Keeping Score: December 6, 2019

Only a measly 300 words written this week.

I can blame the time change (from East Coast back to West Coast hours). I can blame the stress of getting back into the day job after a week off.

But really, it’s just been hard pushing the words out this week.

Hard even to carve out time in the day to do it. I know, I know, that’s a perennial excuse, but it’s true: some days, it’s damn hard to find even thirty minutes where my brain isn’t mush and I’m not rushing off to do something else.

So I’m hoping to find some time today, and each day this weekend, so I can at least finish out the week with 1,500 words done.

I feel like I’m going to have to reconsider my schedule soon, though, and drop something from it to make room for writing. Only, I don’t what I could possibly let go of.

How about you? What do you do, when you feel your writing time slipping away? How do you claw it back?

Keeping Score: November 29, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving!

We’re on the East Coast this year, doing what’s become a bit of a tradition for us: Crashing someone else’s Thanksgiving 🙂

We stay with friends of ours in Maryland that we’ve known for the better part of two decades, and spend the week hanging out with them. I usually make a detour up to Boston to see some other good friends of mine, but I make sure I’m back time for turkey.

Thankfully, travel this time doesn’t mean a loss of writing time. Though I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit these past few weeks, this week, at least, I’ve managed to keep up. So: 2,112 words written towards the new novel.

…which is a little less than I’d like, given how much time I’ve spent on trains these past few days, with nothing else to do but type. But I’m finding this last third of the book tricky to navigate. I’m having to pause more and think things through, making notes on different possibilities before picking one and writing it out.

It’s not a bad thing, per se, but it does mean progress feels slow. I’m telling myself that I’ll make up for it later, when I’m able to drop in whole chapters from the first draft, instead of rewriting them from scratch.

If you did NaNoWriMo this month, I hope you’re close to the finish line. If you didn’t, I hope your current work-in-progress is going well.

For everyone, I hope you’re going into the final month of 2019 doing the one thing that is necessary for progress in this craft: writing!

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Is there anything better than opening a book to find the author is speaking directly to you? It’s like discovering an old friend you’ve never met before. Someone you just click with, who warms every cockle of your old heart.

That’s what I felt, reading Bird by Bird.

Lamott’s willing to be vulnerable, to show not only her worries and her fears, but also her jealousies and her anger, her depression and her rage. It makes the book feel more human, to me, than other writing advice books. More humble.

And more realistic. Lamott insists over and over again that writing is wonderful, that when the words come together it’s one of the greatest joys she’s ever known, but that doing the work needs to be enough on its own, because publishing — whether getting rejected repeatedly, or getting accepted and dealing with the disappointment that comes when your work doesn’t get the attention you crave — is not the path to happiness for a writer.

So for her, it’s the triumph of getting in the day’s word count that matters. Or the knowledge that the book you wrote for your dying father was done before they passed, so they got to read it. Or the thought that writing about your own struggles, your own pain, can help someone else who’s going through the same thing.

For me, her book has been like a stay in a remote cabin with a good friend. Relaxing, conversational, but also deep and moving. I’ve already incorporated a lot of the techniques she advocates, from focusing on getting one single thing down to staying in the chair until the words come.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Keeping Score: October 25, 2019

I think I’ve written myself into a corner this week.

I’m working on a scene where I want to have one character drop a particularly important piece of information. It’s something that changes the dynamic of the scene — from fight to negotiation — and sets the stage for a partnership that runs through the rest of the novel.

The trouble is, I’ve gone out of my way earlier in the book to insist she doesn’t remember anything related to this dramatic, juicy, bit of info.

So I’m in a bit of a bind. Do I try to find some awkward way to shoehorn in why she might remember this bit but not anything else?

Or should I go back and rewrite the parts where she doesn’t remember, and change it so that she does? And deal with the ripple effects that’ll cause?

I’m hoping my subconscious is working on the problem, and will present me with a solution soon. I really don’t want to have to rewrite those other scenes, here when I’m so close to finishing this draft.

