Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The End in Sight

So it's National Novel Writing Month again, which I just can't miss, so here I am. Most of the excerpts from this year's NaNovel will be posted here at Once Upon A Week, the writing blog shared among my siblings and me.

But just for my own satisfaction, I wanted to report here that I am in the second round of revisions of last year's NaNovel and still/again feeling good about it. I've got a short list of potential publishers I'd like to target. All is well. Of course, what with NaNoWriMo, Thanksgiving, pregnancy, and the obligations (and fun) that go along with being a toddler's parent, I probably won't finish up those revisions until next month. The finish line is getting closer and closer, though. The best possible end result, a book I can be happy with, is within sight!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

100 Posts

I've got myself a nice new little goal. This is my 90th post. I want to write 100 posts for The No Shame Novelist Project (at least).

Picture of my son's first experience with headphones is completely unrelated, if you were wondering.

I'm Back?

It's been a long, long time. I've thought about this blog occasionally and felt guilty. But I felt that Real Life was more important and that for me, at the time, Real Life didn't allow for blogging. I'm trying to raise a smart, healthy, active boy who doesn't get to watch TV all day. And be there for my family. And keep the house pretty clean. It is quite a challenge--no, let me rephrase that. It is the challenge of my life.

But I'm also thinking about things I do just for me. Knitting. Reading. Writing. My mission has changed a bit. I want this to be fun, not full of pressure. Not work, because it's absolutely certain I have enough work to fill my days already. This feels a little like confessing to an illicit love affair, but I've been blogging at Once Upon A Week to have fun and connect with my siblings. If I can do that, I can show this blog a little love too, can't I?

I don't know. This is a start.

Monday, June 2, 2008

My Eeyore Post

I haven't been writing or doing anything with my manuscript for a month or so. Every time I step away from it, I spend the time thinking how awful it really is. I read great books by wonderful authors and think that I'm not fit to try. This is where I'm at. Even to blog makes me feel ashamed.

I think the solution is to get busy, get back to the manuscript. Finish up those last writing exercises that I said I was going to do (and I am) but haven't done yet. Yes, I'll feel better if I get back to work. I'm just afraid I'll be inspired to create more crap that no one should ever have to read.

My attitude sucks.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Writing Exercise #2 - Jodi Picoult Month

This exercise is something I intend to do myself (I’ve done all the writing exercises I’ve suggested in this blog), but you can, as always, try it too! You do need a completed manuscript before you start.

Open up the latest edition of Writer’s Market. I like to go to the library and use it there since it saves me something like $20 a year. Browse literary agents until you find one that might be fitting for the manuscript you’re prepared to submit. If it’s an agency, call to ask who’s accepting manuscripts. If it’s an agent, write down his or her contact information.

And that’s enough for one day.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Writing Exercise #1 of Jodi Picoult Month

Picoult advises writers to have a thick skin when it comes to getting their work out there. Let's practice.

For the next week, tell everyone you meet that you're a writer. When they ask, tell them what you're working on. You may want to prepare a cool-sounding spiel first. If any conversation you have turns remotely to any type of work, share the kind of work you do. Follow up with anyone who might be a good contact for you, the writer.

Here's an example of how NOT to do this exercise. I emailed someone in our new area who has small children to find a time and place for us to get together. She said she had heard I was writing a book and she wanted to hear more about it (she must have found out through her husband, who works with my husband). She mentioned she was an artist. So when I emailed back, I answered the questions about our meetup with the kids and totally ignored the writing part. I kind of figured we'd talk about that in person. But I also kind of got scared to talk about it. Didn't want to sound like this: "Oooohhhh, I'm a wriiiiiiiiter, you know."

I pledge to answer that email again before tonight is done, this time with details about my novel.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Jodi Picoult Month

Here we are at the polishing and agent-finding stages, during the month that I'm following a very exciting writer’s advice. Let me revise that a bit: "I'm following" should be changed to "I read"..."before packing up my entire house, husband, and toddler and moving from Maryland to Florida." To be honest, this blog is not my very first priority at the moment.

I'm also waiting on four or so people's feedback before I do any polishing.

But back to the point, please.

Jodi Picoult, who is a vivid, marvelous spatter of paint across the canvas of contemporary writers, has four specific people to read her chapters as she writes them. She incorporates their feedback in various drafts and says she's done when she just can't stand to look at the thing again.

Easy to understand. Revise until I can't stand it anymore. Got it.

It took Picoult three years to find an agent to represent her. She went about it in what she calls the traditional way, writing to a big publishing house to find which agents were accepting submissions and then contacting them. She emphasizes the importance of a thick skin and perseverance in this process.

Then, when she did find an agent, it took about three months to sell the book, which is a tribute to the quality and excitement of her work. Not sure that we should all expect that kind of turnaround (I type sarcastically).

In an interview with Writers Write, she says, "If it takes you 3-5 years to get published, you're still ahead of the game."

Though I get the feeling that with Picoult, it's always full steam ahead. It really is hard to fail like that. Even without her talent. For examples, just read a couple Hollywood biographies...

Monday, April 21, 2008


This is farther than I’ve ever been in the fiction writing process.

1. I typed out a draft of a novel during National Novel Writing Month.
2. I revised and added to it during the next couple of months.
3. I let it rest for a couple of months.
4. I revised it.
5. And now I’ve given it to a few trusted friends to read and give me feedback.

