A Novel Approach

Writing a novel is work; no news there. But it helps to gain perspective from other writers. I was feeling stuck about the plot line for my work in progress, hiking up a steep slope with no idea how to reach the summit. Not a good idea for a Coloradan. So, in desperation I checked out a how-to book from my wonderful Anythink Library–my walking stick, my water bottle, my sturdy backpack, most of what a writer needs when she’s on a long walkabout.

Reading James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure has set my feet (and my fingers) on the right path. It took a while, as I tiptoed my way through the three-act structure that has become important to novelists. Finally I focused on a page suggesting that the end, the blessed, welcome peak, might be reached in such a way that the lead character does not get what she wants but the result is still positive. Combine this with Bell’s advice to up the tension between the lead and the antagonist—voila! A vista to behold on a sunny day.

I have yet to write the scene, but driving to an appointment Friday morning, I decided on the exact setting for the decisive scene. And I’ve identified more clearly the two opposing characters who will make the scene memorable—I hope. So, my work can resume. I’ll go ahead and do all the little edits that I’ve scribbled into the “Yellow” copy (I print on colored paper until I’m pretty close to done.) And then add that all important scene before hitting save. Oddly enough, I already have the final sentence. Just have to hike that hill to where I can declare the first full version done, let it stew a while and then dig in for the final run.

What a Writer Needs

Packing for a roadtrip to Telluride CO for a poetry weekend. And I’m suffering my usual doubts and desires about packing. After many years of writing I know, sort of, what I need to get writing done. But traveling means that I can’t have it all. I cannot take along my office space or my favorite coffee shop despite my need for a place where I’m comfortable and not likely to be distracted or interrupted. So, scratch that for the next few days, although I’ll find a corner now and then. Being an early riser often means that I can write before fellow travelers are afoot.

Of course, I need my basic tools–plenty of paper and ink, a reliable, portable thing, in my case that’s an iPad and attached keyboard. Of course, I need time. When my children were young, writing time was late evening. Now my internal clock prefers early morning. I’ll just have to be flexible as a guest in someone’s home.

My real need is writing every day, yes, every day. And of course, I need readers and other writers. I need librarians. (This week, I tried to read The Library Book by Susan Orlean, an account of the horrific fire years ago at the Los Angeles Public Library. Had to set it aside before I finished because it’s just too hard to read with tears in my eyes.)

Every devoted writer needs what she needs–the sound of language, the sight of words lined up across the page, margin to margin, good ducklings after their mama. Most of all I need to keep writing, because as E. M. Forster said, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Hope you all have a good week. See you after I get home.

All About Poets #5

Typically, my poet focus here is on poets I have known, face to face. Well, what was it Emerson said about consistency? “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds …” Who wants that? Not me. But today I’m thinking about W. S. Merwin. I’ve leaned on and learned from him the only way I could, by reading with great admiration his poems and essays. So, I took him along to a poetry open mic on Friday via a compilation of his work, Migration: New & Selected Poems. I read the last poem in the book, “To Impatience” and his “most famous poem,” (according to Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker, September 18, 2017), “For the Anniversary of My Death.”

Poets and poetry lovers meet in Longmont, Colorado, the last Friday of each month. This month, despite the promise of snow, two friends and I headed ten miles north to join the party. For one thing, the Longmont poets are a delight and the venue is gorgeous. The city of Longmont turned its abandoned firehouse into an arts center. Each month the displays change and the main room turns into a venue for poetry.

And thus the community of poets grows. As I read, those who knew Merwin’s work nodded and smiled. Those who didn’t know, scribbled his name on whatever was handy. So the work of the poet, the work of Copper Canyon Press, the Lannan Literary Fund, about twenty or so living, breathing human beings were united. No one paid us, no one charged us, there was no news flash about argument or deception. The evening was balm to a hurting world. I’d say a world less beautiful after Merwin’s departure, but he joins the vast, energizing cloud of those who keep me sane.

Gluttony

How little resistance I have for books. I walked into the library, slid two novels by Donna Leon into the return slot, a machine that reads the barcodes into another machine that tells the library that I’ve returned these two Guido Brunetti mysteries. What the digital system cannot do is record that I actually read the books. Nor if I liked reading them or not. For all the library knows, I might have used them as paperweights on my desk. Dear Reader, I read them and longed for more.

But I came to the library intending not to carry any books home this weekend. Because if I do, I’ll read them. And I already have poems to critique for Monday morning, a poetry reading to prepare for this coming week, and a hefty assignment for the workshop looming on Monday evening. Like any other addict, my intention means nothing.

