Monday, December 31, 2007

Bye Bye, Anne Lamott Month

Being December 31st, it's time for me to sum up Anne Lamott Month--what worked for me, what didn't. There were two things that made December especially challenging. One was Christmas and having guests at the house for a week. It seems that no matter how hard I try, I never keep my resolutions to write every day during holidays. The second was the fatigue following National Novel Writing Month. I need a week or two away from writing altogether after the frenzy of NaNoWriMo.

For those reasons and others, I don't feel like I spent much time on Anne Lamott's writing advice. Here are pieces of her advice that I like and will try to continue (or start) doing in the future:

1. Write a little every day.

This month, I've learned that days off can be good for creativity. I need time to recharge and just rest between projects. The danger is in taking days off to procrastinate because of fear or laziness. Days off for fatigue and celebration = good for me. Days off because I'm afraid my writing sucks = bad for me.

I do believe that a story gets away from me if I take frequent days off in the middle of writing it, so I will continue to write a bit every day on current projects unless my health or creative process demands something different.

2. It's much more fun to write based on characters than on a devised plot line.

This is a paraphrase. I think a project has more life in it when it's based on a character that seems real to me. Sometimes I do need the structure of an outline, but I want to continue to experiment with Lamott's way of letting characters and their relationship develop the plot.

3. Write "shitty first drafts".

This is a must. I would never finish any piece of writing if I didn't let myself write utterly boring, confusing, and lustreless drafts to begin. The problems can (and must) wait until the revision stage. Besides, this piece of advice lets me just go at it. Write whatever. Get something down on paper. And as Lamott and others point out, the act of writing is what we really crave and the only true, unblemished reward we'll get.

4. Write "short assignments".

I don't have to do this one consciously. I think it's something I do automatically when I start writing. I start at one particular place in the story and stop when I run out of steam, which is usually quite soon. If I've only been writing for a few minutes, I try to sit back for a few and get myself going on the next small section. Writing a whole chapter in one sitting is hard for me and something I do rarely.

5. Write the truth.

I think this is the most important piece, but I don't know exactly how to do it. It takes bravery and insight to write the truth in fiction. I know it when I come across it in someone else's book: It's that moment when I think, Oh my god, I know this character! Or, This has happened to me, this tiny instant of [blank]! How did she know to describe it that way?

Because writing the truth still seems like such a mysterious and difficult maneuver, I think I'll reread the chapter titled "Plot" in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I know at least one other Featured Author in this No Shame Novelist Project addresses the same topic, so it will be revisited.

After I reread that "Plot" chapter, I'll be moving on to the next featured author, Madeleine L'Engle.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Say True, Anne Lamott

I was reading a interview with Anne Lamott today and found out about her sixth novel, Blue Shoe. Apparently it's about a mid-thirties woman who is raising children and caring for an ailing mother whom she's "still mad at." I must read this book.

The main character, Mattie, says, "It was not facing what life dealt that made you crazy, but rather trying to set life straight where it was unstraightenable."

This is the main crazymaking factor in my life and, I dare say, the life of my whole family on one side. Lamott always dishes up the good stuff, the real stuff. The stuff that makes a difference in life.

I'm going to the library very soon to check out Blue Shoe.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Suffragist Monkeys are Underrepresented

Got a title and cast of characters written for a new story. It takes place in space and involves one supernatural character and one suffragist monkey.

My brain is drained from having guests for a week (It hasn't been two weeks? I really thought it had) but I was determined to post and get some work done.

I'll leave you with an Anne Lamott quote: "The development of relationship creates plot." I'm looking forward to developing the relationships in this new story.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Time to Write

Okay, so I haven't written or blogged in the last few Christmasy days. I did set my alarm the first day to get up early, but the toddlers (surprise!) woke up a whole hour before the time for which my alarm was set. They can't seem to wait until a decent hour to scream and run after each other and demand things.

On the bright side, I've enjoyed myself immensely, and so have the toddlers. My sister-in-law drove 11 hours solo (with her daughter, but no other adults) to make sure the kids could be together for Christmas because they make the season fun. Ever since the second time they met, they always hit it off immediately with no pause when they see each other again. (The first time they met, they lay together on the couch atop matching Bopppies--no conflict but not much bonding either.)

It's time to write, though, while my brother and husband play Guitar Hero III, my mom and my brother's wife walk, the toddlers sleep the sleep of those who have tasted chocolate for the first time, and my sister-in-law enjoys a heavy nap after a sleepless night caring for her daughter.