When I get the feedback, I’ll take the advice that seems right and do a polishing up of the manuscript. I might have to do major changes first. After all, I’m only a beginner at this. When I’m satisfied that it’s ready (or I really can’t stand to work on it another damn minute), I’ll look into sending it to potential agents. Lots of work to come!

Right now I’m just enjoying the feeling of having finished a novel.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Following The Advice Of The Three Greats

So, in that paper I posted about C. S. Lewis, Stephen King, and Madeleine L'Engle, their advice was to:

-read and write a lot

-hold true to a vision

-use inspiration

Time to check how that's been working for me. I've been reading A LOT. That almost never changes for me. No matter what, I read. Haven't been writing a lot at all, but that's partly because I finished the first round of revisions on my novel and sent it out to some friends for feedback. It's sit back and wait time. In a sense, the "write a lot" principle is working for me right now. I've never gotten this far in the novel-writing process before. It's all a new experience from here and I'm learning as I go.

Holding true to a vision: I wish I had a clearer or more magnificent vision for the novel I wrote. What I did have was a flash of story and a flash of characters that I pursued. I had finally decided I should write children's novels because that's the bulk of what I read! I've got shelves and shelves of L'Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Betty MacDonald at home.

Did I make use of inspiration? C. S. Lewis's was a spiritual type of ecstasy he called Joy; Stephen King's is a dwarfish muse who carries "a bag of magic"; and Madeleine L'Engle's was faith in the significance of every creature and every act in this world. I don't know. I don't think so. Most of this process felt clunky and contrived to me, but when I got into the flow of writing, I felt the joy of productivity, of creation. The act of writing regularly calmed my soul. But I didn't have any illusions about the beauty of my writing. I thought I was writing a cute little story about a few cute little characters that would turn out to be unprofound. I don't believe I have the talent to go deeper than that. Or maybe it's just that I need more experience at this to really believe in what I can do. Maybe.

What I discovered while typing that sentence up there ("I was writing a cute little story about a few cute little characters that would turn out to be unprofound") is that it doesn't bother me. That sounds all right.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fascinating Things

Read this post about Lewis’s advice to write only about certain things before reading the rest of this post.

What really, I mean REALLY, interests you?

Quickly, without thinking about it, write down 10 things that fascinate you. Read over them. You should be writing about these things.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Matter of Interest for C. S. Lewis

In the letter mentioned in this post, C. S. Lewis told a young girl to write about what really interested her and nothing else. Think about that for a minute.

“Nothing else.”

Monday, April 14, 2008

Do This Now

Before reading this post, read this one about C. S. Lewis's advice to "write with the ear."

Now read a couple of pages of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or a Dr. Seuss book, out loud.

Write whatever comes into your head for five minutes. Read it out loud. Does it have a rhythm? Is it written with the ear?

Lewis's Ear

In a letter to a young girl who wanted to be a writer, C. S. Lewis said, among other things, “Write with the ear, and if it doesn’t sound nice, try again.”

If you’re not sure what he meant by that, read or re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If you’re still not sure, read it out loud to yourself. The prose flows so well, you can’t imagine it being written any other way.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Three Dos From Three Great Authors - C. S. Lewis Month

This will be a different type of post. Instead of posting a summary of C. S. Lewis's wriing, revising, or publishing advice that I intend to follow, I will post here a brief essay I wrote (for myself) comparing some advice from Lewis, Stephen King, and Madeleine L'Engle.

Authors Stephen King, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis have a lot in common. Two were born in the 20th century and one just before it; two are natives of the northeastern United States (King and L'Engle); two are children’s writers (L'Engle and Lewis); and two were raised by a single parent from an early age (King and Lewis). Two liked to take long walks each day (King and Lewis); two were outspoken believers in God (L'Engle and Lewis); two reported they start writing by 9:00 in the morning (King and Lewis). 

The unifying thread to their work is the impact their stories have on literature and popular culture. So many people have read The Chronicles of Narnia and the Time trilogy and read and watched King’s novels and film adaptations that even in the Online Age most Americans can hold a conversation about these books. All three authors have received the highest honors for their work: among others, King received the National Book Foundation Award, Lewis the Carnegie Award, and L’Engle the John Newbery Medal.

Their published writing advice shows they don’t always agree with each other, but these three masters of the novel all consider the following three practices essential for serious writers: prodigious reading and writing every day, following a vision for the writing, and making use of inspiration that they unscientifically and unabashedly call magical.

According to King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut."* He is very specific in his recommendations to the beginning writer. “I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.” He advocates four to six hours of reading per day.

L'Engle urges writers to write every day, and have some fun with it. She doesn’t mean one should write only when it’s fun; she also stresses the importance of discipline and building up a body of work by writing consistently each day. "Many people in walks of life that do not involve creation are completely unaware of the necessity of discipline...few serious artists are able to live lives that are without interruption."** Writing is a serious business, at least in terms of settling down to do it.
The same approach applies to reading: “Read at least an hour a day, something you feel you should read for most of the time and something just for fun the rest of the time.”

Lewis gives instructions about reading and writing in a letter to a child who wants to be a writer. He writes, in 1959, “Turn off the Radio... Read all the good books you can.”*** His own ideal day started with an early breakfast so that he could sit down to write by 9:00 in the morning on the dot. Reading was to occur at mealtimes and after dinner when not out with friends. 