What do you do, when you realize the needs of the story — the drama, or the tension — are pushing you to change parts of the plot?

Keeping Score: October 18, 2019

2,477 words written this week.

I’m going full-steam-ahead on the novel, closing in on the last dozen scenes or so I need to write to finish it out.

Each new scene, I still think to myself “I don’t know if I can do this.” But if I just sit there long enough, staring at the screen, and refuse to budge, or to look away, the words will come.

They may not be the right words, or good ones. But they’re progress, the raw material I can use later to shape the story.

Pushing ahead on the novel means I’m not going back and revising the short stories I wrote over the Writers Conference weekend. That bothers me, but I’m honestly not sure how to do both. Perhaps once I finish this novel draft, I can pause and revise the short stories before plunging back into the book for another editing pass?

What about you? How do you balance multiple projects? Or, like me, do you find it hard to switch between different works?

Keeping Score: October 11, 2019

Thank goodness for the Writers Coffeehouse.

Went this Sunday, after skipping for a few months. Jonathan Maberry again led a fantastic discussion, plus Q&A. He gave us a rundown on options vs production deals, persistence in the face of discouragement, and told us some new markets opening up that we might not have considered before.

And he also gave me great advice about my nervousness with the magazine that I hadn’t heard from since acceptance: Send them an email.

Yeah, it seems simple in hindsight. But what would I say? How would I ask the question on my mind?

He gave me a few examples of things to say, and insisted it was not too early (or too late!) to want to hear from them.

So I followed his advice. Sent the email, after rewriting it three different times, trying to avoid coming off too flippant or too formal or too needy.

And I got a response within an hour that cleared everything up.

I feel silly for not writing earlier. It was such a non-deal, and I felt so much better afterwards.

So much so, that I’ve already written 2,208 words this week, and I’ve still got the weekend 🙂

What about you? Has there been something you’ve been nervous about doing as part of your writing — whether sending it off for review, or reading it to a critique group, or emailing an agent — that turned out to be nowhere near as big a deal as you thought it’d be?

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

It’s difficult to think of myself as privileged.

Growing up, our family car was one donated to us by the local church, because we couldn’t afford one.

The only house we could afford was one at the very end of a dirt road so badly cut out of the weeds that the school bus wouldn’t go down it, so I had to walk a mile or so to where the dirt track met a farm road.

I always started the school year with sore feet, because we couldn’t buy new clothes for me, and last year’s sneakers, once so roomy, were now so tight that I couldn’t run in them, lest my arches feel like they were breaking.

But I was privileged, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

When I was 16, and walking home from work after midnight, the cops didn’t stop and frisk me. They didn’t arrest me for breaking curfew. They didn’t demand proof of the job that kept me out, proof I could not have provided right then, in the dark, on the street.

Instead, they drove me home.

When I was in college, smoking weed in a parked car, the police didn’t come up on me in the night, rip me from the vehicle, and put me away for possession and intention to distribute.

And as an adult now, if I change lanes without signaling, or do a California Roll through a stop sign, I don’t have to worry about the police doing anything more than giving me a ticket, if they even decide to pull me over.

If any of these things had happened to me, my life would have been derailed. My job working for the federal government could not have happened. I would not have been able to finish college. I would have been branded a criminal, and locked out of the upward mobility I’ve experienced.

I have been privileged, then, because I have been allowed to succeed.

But millions of Americans with a skin color different from mine are not allowed. And it’s something that was invisible to me, until very recently.

I didn’t know that the police have the power to stop and frisk anyone they even suspect of being engaged in illegal drug activity. That they can give the most implausible of reasons to search someone, or their car, or their luggage, without a warrant. And that given this immense power, they choose to use it not on the majority of criminals who are of European descent, but on African- and Hispanic-Americans.

It frightens me, to think of how lucky I was not to be caught up in the Drug War. And it worries me, to see the same excuses that have been used for thirty years to lock up millions of African-Americans now turned onto those trying to enter this country in search of a better life for their families: They’re branded criminals, stripped of rights because they supposedly came in “the wrong way,” told they’re “jumping the line” and have only themselves to blame for the hardships they face once they’re here.