I shall go now and write at least one word of fiction to get back into the groove. Yes, yes, Anne, I know. I am supposed to write at least 500 words every day.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

New Project

Today I'm starting a new short story. The Gnomes of Anvers has been laid down to rest for a month or so before revisions. I finished the first draft and it's the longest work I've ever completed, other than the last two NaNovels which were comprised of 50,000 or so words concluding with "The End." They were a mess. Not that Gnomes has all its loose ends tied together, but I can see how to do it, and that's a vast improvement. It's very, very exciting!

I have an idea for the next book I want to write, but I'm beginning a short story instead.

I think I'll start with the trigger I used for the weekly writing blog my siblings and I share: seventh grade. Don't know where I'm going to go from there, but that's the fun of it, right?

Character drives the plot, says Anne Lamott. So I'll also be starting by getting to know my main character a bit. To take a question from Lamott, how would my character describe his or her current circumstances to a friend, before and after a few drinks?

What would he or she do when entering a party?

What's the secret thing he or she will never tell anybody?

How often does he or she shower?

Well, I don't know, so I'd better get started.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Getting It Done

Tonight I begin my push to finish the first draft of The Gnomes of Anvers! If I finish tonight, I get to celebrate with a nice relaxing glass of wine. Maybe even a hot bath. Here I go.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Falling Into Place

Tonight was a breakthrough night! I've been working on the final chapters of The Gnomes of Anvers, feeling pretty uninspired of late. But tonight, finishing up the second to the last chapter, I learned that one of my minor characters is the key to the resolution of the whole story. All of it just unfolded before me as I typed. I also figured out a way for the Creator character, who had been only in the backstory, to come into the story without taking it over.

That's all I have to say tonight!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Yes, Let's Channel Our Very Young Selves

A writing exercise:

Sit in a room alone and stare at a picture of yourself at a tender age. I'm going to find a picture of me at four years old, because I think that was the year I was most engaged in life. Stare at it until you think you can't stare at it any longer, then sit there for another five minutes. Let memories flow through your mind. Watch them.

Then begin to write.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Quote Having to Do with Dinosaurs and Love

It's wonderful what you can find sometimes if you read authors' acknowledgments. At the end of hers in Bird by Bird, Lamott says: "Sam said to me the other day, 'I love you like 20 tyrannosauruses on 20 mountaintops,' and this is the exact same way in which I love him."

This puts tears in my eyes. I could never have a better experience in my life than my son saying something like that to me.

Small children have the fullest capacity for feeling and expressing themselves. I think I should channel my four-year-old self before I write another word of fiction. Hey, not a bad idea for a writing exercise!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Raspberry Branches Rising

This month so far, I wrote the beginning of a story or book based on a character I have in mind, an essay about Jesus as an example of sustainable living, another essay about what simple living means to me, a summary of a children's or young adult book idea, and another chapter or two of the gnome novel, and I revised and submitted a short story called "Coming Home with Me."

The month is about half over. If I am as productive for the second half of December, I can finish the gnome novel and let it rest for a while! My family starts coming into town for the Christmas holiday in eight days. The chances are not good that I will be as productive for the rest of the month.

My strategy for the weeks when we have guests is to get up an hour early each morning and write 500 words plus a blog post. That'll keep me going but perhaps be a manageable goal. I'm sure there will be nights when I stay up late to talk with friends and family or watch movies with them. I'll have to get up anyway the next morning. That's what Lamott said her father did every morning. Some nights he binge-drank with his writer friends, but no matter how late he stayed up, he awoke at 5:30 in the morning to start writing. I'll think of him when I'm shivering and bleary, typing away near people who are peacefully sleeping still.

In the early mornings, I'll feel as lonely as the raspberry branches in the painting above. My mom, Lucy Lamp, painted it and gave it to me as part of my wedding present. I cherish it and love staring into its dark mood. I think it's a good one to look at when I'm feeling sorry for myself. Puts things into perspective. And I like the way the two branches have risen above the rest. Nothing outstanding happens without resistance to the surrounding conditions.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I want to go over each instruction I took from Anne Lamott to check what I'm doing that I said I would do this month.

1. Settling in to write at about the same time each day: Hmm, no. I've been switching the time because I think I'd rather get the writing done during my son's naptime and have nights free with my husband. Did that today and liked it. We'll see if it sticks.