L’Engle's concise direction, “Hold true to your vision,”** elevates the art of writing above a formulaic enterprise. Each storyteller, she asserts, gives the world something special. She supports Jean Rhys’s conception of all writing as an enormous lake into which flow tributaries ranging from small streams to mighty rivers. Regardless of size, each feeds the lake.

In the letter to the young writer, Lewis insists she must write nothing that doesn’t truly interest her. One can imagine her enduring interests will lead her to what she is meant to write or at least make her writing more worthwhile for both writer and reader. To other people, he approaches the idea of vision more literally with descriptions of dreams and pictures on which The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based. "Images of such things as a faun with an umbrella, a magnificent talking lion, and a queen on a sleigh, increasingly filled his mind."***

Though King doesn’t mention vision by name, he believes it is important to start with characters in a sticky situation, then plunge into the story without stopping long enough to lose the sense and the tone of it. He is a waterskier and the characters are the boat—he simply hangs on to the story as long and as well as he can. The story is in charge. There is never any question of that.

Perhaps the muse has a little control as well. King describes his muse as a cigar-smoking, grunting, bowling-loving “basement guy."* He sits
plainly in awe of what the curmudgeon can do: “It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.” That "stuff in there" is the mysterious stuff of inspiration.

Lewis calls on something just as mysterious, his phenomenon of Joy (always written with a capital J), to explain the utmost reaches of what he yearns and works for. He acknowledges a formative passion for "Northern" literature and culture that went well beyond the leadings of preference and influenced his writing forever. As an adult, his continuing search for uncommon truth and beauty brought him to a belief in God that became the focusing point of all his fiction and nonfiction.

L’Engle’s inspiration is the basically spiritual belief that each human being, tiny in the scope of the universe, can make a difference through his or her actions. Faith is her muse. “Why does anyone tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”** The novels she wrote, though great fun to read, were written with the idea that they matter, that they make a difference in this world. 

Each of these three authors knew that there are some truths about writing that don’t go away no matter how much one wants them to: A published or aspiring-to-be-published writer will almost always have to sit down and write at regular periods and almost always have to revise, change, adapt, and revise again. Equally important, though, they knew that the work must have a purpose and leading higher than their own mundane consciousness.

What does the aspiring writer take from these observations? Knowing that Stephen King writes from approximately 9:00 to 1:00 each day in a room without a window, that C. S. Lewis took a daily long walk, and that Madeleine L'Engle read the Bible every day doesn’t make one into a great writer. These are simply facts to know about people who are great writers. Their greatness is not contagious; one can’t catch bestselling-author pox by reading their advice and following it to the letter. If only it were possible...! One can, however, learn what they believe is important in their life’s work, take encouragement from them, and get ideas for how to better practice one's art. 

If nothing else, one can gain an even greater appreciation for the authors' skill and vision, and the taste of magic they've left in one's mouth.

*King, Stephen.
On Writing. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.
**Chase, Carole F. "Words of Wisdom from Madeleine L'Engle."
The Writer Jun. 2002: 26+.
 Lyle W. Dorsett, ed. The Essential C. S. Lewis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. 
****Green, Roger L. & Hooper, Walter.
C. S. Lewis: A Biography. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1974.

copyright 2008 Kristy Shreve Powers

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I Feel Like Cookie Monster (Results of My Revision Retreat)

Ho-ly...! I did my retreat, in a way. (Read this post if you want to know what I'm talking about.)

Instead of an overnight, I opted for the sneak-in-and-get-it-done-quick strategy. Announced to my husband I wanted to spend all of Sunday at the coffee shop revising my novel, got his commitment to take care of our son all day, and had them drop me off at the 24-hour coffee shop. Worked from 8:30 this morning to 7:30 this evening with about a half-hour break for foraging. (The 24-hour coffee shop is in the corner of a supermarket.)

Are you surprised by my long-term concentration and effort? Me too. I sat right down, coffee in one hand, red pen in the other, and did what Stephen King suggests. I went through that s.o.b. in one sitting. First revision complete! Now I have to finish typing up the revisions. I wanted to do that tonight, but I am as exhausted as if I had done--get this--a full day of work.

Gwabgwab, gwabgwab, cookie, omomomomom!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Stephen King Watches

King distrusts plot. For him, it's all about the story. "I want to put a group of some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn't to help them...but to watch what happens and then write it down," he says in On Writing.

Faced with this quote, I think about the number of my characters who, eventually, didn't seem to do anything. So I had nothing to watch and nothing to write down. I tried to fix this by changing their names, love interests, or genders, or swapping them with a more interesting minor character.

But the problem didn't lie with the characters. It was the story. It was either no good to begin with, or I let it grow cold. The story withered and then the characters grew pale.

There's no remedy once this happens, at least not in the present. The idea and the characters must be killed. I must get it right the next time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Reading and Writing

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around those two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."
~from On Writing by Stephen King

King suggests that if you're not willing or able to do those two things, you can forget about being a writer. His recommendations are a couple of hours a day of reading and however long it takes to reach your daily goal of writing. Given his suggested daily goal and the average time it takes him to write that amount (as stated in On Writing), and considering also how long it takes me to write that number of words on average, I'd say a couple of hours of writing is the daily figure.

