Novel Writing 101

Available on Amazon

To honor my friend and fellow writer Tim Hall, whose debut novel is out.

Step One–accept that you have a story to tell.

Two–confront the many ways to tell it: memoir, fiction, photo montage, essays.

Three–write reams to get the story out of your head onto the page. Take heart, this is what Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) calls “a shitty first draft,” completely normal.

Four–doubt it, consider taking a cruise or strong medicine, anything to control this malignancy that’s eating up your life.

Five–begin again to believe that you have a novel in that overweight three-ring binder and start carving away the fatty parts.

Six–ask a few trusted people to read it and sift through their advice with eyes wide open, ego in check.

Seven–lock yourself in a room for hours and hours at a time, revising and sweating, pacing, laughing and crying all in quick succession.

Eight–breathe deep and hand it to an editor.

Nine–introduce  your new book to the world, knowing its tiny flaws; carry a copy with you at all times; sleep with it next to the bed; drive it around town like an honored guest.

Ten–begin planning your next book.

Only Myself to Blame

It’s been a good week: five poems accepted for publication and acknowledged, a time-consuming project cancelled and a new poem written. Of course, I did my daily morning pages and insisted on a focus. I updated my submissions list and noted the next round of subs. But I did not tackle the long projects on my to-do list. It’s not that I don’t want to write the family history that’s outlined and started. And I would happily write a long essay about the need for writers to be vigilant in following the news, no matter how unsavory it is. I should sort and revise the short-fiction manuscript lurking in a fat notebook. But big projects don’t reach the finish line quickly. And that’s where I give up, curl up with the cat and a jigsaw puzzle, defeated by my own expectations: that I need to finish everything efficiently, right now.

Writing doesn’t work that way. It needs to incubate, grow in the dark, gestate. Pick a metaphor. I forget this regularly because our consumerist society demands efficiency and products with a price tag. What I need is to turn off all the media, stack up a dozen good books and withdraw from society for a while. And I don’t mean one afternoon. I mean a deep retreat from the angst and pace of public life. An article in the new Poets & Writers advocates a writing retreat.

Ah, yes, a writing retreat shimmers on the calendar, so bright that I squint at May 23rd, when I will fly back east for three weeks. I’ll house/dog/cat sit and stuff the TV remote under a couch cushion, post my absence from social media, and stop the clocks. I’ll write whatever comes, play with the dogs, and sit by the ocean. From here that feels right and easy. The catch, of course, is I’ll still have my own attitudes to deal with, my need to reassure myself that I am, in fact, a writer, no matter what shows up on the page.



Journal Prompts Pay Off

Okay, my readers know that I journal daily. Too many of those days I gripe about having nothing worthwhile to write. As of today I vow to dig deep, no more wimpy diary stuff–I fed the cat, washed the car, mailed letters. Humbug. I made a random list of things I care about: family, genealogy, organizing my life, friends, writing (of course), music, food, money management, health (mine and others), government, fiction, climate/environment, poetry, equality. That’s the list for now and most of these themes have subsets of interest or concern.

I transferred the list to half-sized index cards and stashed them in a small transparent box on the table near my writing chair. (Remember organizing on my list?) And this morning I pulled a card: equality. And I wrote about my relationships with people who are not like me. And I found in the course of three pages that I fear rejection if I engage others who are not like me. I might not know what sort of interaction they would welcome. And in terms of those marginalized by economics, I fear poverty, the dependency and the deprivation of it. You would think that at my age, I’d have figured this out sooner. But that’s what true journaling does, catches insights like houseflies in a spider web.

Why Hiaasen?

Currently my energy is invested in binge reading Carl Hiaasen’s work. Hiaasen has written a couple dozen books, mostly fiction, including collections of his newspaper articles, and novels for young readers. He is prodigious, prolific, wonderful and ridiculous. His bad guys are low-life, immoral, greedy and prone to shoddy commercial development of Hiaasen’s beloved home state of Florida. His good guys are often loners of either sex and off the charts smart.

First of all, Hiaasen entertains me. Struggling writers take note. Many of us read to be entertained. Granted, there are those rare students who open a book intending to learn something. But without intending to, I learn from Hiaasen while I’m chuckling over the things that pop up on the page–a prime example, “He was eating a jelly doughnut, the sugar dust sticking to the socks on his hands” (Lucky You, p. 87). In context, the sentence makes sense, but in or out it makes me laugh. And I keep reading, partly to see what happens next to a man with socks on his hands and partly to watch imagination at play. I learn two sorts of things: the man-made damage to the environment in Florida and how a talented writer builds a story.

And, binge reading shows me that he repeatedly writes about major issues of our time–destruction of natural habitat, racism, violence, greed, corrupt government at many levels. But he does not preach. The characters act out his fears and beliefs. He proliferates oddballs distinguishable from each other by appearance (scars, disfigurement, personal hygiene, sex appeal or its lack) and by actions, motivation, and beliefs. Because his good people are flawed but courageous, because his bad people are despicable and deserve the retribution inflicted on them, I keep turning the page.