2. Short assignments: In a way. I haven't been able to make myself get back to the gnome novel yet. After National Novel Writing Month, it always seems like I need a month away from the manuscript, whether I'm finished with the first draft or not. I have written a few shorter works and revised a new short story that I submitted today.

3. First draft -- getting everything down: I have not gotten everything down in my gnome novel yet. I have about three chapters left. Of course, they're hard ones because they include the climax and resolution and I have no idea what's going to happen in them. They should be fun for the same reasons. But see #2 above.

4. Writing characters rather than a plot: I started a short story or something that could potentially become a novel based on this piece of advice. It's fun to dream up a character and then just let her run amuck.

5. Making space and stillness for writing: Nosirree. I have been daydreaming at the kitchen sink, though, and getting some ideas that I go straight to work on when I get to my computer.

6. Writing at least 500 words per day: Nope. There were a couple of days when my son was sick that I didn't write at all, plus the two days I was sick, plus the day before yesterday when I was worn out from doing Christmas cleaning. But I think that's it. That means 8 out of 13 days I wrote at least that much, which is actually a good statistic for me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tidbit, Tidbit, Tidbit! Say it Three Times Fast--Much Easier than Typing it the Same Amount of Times

Time for a tidbit about our December featured author.

Anne Lamott's first novel, Hard Laughter, was published when she was twenty-six years old. This is according to the blurb in the back of her book Bird by Bird. It sounds like she graduated from college and began to write in earnest. Of course it was not all as neat and tidy as that, she'd tell you.

In fact, she only felt like she had a real story to tell when her father began dying of brain cancer. That was when she wrote her first book which would be published a few years later.

What a hard thing to do. To search her soul and watch her father die and get it down on the page. My parents are not dying and I would still find it an almost impossible task to set down their true stories. Maybe I don't have the story to tell yet. I don't have a large enough blanket of optimism to protect me from what I see as the cold truth.

I admire Lamott's ability to write the truth even when it's not flattering and still produce a work of writing that helps people out of their darkness instead of pushing them further in. That's a gift.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

You Don't Give Up

In Lamott's book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life she says:

"I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up."

This particular quote is meaningful to me today because of conversations I keep having in my head. I tell myself to go write, just go write like you planned. But what if I end up with all this writing that nobody wants to publish? Ever? Then I say so what, so then I have a bunch of stuff that I wrote. Let me just stick to the simple plan: Write every day. The alternative is to feel bad for the rest of my life because I didn't try my hand at the thing I've always wanted to do.

Doing nothing is definitely the wrong track. This quote makes me think I'm on the right track.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I'll Call It a Progress Report

After a mild case of flu, I'm back writing and getting things done.

No energy left to post, except to say that tonight was an example of a good writing night. I was washing the dishes and suddenly it hit me. I knew exactly what to do with the ambiguous ending of my latest short story. So I abandoned the dishes and went to work on it. Two hours later, I'm finally getting to my blog post, but for such a good reason! The words actually came hard, but the concept was right there where I could put my finger on it.

Another time I can figure out whether the story is improved or merely changed.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Interlude- We're Sick

My family and I have caught a mild case of the flu, which is why I haven't posted for the past few days. First my son felt sick for a few days, then I caught it, and now my husband has joined in. I should be back to writing and posting as usual in a day or two.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Writing Exercise - Notecards

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, says she carries a folded notecard and pen in her pocket every time she goes anywhere without a bag or purse (she has notebooks and writing utensils stashed in those). That way she can jot down anything funny or weird or otherwise touching that she sees.

I'm going to leave a stack of notecards and a pen on my microwave, which is on my way out the door, and I'll try to have one on me at all times. Walking and washing the dishes are two of the best ways to get great ideas. With a notecard on hand, I can record those thoughts before I forget them. I guess I'll have to write my dishwashing ideas in leftover mashed potatoes.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Anne Lamott Month

If you're new to the No Shame Novelist Project, find out what it's all about here. Otherwise, read on for some of Anne Lamott's ideas about writing.

Her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is hilarious and helpful at the same time. No one that I know of can tell an anecdote like Anne Lamott. It's a thin book, 237 pages, but it's chock full of good stuff. I hate to have to pick just a few points, but I must.

1. She says to get settled in and write at about the same time each day, so your mind becomes conditioned to doing the work at that time. Fine. During Michael Palmer Month (yesterday, in fact) I mentioned how that didn't seem to work for me. But if Lamott says so, I'll try it again. Nighttime. About 8:00 - 10:00.