Both are possible to accomplish with a full-time job. However, you have to use your lunch break or get up really early or have no household duties whatsoever or go to bed late or all of the above. I never achieved both while working full-time. But I did meet the daily writing goal for an entire month while working all day in an office and pregnant! If you've never been pregnant, never mind--but it's impressive, damnit! The thing is, I don't think I read much, if anything, that month and I couldn't have gone longer than a month without burning out.

What I'm trying to say is that, to follow King's recommendations, you must treat it as a job in its own right.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A King's Work Ethic

Stephen King worked several blue-collar jobs up to the time his novel Carrie sold: in a fabric mill, as a janitor, in a laundry. He's no stranger to a day (or night) of hard work.

Could that have something to do with his colossal creative output? When he approaches something as a job, you'd better believe he'll get it done and done well. He's written 48 novels, 8 story collections, and a screenplay. And that's not counting numerous short stories, the various roles he played in making many "Stephen King movies", and multiple other bookish and writing endeavors.

When he gives writing advice, notably in his book On Writing, he means it, by gum. Sit down and do it. There's no alternative except to give up altogether. If he says sit down and try to revise your novel all in one shot if possible, then you'd best do it. At the very most, do it in two sittings.

Ahem. Eventually I will post how it worked for me when I attempted this with my mini-retreat.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Revision Exercise Part Two

Read Part One here if you haven't already. Then take your 24 hours' free time, your loving helpmate, and your dependent and mix them together. Tell them you will be back in 24 hours, more or less. Leave emergency numbers but NOT a number where you can be reached. Bring your manuscript, red pen, alarm, takeout food, and ready-made snacks to the uninterruptable place with the bathroom.

Set the alarm for 24 hours from now. Revise. Quickly now. Revise more. Don't touch that TV! Or that phone! Don't even THINK about the Internet. Make a list of the things you want to look up or do online and do them later.

Go home when the alarm goes off. Voila! You have revised your manuscript.

Revision Exercise Part One - Stephen King Month

This exercise will help you (me) implement the Kingian strategy of reading through for revision all in one shot. See this post for more detail about the strategy. This exercise isn't suggested by King, though I think he would approve if it got the job done. Nope, it's purely from a mom's perspective, a solution to the puzzle of how to follow his recommendation when you have a toddler at home.

a child, children, dog, or other needy creature who depends daily on you
an alarm
one loving husband, partner, grandparent, relative, loyal friend, or other helpmate
a place where you will not let yourself be interrupted
your manuscript
a red pen
takeout food and ready-made snacks (caffeinated beverages optional but recommended)
24 hours' free time (which you have fought for and arranged)
a close-by bathroom

Get these requirements together. Then come back for Part Two.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Stephen King Month

I've read Stephen King's book On Writing so many times I can almost recite from it. It'll be easy to sum up what I intend to do for Stephen King Month, in revision mode. (By the way, read On Writing. I don't know if it will improve your work, but I promise you'll enjoy yourself if you write fiction. Or read fiction. Or read nonfiction.)

1. Read through the manuscript as fast as possible making notes in the margins--mostly corrections of spelling, grammar, and things that don't work, like events that could not possibly happen now that my protagonist is female and a twin instead of an only child. Fix grammar and spelling and crappy sentences. Try to delete every single adverb. Have a go at some adjectives, too; why not? Ideally, I'll do this in just one or two sittings. When will I find these large chunks of time to go through the manuscript? Hunh. I'll get back to you on that one. (Probably one day--let's call it tomorrow--during my son's naptime and then a few hours after he goes to bed.)

2. Type up corrections and send off the manuscript to the people I choose for feedback.

3. Evaluate suggestions from those people and make any changes I want to make at this point. Think about theme and whether or not I can add in some meaningful frills or purposeful twists. Examine previous sentence and scoff, disdaining to even fix it.

4. Go through one more time and catch those remaining errors--I hope all of them.

5. Whew. It might be August at this point.

Tonight Is A Triumph

Woohoo! It's Stephen King Month! But I don't have my act together yet, so details are coming. Won't bore you (Jeff and any other unexpected but welcome guest) with the mundane reasons, but I haven't been posting lately due to know, crucial life schtuff.

However, tonight is a triumph. Success #1: I posted. Success #2: I've been revising my novel bit by bit; it hasn't been altogether abandoned. Success #3 (in the near future): I will post at Once Upon A Week tonight, too! Oh, and Success #4: I've been talking with a close friend's close friend who knows people in the publishing realm novel. Not a bad thing to be doing, eh?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Confession: I posted that cute little "heart's tiny flag" post, started revising, and hit a snag. Quickly I realized my book was crap. The action didn't come fast enough, the protagonist was not believable. I put the manuscript aside to think up a major change or solution. And Aha! I came up with two. First, I needed to quit hating myself quite so much. It's possible that I could write something that (if not an instant classic) works.

Second, I made my not-believable, bland main character switch places with a minor character--a cousin--that I liked better. I made the former main character into her twin. The protagonist is now female instead of male, a twin instead of an only, sassy instead of earnest. Needless to say, I have major work to do before I can get down to the nitty-gritty readthrough, but at least I have hope again.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Heart's Tiny Flag Will Wave

I've finished Sol Stein's first-priority revisions to my novel as well as I could without reading through the manuscript. Now it's time to read through. Yikes!

