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.

Revise and Let It Loose

Many hours this past week I prepared to keep a promise to my writing group from Wellfleet that I would be more proactive about submitting work for publication. I have a pretty hefty publications list already, but it’s stale. Prior to the workshop in June I had concentrated on writing new material and didn’t have the energy to attend to what already existed. Well, advice I heard in the workshop was to take risks, send the work out. Writing needs an audience. Yes, I know that. I believe that. So why would I hesitate?

Fear of rejection, fear of exposure and fear of inadequacy: all play a part in the urge to hide my writing under a big rock. But it is also true that offering work to the world makes me a better writer. Knowing that a reader, editor or publisher will cast a mean eye on my work leads me to question the piece before I hit send or drop the submission into the mail box. Have I done my best to make the writing clear, fresh, and worth the paper it might be printed on? Is the title intriguing, inviting, wacky enough to make someone read on? Does it have substance and endurance? This challenge keeps me polishing when it would be easier to stuff it in a notebook and let it rot.

Exposing my work to others can have a down side: I’m guilty of people pleasing and can be overly sensitive to the taste of other writers. One of Marge Piercy’s rules for groups is to respect each other’s style and substance. I know I’ve been writing under the influence–not of Irish whiskey, though that’s appealing–and I’m trying to be more confident that the work I produce, poems or fiction, has to be my choice, my responsibility. After listening and considering any advice I get, I have to trust my intuition and my intention when to call a piece done.

Ready to Rewrite

Most people call this season spring; for me it’s critique season. The beta readers for Providence (sequel to Accidental Child) are hard at work and I’m working hard at being patient. I know I’ll have plenty to do on the rewrite, but my generous readers will guide me. Obviously, the final decisions are mine and the book will live or die on my watch.

Given nine readers, I had to devise a way to collate their observations and advice. I’m not interested in shuffling paper or computer files repeatedly and maybe losing some important remark in the process. So I’ve adapted a story board idea to handle this input.

I have a large piece of foam board, hanging on the closet door in my office by a string and a wreath hanger. Across the top horizontal edge I’ve put sticky labels with the names of the major characters. I’m a character-driven writer for fiction, so this is my approach. Another writer might prefer categories like setting, action, point of view or dialog–whatever seems most useful.

Down the left hand vertically, I’ll list the chapters. As I come across suggestions from my readers, I’ll post a sticky note at the intersection of the character and the chapter in question. Stickies can be stacked, so I think I’ll have enough room, but I might need a second board to accommodate all thirty-four chapters. I’ll decide that when I’ve gone through the comments and see just where I need to concentrate my rewriting energy.

Not only does this plan help me stay on track, but also it’s a visual reminder that I have this work to do, daily if I’m any good. Originally, I had imagined a spring release for this novel, but reality suggests fall. I do have a busy life outside of Providence, and it’s best to take the time I need to write a good book. I’ve spoken briefly to an editor and once I’ve done the rewrite, I’ll ask her to look at it. Then on to the book design and publication. It’s a huge project to write and self-publish a novel, and there’s no point in doing a sloppy job. So, I’m ready to rewrite. Wish me luck–nah! Luck has less to do with writing than determination. And I am determined.

Hiatus, Respite, Gap

In the big red book The Synonym Finder there’s an inch and a half list of words for taking a break. A poet creates a break in the middle of a line and calls it a caesura. Physiologists call the teeny space between neurons a synapse. Opera goers call it intermission. I call it frustrating.

The rewrite of my novel is done for now. I’m waiting for proof copies to arrive on the front porch and then I’ll wait for my much-appreciated first readers to get back to me with their reactions. Wait, wait, wait. After a year of work, work, work, the waiting feels wrong. I’m restless. I devour mystery novels like bonbons. I scribble in my journal and feel like I’m cheating if I write without a goal.

Waiting is part of writing, my least favorite part. Why am I not creating a text to share with a reader? I guess it’s about recharging, like one of those plug-in cars. Or being pregnant. Driving across country and obeying the speed limit. Some things cannot be rushed. The testing stage of writing cannot be rushed because it now involves other people. In this case, the people who push the buttons on the machinery that prints the books, the folks who see that the books get into boxes with address labels, the people who drive the big trucks that carry the books to me, and the people who will read and take the time to tell me what’s good and what’s not so good.

After all that waiting, I will fix what’s broken or add what’s missing. And then–almost there–I’ll wait for people to buy the book, read it, talk about it and tell me if all this time I’ve invested in it was worth the wait. Writing is not about instant gratification. It’s about interacting with a world beyond my control, and there’s a seven-inch list of synonyms for control.