2. Lamott gives herself short assignments when she sits down to write: Instead of sitting down to write a novel, she goes to work on a description of the setting in one scene or on one small event at a time. Sounds like something I already do.

3. A friend of hers told her that the first draft is for getting everything down, the second is for fixing everything up, and the third draft is for checking every last detail. I'm almost done with the getting everything down part. After that, I want to let the thing air out for a while before I try to fix it up. Most likely, I'll be starting on a new book, getting everything down again and not worrying about how bad it is--yet.

4. Lamott is adamant that plot comes from the characters. The writer should worry about the characters and their relationships (to themselves, each other, and their situation) instead of plannning a plot line. As readers (and writers), we must be able to believe the characters and believe what they do.

This means that when I start my next book, I won't be working from a detailed outline, even though I just posted about how the outlining technique worked for me. I'll be getting into my characters instead, letting them breathe and walk around and get into trouble.

5. And although I came up with five pages of notes just from re-browsing the book, this is the last piece of Lamott's advice I'll post today: Make space and stillness for the writing to happen. Rather than giving up after a few minutes of blank staring, give it some time. Let the writing come. I don't think Lamott is a fan of the just-sitting-down-to-the-computer- for-15-minutes-today scheme. Very good. I will follow her with full faith...for this month, at least.

[I'm adding one more commitment to my list. Anne Lamott acknowledges that there are days when we are almost completely empty, when the funk takes over and we have nothing to say. She recommends committing to a certain number of words per day so that on the truly blank days we can get those words down as a matter of practice and principle before quitting. Right now, I'm committing to 500 words a day. Even when my whole family is in town for Christmas and staying at our house. And if that really happens, it will be the first Christmas week that I've been able to work through. That's a goal almost as lofty as NaNoWriMo itself.]

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Wrap-Up of Michael Palmer Month and National Novel Writing Month

It's December, which means I've completed two things: the month of following Michael Palmer's noveling advice and National Novel Writing Month.

Results: I wrote most days, mostly in the evening. I attribute that result to both Michael Palmer's advice and the fact that I only had the month of November to write 50,000 words if I wanted to win NaNoWriMo.

I wrote 50,301 words toward my novel, and I attribute almost all of that progress to NaNoWriMo and the encouragement and guilt trips from writing buddies. (Thanks, Aynne, Bill, and Eric!) Eighteen of the twenty-three current chapters of my book have been completed.

I also wrote a short story that I like. I find that when I have a lot on my plate, I eat a lot more. By that I meant to illustrate that a busy writing schedule spurs me to write even more than I scheduled. It is also a true statement when taken literally.

The outlining method used by Palmer was helpful to me. To clarify, I used a detailed outline that summarized the action in every chapter up to the final ones, which were left (tantalizingly?) spare. This kept me moving forward rather than looking back all the time at what I had already done. It also made me feel bored some days. But when I sat my butt down and wrote as fast as I could for good chunks of time, my characters took over for me and usually steered me in a slightly different direction. I let them. They're the real story. So I think I'll use this technique again.

On the days when I got the most done, I sat wherever the hell I wanted to at whatever time of day I could. Thus, I give Palmer's 8:00 - 10:00 pm writing schedule a tentative thumbs down. I should point out again that I'm not sure that's his actual writing schedule. I think I remember hearing it during an interview in which he described his busy days of doctoring, writing, and daddying.

After my son's bedtime, I know he won't interrupt me and I don't have to think about what he's getting into. That's the plus side of an evening writing schedule. The negative side is that I might easily settle into a movie or game with my honey after a long day of whatever it was a long day of.

I think Palmer's advice that every writer, even one without an agent or publisher, should write a proposal was good advice for me. I did end up with a stronger grasp of my story before I began it. More dimensions were added. It was a good thing.

The next month is Anne Lamott Month! Love her! If only she could stay at my house while we work through December. Tomorrow I'll post the Lamott suggestions that I'll be following. I own her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, so I will be perusing that again along with some interviews.

Then, over the month of December, I'll fill in the final chapters of my gnome novel and let the draft rest for a while before getting into revision. While this one is resting, I'll start on the next book or short story.

Summary: Yay NaNo! Yay non-excessive outlining! Boo my desk/vanity table! Boo diaper-changing! (Just thought I'd throw that one in there.) Yay Lamott!