In Stein on Writing, Stein suggests reading it as if a friend of yours whose taste you doubt recommended this book to you, and you're reading it with reservations. Given my tendency to judge myself more harshly than I judge other people, I think I'll be reading with "reservations" at the very least. But not to worry. I'll be able to recognize the good writing as I go through. Enough to wave my heart's little tiny flag of joy when I encounter it.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Woman At Work

I've gone ahead and jumped into revision. It's only been four or five weeks as opposed to the six weeks I planned to set it aside, but I had a good reason to start. A week or two ago thoughts began to pop into my head like, That novel probably sucks, and, It's not on the right reading level, and, You put in too many confusing plot points, and, That novel really is going to suck when you read it again. The thoughts were getting me down and I could tell I was approaching the point when I would give up on it altogether. Without even reading it over again!

There was only one remedy: Start revising. It's a good feeling; I see tons of things that are not going to work in the manuscript, but on the plus side, I can dive in and try to fix them. I'm using the Stein method of triage like I posted here. The good and bad thing about his method is that I'm working on the really big elements before I read the whole manuscript through. That means the hard work comes first. It also means a lot of the hard work will be done by the time I read it through word by word.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Steinish Writing Exercise

Stein says to ask yourself, "How alive is my main character?" He says it's one of the most important factors in whether or not people will want to read your book.

Here's an exercise meant to flesh out a main character.

Think about a movie you watched or a book you read. Insert your main character in the place of the main character of the movie or book. What would your main character have done differently? How would the plot have changed as a result? How would your character have related to the other characters in the movie or book? If you feel stumped, go back to developing your main character into a multidimensional, likeable, flawed person. Or at least a character you can imagine in settings other than your manuscript.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Sol Stein Month

It's Sol Stein Month in the No Shame Novelist Project. You can find out exactly what that means here.

I'm about to begin revising my novel draft, so I'm going to focus on what Sol Stein has to say about revising, though he gives plenty of advice on other aspects of writing in his book, Stein on Writing, and through the products of his company WritePro. The revision plan I summarize below can be found in his book.

Stein calls his approach the triage method of revision, because it attends first to the errors that most often cause editors to reject a manuscript. I'll summarize the steps here, but I refer you to Stein on Writing for a very detailed plan for revising fiction and nonfiction.

1. Think about your main characters first. Do you ever think about them when you're not writing about them? If not, they may need some work.

2. Think about your villain. Does the character have more than one side? Is there anything interesting or like able about him or her (or it)?

3. Take a look at your minor characters. Make sure they are characterized adequately.

4. Check the conflict between the protagonist and the villain for credibility.

5. Find the weakest scene in your book. Cut it. Then find the scene that used to be the second weakest but is now the weakest scene. Think about cutting it. Continue as long as necessary.

6. How are the main actions in the story motivated? Strongly? Weakly?

And that's the bare bones of Stein's triage method. When I begin to revise in two weeks, I'll use this method. In the meantime, I'll work on another project using the mix of L'Engle's and Lamott's suggestions that I've been focusing on: following my vision, sitting at the keyboard and letting images and phrases flow through my mind before beginning to type, and keeping an honest, everyday journal.

Ending Madeleine L'Engle Month, Beginning the Month of Sol Stein

Yesterday was the last day of Madeleine L'Engle Month for the No Shame Novelist Project. As I lay awake early this morning between episodes of putting my son back in his toddler bed every five minutes, I realized I need to take another piece of her advice that I haven't mentioned here before. She encouraged writers to keep an honest diary, one that will never be published. I've been writing this blog instead of the rambling, mundane, sometimes insightful, usually anal journal that I often wrote in prior to starting this blog. The problem is I have trouble knowing what I think, believe, and feel until I write it down. Going back to my journal can help me follow my vision by helping me figure it out.

My next post will summarize some of Sol Stein's writing advice. To get a head start, visit his website or the website of his company, WritePro.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

If You Could Be Any Genre...

Okay, I quit sulking and got to work, which was a major victory for me. It doesn't usually happen that way when I'm feeling anxious and tired. I did as much writing as I could make myself do and then took a short reading nap until my son woke up from his nap.

Made myself a small pot of coffee, put on a movie for him because it's one of those days and really cold outside to boot, and started musing. Something that Deanna Raybourn said in an interview by Material Witness struck me. She said she worked for fourteen years writing manuscripts and not getting published. Then her agent told her to take a year and just read. So she did. She read only what she loved, which often turned out to be historical and British. The result: she decided to write what she loved to read and was published. I finished recently her Silent in the Grave, a fun and surprising Victorian-era murder mystery, and I applaud her decision.

What I mused on this afternoon was this: I read children's novels all the time. The slight majority of the books I own are children's or young adult books. In the last month, I've borrowed these books from the library: The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Little House in the Big Woods, Swallows and Amazons, The Amber Spyglass, and Little House on the Prairie. Two months ago I re-read for the tenth time The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the moment, I'm reading All of A Kind Family. Hmmm. What do I love to read?

Yes, I just finished a draft of a children's novel. But I wrote that because I had an idea about gnomes and I didn't picture it going over well for the adult audience. I thought it was going to be an exception for me. Maybe it shouldn't be.

Today's Mood

Today I feel like I could falll asleep at the desk. I am here under protest. That's all.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Progress Report Card

Time for a progress report. How am I doing with the advice from Madeleine L'Engle that I said I was going to follow this month?