The environmental underpinnings of much of Hiaasen’s work range from beach erosion to protecting the habitat of burrowing owls and the violence that too often results from lucrative commercial land use. He’s against big agri-business and the influx of organized crime to his home state. He takes on topics that sprout from real situations, although they lurch toward horror and the worst of villains who abuse creatures human and otherwise. Often these sleaze bags suffer horrible but appropriate deaths–eaten by lions, starvation in the Everglades, retribution from meaner people than they ever could have imagined. Guns, knives, ropes, alligators and wolf dogs become tools for cleaning up some of humanities worst mistakes.

I cannot do this body of work justice in one short spurt of words. Please take a large tote bag to the bookstore or public library and fill it with Carl Hiaasen’s books. Clear the calendar, stock up on snacks and take a virtual vacation in Florida. Don’t forget bug spray, your sense of humor and your outrage. You’ll be a better person for it.


Esoteric Joy

Full disclosure: I am a detail junky, a fact addict. I keep a fat black notebook full of potentially useless information. Like if you plant an orange seed you may grow a lemon tree. That the okapi–a mammal that looks like a cross between a giraffe and a horse–is a six million year old species. That the last passenger pigeon died in 1914. That the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. I graze like a goat in the flower beds and pick up all sorts of weird information, some of which I cannot possibly digest. Like knowing that a thing called CRISPR-Cas 9 is a sort of “molecular scissors” that can help modify genes.

Of what use can I make of these facts? Writers need a diet that includes tiny bits of information, like the body needs to ingest minute amounts of some minerals. You never can tell when a datum will go from frivolous to rich fodder. When I was writing Providence, I read a lot about water, tides, surge lines and such. I learned more than I needed to build a plausible story, but I learned what I needed. Marge Piercy, in writing her bestselling novel Gone to Soldiers, had her local library borrow on interlibrary loan “well over a thousand books.” She had to rely on technology to keep track of all that data. Now, while technology annoys and distracts me (Yeah, I look at cute cats on FB.) it also serves up a vast menu of data and prevents my local library staff from dying from exhaustion.

What we know and what we need to know is not always obvious. Far better, in my view, to store up extra knowledge. And then engage in what might be called “alien phenomenology.” This is an “[attempt] to understand the experience and interiority of objects, no matter how incomprehensible or speculative an act this may be” (M. R. O’Connor, Resurrection Science, 225). Hmm, and all along I thought that was called creative writing. See, you never know what’s out there to nibble on.

Read for Equality, Please

Regular readers here will have seen my postings of READ FOR EQUALITY, a habit that has grown out of my concern for the racial inequity in publishing. In honor of these concerns I am happy to turn over the blog today to Linda Thornton, who shares her unique history. Linda tells her story clearly and succinctly. I welcome your response. KD

Secret Seeds

I grew up close to the border and my last name was Villa.  Even though my skin is fair and burns in 10 minutes, it was pretty easy to guess that I am Latina.  But now with my married name sounding white and my living in Colorado, well, I’m a bit more of a chameleon. Most people have no idea until I tell them.

And then I adopted a black boy.  He was this baby in a bowtie who was happily banging the courtroom table while the judge was asking me legal questions about forever and family.  I could barely hear the judge over the joyful squeals in my ear but I already knew all the answers.  “I do.”  “I will.”

The year was 2015 and I had no idea that I had just been drafted into a race relations war in the US.  This was before I had heard of the Black Lives Matter movement, before Trump, before the year everything came to a head.  Sure, I knew some people were racist in this country but I thought we could easily maneuver around them.  After all, hadn’t I easily maneuvered around racists as a Latina?

Yes, I had.

But what did I leave behind in my wake?  Who did not get their chance?  Will that person be my son because I didn’t face racism head on when I saw it?  To turn around in its face and firmly say, “No.”

We have a duty now.  No matter our color or gender or the number in our bank account.  No one is exempt from the calling this time.  It needs all of us.  And that doesn’t mean just not being a racist yourself but you being a warrior for justice.  Silence is compliance and my son is watching your silence.

Will you march? Will you call? Will you write? Will you say something if you see something?  I call these people the front line.  And I’ve discovered that not every person is built for it.

But there are other lines to stand on.  Will you read? Reading is active because it can change your hard wiring.  Read fiction about growing up in the South.  Read non-fiction regarding the statistics of mass incarceration.  Read a children’s book where the main character is black and it doesn’t even come up as a plot point. And read it to children.

Then take those books and pass them on.  Donate them to a library, donate them to a school, leave it on a park bench with a note that says “free.”

Even though minorities make up 37% of the U.S. population they are represented in children’s books at 10%.  So send an email and coffee money to a minority writer.  Write a poem from the perspective of a different race than your own.   Talk to your librarian about having a display with books that showcase diversity.

The front liners are on the news and in our feed and in our ears.  But you can be our second wave.  You can be the secret seed planters.  Even if you are not here to see the harvest, know that my son will be.