It’s lies, all of it, and it breaks my heart that my own family, who in a different century would have been the subject of the same lies, swallows them whole.

If this conception of privilege surprises you, if you know that most criminals are dark-skinned but think poverty is to blame, or if you think justice in the United States is in any way color-blind, then I urge you to read this book.

The New Jim Crow is not a polemic. It is not a screed. It is a well-research, well-written account of how we’ve given the police enormous powers in the name of winning the Drug War, and they’ve turned them on the most vulnerable and most oppressed segment of our society. It’s essential reading, especially as we enter a new election cycle and debate what sort of government we want.

Keeping Score: October 4, 2019

I’d heard that the bubble of elation you feel when you first have something accepted for publication doesn’t last long.

I only half-believed it, of course. Surely I would be different, my expectations set better, my heart both more and less trusting.

Because if one acceptance happened, couldn’t another? And another? And even if rejection came, wouldn’t that one acceptance be enough to keep me going?

Turns out the answer is no, no, and nope.

I’d had a story out to one magazine for a good while — close to three months — and as the time stretched out without getting a rejection notice, I began to hope. The acceptance of another story just made that hope bigger, and my dreams with it: What if all the stories I had out currently got accepted? What if I was able to join SFWA this year, all in a rush, with three stories that I’ve spent years working on all getting accepted in a short window of time?

But the rejection came yesterday, and my little bubble of hope popped with it.

Now I feel like half a success, half a failure. It doesn’t help that I’ve heard nothing from the magazine that’s accepted a story since that acceptance; no signed contract, no payment, nothing. So even that success feels ghostly, as if one strong wind could blow it away, and I’d be back where I started. Unpublished. Always-rejected.

I’m telling myself to be patient. That the only thing I can control is the writing, so I’d better damn well do that part.

And it does comfort me, a little, that I wrote 2,223 words this week. I’m back to making good progress on the novel, and I’ve got two stories to edit into shape before sending them out into the world.

Chances are they’ll probably be rejected, too. But I can’t control that. What I can do is write another story, then another, and keep writing. Keep improving. And keep submitting.

One story got through. I can keep writing until another one does, too.

Keeping Score: September 27, 2019

Wrote 2,559 words this week!

I’m trying to get back in the habit of writing daily, or nearly-daily, and it’s paying off. Even though I only wrote 1,400 words at the Tuesday write-in, I put in some time after work Monday and Thursday to push over the 2,500 mark.

Most of that work’s been on the short story I started last Friday, at the Writers Conference. It was supposed to be a flash piece, in and out quick, but it’s turned into a full 3,000-word story.

And it might get longer. I compressed a lot of time towards the end, fitting years of change into a few paragraphs. Those might have to be uncompressed in order to feel like a more natural ending. So it might grow another one- to two-thousand words.

But that’s a problem for later, after I’ve let the story sit for a week or two. Then I can be a bit more objective.

For now, it’s back to the novel. I’m in the middle third of the book, when characters start colliding against each other on their way to the blowout before the third act.

And I’m still getting ideas for things that might need to change. Not minor things, like how a character speaks. Major things, like entire plot points and character motivations.

I’m unsure whether they’re good ideas, though, so I’m just taking notes on them for now. Once this draft is done, I’ll have another look at them and pick and choose which changes to make.

Until then, it’s forward. Ever forward.

Keeping Score: September 20, 2019

Only 750 words written this week.

But they’re good words, because I got ’em rewriting the scene from last week.

The first draft of that scene turned out to be closer to what I needed than I thought. I was worried I’d have to throw the whole thing away and start over, but just changing the timing of some of the events, and adding in a hazard here and there, was enough to up the tension.

Now instead of being a step-by-step account of someone looking around in the aftermath of a disaster, it’s a POV character dodging debris as they try to figure out just what kind of disaster they find themselves a part of.

Have you ever had an editing task turn out to be easier than you thought? Where a small change to a scene makes a huge difference in how it reads?