1. I'm still reading at least an hour a day. Most of the time I get that good-for-me reading done as well as the pleasure reading. I'm reading a good-for-me Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson right now and a pleasurable All of A Kind Family by Sydney Taylor.

2. I have not been writing consistently every day for the reason that I've been sick and so has my son. This is a legitimate and useful reason (skipping writing allows me to get a much-needed nap when my son does), but now that we're both mostly better, it's hard to get back in the swing of things.

I'll start revising my children's novel on February 11th, and I know that's going to be a huge job. I don't want to start another big project before then. The story I'm working on is fun but not going anywhere yet. I don't feel like I've gotten serious about it. This makes it even harder to make sure to write every day.

3. "Hold true to your vision." This is still the trickiest piece of advice to follow. I think if I did this, I would already be working on my new novel idea, even though I'll be getting into revising my last novel shortly. I'd be writing as fast as the inspiration came, for as long as it took. This is unrealistic with a toddler in the house, but I could be doing it to the best of my ability, writing in all my spare minutes rather than in just one toddler-nap chunk.

In my original post about Madeleine L'Engle's advice, I wrote: "How will I do this as I sit down to write? I think I will actually turn to a piece of Anne Lamott's advice. She sits down, rereads what she wrote the day before, and muses about it. Actions, thoughts, and descriptions flit through her head. When they begin to form themselves into sentences and paragraphs, she types them down like she's taking dictation."

I tend to not want to sit down to my keyboard until I already know what I'm going to start writing. What I want to do instead is, as they say, "Suit up and show up." Then we'll see what happens.

On this report card, I give myself a B. Plenty of room for improvement.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Building Up

"Being a writer does not necessarily mean being published...When you have a vision, you want to share it. But being a writer means writing. It means building up a body of work. It means writing every day. You can hardly say that van Gogh was not a painter because he sold one painting during his lifetime, and that to his brother. Van Gogh was a painter because he painted, because he held true to his vision as he saw it."
-excerpt from Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life (Chase, Carole F.) in The Writer, June 2002 v115 i6 p26(4)

Building up that body of work, if I follow my vision for it, can be as satisying as anything in life. The joy I thought I would feel upon being published is already accessible.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

truth and Truth

Today I told the truth about how I felt to a family member. Shouldn't be too hard, should it? It was. I'm an honest person, but when I talk to people, I empathize with their feelings and opinions and usually leave out or smooth over the parts where I disagree with them. I tell the truth, but not the whole truth. Today I told the whole truth. I was shaking, I was so nervous about it. When I was done, I felt light as air.

Later this afternoon, I was struck with inspiration for a new book idea. It was an exciting idea and it felt Truthful (the way that fiction tells the Truth). Is it coincidence that inspiration came to me after I had let my whole truth come out?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Writing and a Spiritual Life

Madeleine L'Engle (author of 62 books and this month's No Shame Novelist featured author) did not separate her spiritual life from her creative life. I think she would say they are inseparable.

I think about this in terms of inspiration when I'm writing. I don't want it to be a purely rational process where I think about options, choose some and reject others, and write from an unchanging plan. I've been reading L'Engle and C. S. Lewis and Louisa May Alcott all my life. Out of many influences, they were the heaviest on my love of reading and writing. Each of them had strong spiritual or moral beliefs that affected their writing to the point that their works would never have been written without those beliefs.

Writers don't need to go to church or profess faith, but I think we do need to tap into something outside our normal experience in order to do the best work we're capable of.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Einstein and L'Engle

Whew. I did the latest writing exercise, and it led to some work getting done.

But on to L'Engle. One of her greatest inspirations was Albert Einstein.

In an interview with, she said, "I was asking myself all the big questions about life and the universe and not finding the answers. Then I picked up a book of Einstein's and he said anyone who is not lost in rapture at the power of the mind behind the universe 'is as good as a burned out candle.'"

Later in the same interview, L'Engle said, "And particle physics says nothing is without a purpose, everything has an impact."

You can see her philosophy in the books she's written, perhaps most memorably in the five Time books: A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind In the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. In these books, a child often plays a crucial role in events affecting entire worlds, from the cellular level to the outer environment.

Her philosophy is in her writing advice, too. In Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections On A Writing Life, she said, "Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically."

She also liked Jean Rhys's description of the whole of writing as an enormous lake. Big rivers feed into the lake, but so do little streams. Each drop of water becomes part of the lake's composition.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Writing Exercise, Prefaced By Stuff That's Not Writing

I am feeling lazy about writing today. Instead of writing this post, I've been:

1. Doing laundry.

2. Looking up potty training tips (for my son, not me--I totally get it).

3. Checking my email.

4. Searching for and writing down homemade recipes for toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, and household cleaning.

5. Voting for Joshilyn Jackson's gods in Alabama for Spread the Word's Top 10 Books to Talk About. You can vote here, too.

Ugh. After typing that list, I'm still stuck. Here's a simple writing exercise for you and me: Open up the *^%%$# program that is storing our work in progress and at least, for the love of Madeleine, look at it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Once Upon A Week

I was going to tell you about the nonfiction works I've been completing over the last few days and how it's not as fun or inspiring to me as writing fiction, and then I remembered something.