Sitting in a quiet corner of the library, I have three books on the table beside my easy chair: James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice, and Elaine Pagels’ Why Religion? Gluttony is one of the seven cardinal sins, so I’m a sinner. Mea culpa; wanna make something of it? I also have a hold at another library for Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, recommended in Adrienne Rich’s Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, which is, partly read, on my coffee table. Despite the assignments for Monday, I’m going to start with Wood’s book. It’s the smallest one on the stack and if I don’t dawdle, I might finish it before lunch.

Claiming the Title

As I write this, I’m sitting in a quiet space with nine other writers in the meeting room of a large grocery store. We have a three-hour writing session once a month and each time we meet we share our immediate intentions and a short description of whatever project we are working on. This morning we are a diverse group ranging from fiction to fact, from memoir to a letter to a local editor about a national issue. The variety of projects and backgrounds shifts from month to month, but the most important thing here is that we all dare to call ourselves writers. Claiming the title has little if anything to do with publication, money, or publicity. I’m looking across the table at a man with his eyes on the ceiling and his hands over his mouth, classic signs of inspiration. Good for him.

Our newest writer left early. She had announced that she finally stopped cleaning her house and came to a place where her only goal and responsibility was to put words on paper. Good for her. She has taken the all-important step to declare publicly that she’s writing. I may have reported this before, but my greatest inspiration in taking that step was to have met and spent a day with Harlan Ellison, whose business card bore his name, phone number, and the words “I write.” A simple declaration, no frills, just the brazen truth. Claiming the right to write can be hard. The consumerist society demands that we sell what we write, and it measures our success by earnings, sales, fame. Truth is, few writers meet these criteria.

Being a writer means diving in without promise of worldly success. It means staring at the ceiling and leaving domestic distractions behind for a few hours. Messing with early drafts and focusing on punctuation and paragraphs, clever lies and startling images. It means that you love/hate the results, but  just can’t stop the trickle or the deluge of language from head to fingertips.

Distraction vs Research

How do I manage to waste so much of my time? I make lists of things to do, writing things, but seldom complete the checking off, often moving a task to the next list. Aargh! I was efficient in my professional paid work for over four decades. Now I fritter away an hour or more with crossword puzzles or tidying the clothes closet. Meanwhile the characters in my novel-in-progress grumble among themselves: “She’s ignoring us again. Maybe we should rebel, take over the plot, or escape with the next writer she meets in the coffee shop.” Sitting here with the blog before me, I know I should start the day working on the scenes I’ve scribbled all week and now must decide where to insert them in the storyline. You see, don’t you, that I know what to do, but I’m not doing it, am I?

The deep reason is fear. It’s all good to scribble on scrap paper and congratulate myself on another 800 words, but committing those words to print, ah, I lack courage. Who do I think I am writing poems and novels? So those lost moments contribute to my excuse of research.

Sometimes I go to the Union Station in Denver and watch people for hours, sketch their appearance on the scrap paper I keep in my work bag. Yesterday I went to the library and spent an hour or so studying a travel atlas for routes that my protagonist might drive, small towns that would suit the plot. And darn it, I thought I was doing something worthwhile, but those details are window dressing, not substance.

Maybe I was ignoring my left brain boss who says, Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. Giving full control to my “big-picture” right brain where observation is approved. Then again, both brain hemispheres earn their keep. Slowly, slowly, the narrative takes shape. And then I worry all over again that the reader will toss the book aside and do crossword puzzles to pass the time.

How I Get Things Done

As someone who takes on too much, I can go from zero to excess in a day. And some days this catches up with me and I freeze. What am I supposed to do next? I keep lists and index cards, journal entries about what I want to do, but sometimes (maybe once a week?) I just have to pick one thing and go for it. Like revisions on the first draft of my fourth novel.

In order to focus, I packed my work bag with just that draft, no other word work to use as an escape. I did not take my iPad, and my phone is too small for writing. I took a stack of messy pages, some blank scribble paper and sat down with four other writers who were intent on their own work. Group pressure, however subtle, helped. If they were working, I would work.

I got out my red pen and went for it, adding detail–what I call plugging the holes–correcting sloppy syntax, questioning the factual bits and making a list of what needed fact checking, like what route the character is traveling. It wouldn’t do to have her on I95, which runs from Maine to Florida, when she’s driving from Montana to Louisiana. And circling typos, which apparently slip in like cockroaches while I sleep.

By the end of the writing session I had thought of a visual tool that has already proven to be useful. The first draft I had printed out on blue paper. (Yes, I work best on paper.) This second draft I’ve started to print on yellow paper. It’s a vivid measure of how much I’ve progressed. Quirky, but we writers all have our quirks, thank goodness.