conversations about race and diversity in schools, I have been so impressed by the variety of topics and the intelligence and sensitivity with which they have been addressed.

Obviously I was honored when George asked me to contribute, saying I could write about anything from bowling and reading to a recent epiphany. I enjoyed the challenge of writing for a different audience and of having to write 600-800 words on a topic. My piece should be up Thursday. I encourage everyone to stop by Rough and Rede -- not for my essay so much as the other wonderful voices (George's included, of course!)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Losing Words

In the past few days, I've lost over twelve-hundred words. This pains me, because I'm such a slow writer. A single paragraph is a small victory; a page, a large one.

I realized I had to combine two chapters and, in doing so, erase about four pages. Those words are cut and pasted into another word document, but for now they don't exist and probably won't exist in this book or future books.

* le sigh *

On a brighter note, I had a great birthday. Friday I went out to a movie with my mom, and that night to a Japanese restaurant with a bunch of my friends. Sunday I went over to my grandma's and had lunch with her, my dad and brothers. And the best news of the day, after months of searching and going on interviews, my brother got a job! It's full-time, with benefits! He'd been one of those long-term unemployed after losing his job at the airport early in 2010. Very happy for him.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A woman’s murder upends the lives of her daughter and best friend...

Last summer, as I was getting started with my book, I skimmed a lot of "How to " articles. "How to write a novel." "How to create believable characters." "How to plot." And for the most part, the articles told me nothing I didn't already know either from school or experience. Most spoke in general terms about the elements that work together to create a dynamic novel. More than the "How to" articles, I got more help from writers on the web talking about their own experience. How did they deal with problems? How did they stay motivated?

The one exception for me was Randy Ingermanson's article about the "Snowflake Method". He provides a framework for developing a novel but encourages writers to figure out what works best for them. Start small, he says.

First, take an hour to come up with a tag for your novel: a one-sentence, fifteen-word description. It's the main idea for your book. The crux. You're thinking about the whole picture, without worrying about the thousands of details that will fill it in. He recommends looking at the New York Times Bestseller list for examples, such as Jennifer Weiner's "Then Came You": This timely tale delves into women's lives, with themes of class and entitlement, surrogacy and donorship. I think only established writers like Weiner can use the word "themes" in their tag. For "Before I Go to Sleep," by S. J. Watson: A woman's life is complicated by the fact that her memories disappear every time she falls asleep.

(The title of this post is my initial attempt at a short hook. Suggestions for improvement are welcome. I just like the word "upends" :)

Next, take an hour to write a paragraph-long summary of your novel. Obviously, details are going to be left out, but it forces you to think about the most important part(s) of your story.

The third step is to write for each of your main characters their name, storyline (one sentence), motivation, conflict, and epiphany. Then, for each of those characters, develop your one-sentence storyline into a paragraph.

Step four, turn your one-paragraph summary into a whole page. This requires you to think more about the different acts of your story and fill in the most important details.

Ingermanson's process goes on to describe steps five through eight. He suggests writing page-long description of each character. But until I got a sense of their voices and personality on paper, I didn't want to over think them. He also suggests creating an Excel spreadsheet of the scenes. However, that was too structured for me. I knew once I had the basic framework, and could imagine the piece as something that told a complete story over 300 pages, I was ready to begin.

Looking back at my notes from last summer, I see that I haven't strayed much from my initial outline. But the lines between those dots I'm connecting have gone in very unexpected directions.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"...the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called 'overpaid'..."

If you haven't seen it already, please check out Matt Damon's impassioned defense of teachers at a Save Our Schools (SOS) rally.

To loud cheers, he says, "I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test."