I have a Once Upon A Week post due today! My brother and sister and sister-in-law and I have this thing going: One of us posts a trigger (word, image, lyrics, etc.) at the beginning of the week and all of us write a response to it by the end of the week. So far, we've posted comic strips, short stories, snippets of fiction, essays, one-liners, and even a song via audiofile. This week's trigger involves, well, cursing, but we don't have any rule against that at Once Upon A Week.

Our past triggers have been:

Thanksgiving haiku
7th grade
the song "The Nurse Who Loved Me"

I'm off to work on the rest of the fiction piece I started for this week's trigger. And here I thought I was going back to writing a nonfiction article. Wheeeeeeeeee!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Interlude: The Pulitzer Project

Thanks to Sherry's comment yesterday, I found The Pulitzer Project which I love already. The subheading tells most of the story: "Reading all 81 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction".

The participants post their reading progress and reviews of the Pulitzer Prize books they've read. I can't say I'll read the Pulitzer books this year because I have my own long book list to get through, but it's a great goal and one I'll consider for the future.

So there you go, readers. Have at it!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Our Truest Response

"Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth."

Madeleine L'Engle said this, and it gives me comfort. Sometimes I think I'm being selfish to write. What if I'm no good at all, and I've taken all those hours away from my family for no reason? But no. There's a reason. I could have never put it as eloquently as L'Engle, but the writing I do gives me the strength to live the other parts of my life. I rejoice in the blessings of those other parts, but it's a lot harder to rejoice when I don't have the outlet of creating.

On a more mundane level, writing reveals to me the truth of my feelings. I find that a lot of times I'm not aware of what I think or feel about something until I'm writing and it comes out on the paper. I read it and think, Right. Of course. That's what I feel.

Monday, January 7, 2008

How L'Engle's Advice Works for Me

I'm feeling calm yet productive in L'Engle Month so far. (See this post for more about Madeleine L'Engle Month. For more about the No Shame Novelist Project, see this post.) Here's what I'm doing and how I'm feeling about the three pieces of L'Engle's adviced that I picked to follow.

1. “Read at least an hour a day, something you feel you should read for most of the time and something just for fun the rest of the time.”

I'm meeting this goal easily because, as I said earlier, I read all through the day when I'm eating, resting, and going to bed. Her encouragement to read something I think I should read for most of the time has pushed me to read Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle and I'm glad I did. It was an engrossing book with what I think is a fit ending, but I resisted reading it because I knew it would be about hard lives and covert racism. No neat happy endings here. Still, the characters resonated and the story will stay with me for a long time.

2. Write consistently each day. Do this in the spirit of fun, too, but make it a discipline. It's the only way to "build up a body of work".

I'm going to the computer consistently and usually getting a blog post out of it. My new short story is hard for me to get into. It's not going smoothly or easily. I'm also finishing up some nonfiction projects which are less enticing to me than writing fiction. I'm not getting a large word count. I actually expect to break out of this whirlpool soon. I think my productivity comes in large bursts, and then goes. It'll come back.

3. "Hold true to your vision."

Though Michael Palmer's method of outlining a book very carefully before starting seemed to work for me in November, I think I'm not willing to work on a project unless it comes from a strong feeling or force within me. There are so many discouraging times through the writing and publishing process that I don't think I can make it all the way through unless I believe in my project at a gut level or a heart level. A story that I write simply because I think it is a good idea that somebody will want to publish will not survive the process. At the first rejection, I'll stop believing in it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Interlude: Joshilyn Jackson's gods in Alabama

I mentioned some new-to-me women authors in this post and said I was going to read them all. After starting Joshilyn Jackson's book gods in Alabama less than 24 hours ago, I've finished it. I feel like Tony the Tiger because it's Grrrrrrrrrreat! She's got two other books out, Between, Georgia, and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, that I must now read.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Madeleine L'Engle's Places

Madeleine L'Engle was born in New York City and went to school there. She also went to an English boarding school in the French Alps and attended high school in Charleston, South Carolina. While there, she vacationed in a beach cottage in Florida. She studied English at Smith College. After she married and began having children, she and her husband moved to a country town in Connecticut. They eventually moved back to New York City but they always kept the country home.

If you've read many of L'Engle's books, you'll recognize most of the settings of her books in the places she lived.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Response to Writing Exercise

In the picture, I look pretty with my long hair and red ribbon, like I could have been one of the Little House on the Prairie girls. But I also look tired. There are bags under my eyes belying the pretty, kind, posed smile. One arm is draped around Johanna's side--she's tipped over against me--but one is flicking or moving the rattle in her other hand, surreptitiously. My face gives nothing away, as if I am sitting perfectly still simply posing and smiling for the camera as I've been told to do. I don't know what I was trying to do with that rattle. I imagine I was trying to keep Johanna from bringing it up to her face, trying to make sure everything works out perfect for my mom and dad taking the picture.

On Jeff's face is a curious, crowd-pleasing smile, too. For some reason his expression brings back my memories of him being stubborn and making sure to do whatever it was he had set his mind on doing. He would bite you if you didn't let him. I remember that. Perhaps it was his method of preserving his true self against all attempts to civilize him. He has always been like that, I think. Polite and responsible on the outside, determined to be himself and only himself on the inside.

I look at Johanna and remember her only as a passive, grinning, sometimes angry baby. She has the roundest, softest body of the three of us in the picture, though this is because she is the youngest--only half a year old, probably. All of us have some version of the Shreve nose, but I now notice that each of us has slightly different-shaped eyes. Different colors, too. I can't read Johanna's round, blue, wondering eyes. I have never been able to tell what she was thinking. She has been a mystery to me most of her life. For me, that has been a deep source of sadness and confusion. Lately she entrusts me with more information and it makes me feel hopeful for her. Jeff seems so easy to read, on the other hand, that I wonder if I am missing something about him, something big and important and hidden.

Back to me: What do I remember about being six and a half years old? Nothing much. A brick house in a bad neighborhood that I didn't perceive that way. It was simply our house. A house was a good thing. There were people in that neighborhood that made me feel bad and suspicious, but that was the way things were, not bad nor good. One person who made me feel funny was our next door neighbor Nikki, a twelve-year-old who may have been hiding terrible things behind her careful adult demeanor. Her parents screamed and threw dishes at each other and I remember once a police car showed up at their house. I didn't connect her parents' screaming and throwing to that of my own parents because I didn't think about her parents very much. That was her life. I was wholly concerned with my own.

My teacher at the time, Mrs. Musselman, once made me drink spoiled orange juice that had been packed in my lunchbox. I still remember the taste of it--too sweet and too filmy with a strong rancid undertone. I think I cried. Mrs. Musselman was very strict. We learned phonics and the Spanish names of colors and spelling.

I had a crush on John Somebody-or-other at this age. I thought the blue-eyed blonde boy walked on water. Who knows why. The only things I remember him doing are shooting a cap-gun at the ceiling of our classroom during show and tell (against the teacher's orders) and walking across the school parking lot to get in one of the cars and go home.

I don't remember anything else at home. I don't remember much about my younger brother and sister until we were older. I don't know if that's normal for young kids or not. But I do still remember the nightmares I had in which I tried unsuccessfully to save my baby sister. In one, I was in a deserted dark airport in the middle of a big city. A fat Garfield-esque cat was doing terrible things. I tried to stop him but his underling cats tickled me until I had no breath. In another recurring nightmare, two cartoon bears with bright blue flower garlands around their heads took Johanna and threw her down headfirst on our concrete patio leading out to the backyard. I never had these dreams about Jeff. I think he's always had to take care of himself.

What I feel for my siblings is awe for the wonderful people they are, an abiding respect, and an eternal anxiety about their wellbeing. In this picture we all look happy, well-groomed, adorable, even matching in our red and white stripes. When I glance at it (it's up on the wall above my desk) I think about the love that binds us. But I don't ever think we were simply happy.

There have been happiness and joy in my life in greater measure than I expected. I have always acknowledged these gifts and moments of peace and been grateful and guilty for them.

Now is the time to acknowledge all the other feelings.

Repeating the Younger Self Writing Exercise

I wanted to come up with a writing exercise that would help me follow L'Engle's advice to "hold true to your vision". Then I remembered I had never done the exercise I posted about tapping into my younger self. Here it is again:

"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."

After I post this, I'm going to take down the 24-year-old picture of me and my siblings in our matching red pajamas and do what I wrote above.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Madeleine L'Engle Month

I was sad to hear that the wise Madeleine L'Engle (full name: Madeleine L'Engle Camp Franklin) had died September 6th, 2007. The world is lucky to have her books as lasting reminders of her contributions and thoughts.

Below are the pieces of her advice that I will be following for the month of January.

1. “Read at least an hour a day, something you feel you should read for most of the time and something just for fun the rest of the time.”
(excerpted from Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on the Writing Life by The Writer, June 2002 v115 i6 p26(4))

I follow this advice already, by reading every time I sit down to eat, every time I go to the bathroom for more than a minute, before bed, and other times throughout the day. It's what I do. As far as the material I choose, I've mostly read things for fun, but I've also read my share of things I thought I should. Right now I'm reading a book called Friends for 350 Years about the history and practices of Quakers that counts as both. For something I feel I should read, I will start Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle.

2. Write consistently each day. Do this in the spirit of fun, too, but make it a discipline. It's the only way to "build up a body of work".
(from same source as above)

I wrote about the importance of vacations from writing in yesterday's post along with the importance of keeping at a story until it's finished. This month, I will write something every day unless I need a vacation for one of the legitimate, useful reasons I listed in the post yesterday.

3. "Hold true to your vision."
(same source)

L'Engle believed each of us has something unique and valuable to contribute to the universe. My interpretation of this piece of advice is that we must be careful to contribute what we are meant to contribute rather than what we decide to contribute on a solely rational basis (for example, by plotting everything ahead of time and writing to the outline). As writers or artists, we must explore our leanings and curiosities and processes while remaining open to inspiration that seems to be bigger than ourselves.

How will I do this as I sit down to write? I think I will actually turn to a piece of Anne Lamott's advice. She sits down, rereads what she wrote the day before, and muses about it. Actions, thoughts, and descriptions flit through her head. When they begin to form themselves into sentences and paragraphs, she types them down like she's taking dictation.

I've heard the writer described as a typist for another power from many great authors. Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, and Anne Lamott are just three of them I can think of off the top of my head. This is very different from Michael Palmer's advice, of course, and his advice did seem to work for me. Well, we'll see what really works when this project is ended.

So begins Madeleine L'Engle Month.