When I’m 64

All of my adult life, I have been collecting my favorite books and authors, promising myself I’d read them all again when I retired. Some day in the distant future. When I was old.

BTW, I don’t give the word “old” a negative connotation. It’s a place the lucky ones will all arrive at one day. At 64, I have arrived. Old is a place that you can’t really pack for…how was I to know in 1975 that there would be a little electronic book called the Kindle that stole my heart and helped my eyes? I have as many books saved on the Kindle as I do on my shelves. And I won’t need a van to move my Kindle to Florida. It fits in my purse.

I’m a planner. That plans often go awry is a lesson learned. I’ve gained mental flexibility as I’ve aged. When Al retires and we begin living on a “fixed” income, I’ll slow down my book buying (something Kindle makes far too easy!) and read again all those books I’ve loved before. I’m looking forward to it, but now I wonder if the book and the time of life have more to do with reading pleasure than I’d previously considered. Soon, I’ll find out.

My ideas about what to do in retirement are not for everyone. Some other surprising things I’ve done are completely change my diet and let my hair grey naturally. The diet makes me feel so much better and coloring my hair made my scalp burn as I got older. So I adapted my way of doing things. Now after completely reloading my pantry with nuts and seeds and coconut, two or three times a week I’m batch-cooking healthy foods that contain no sugar or wheat. If you would have told me this just eight weeks ago, I would have said no way.

Now when my body yells at me, I take the approach of “well, I’ll try this new thing.” It’s working out just fine. I don’t even miss bread. Or pasta. I kind of miss pizza, but everybody has gluten-free pizza these days. I made fudge this weekend. I used Swerve instead of sugar. Swerve does not raise blood sugar like other artificial sweeteners. It was a test and for my delicate tummy, Swerve did not pass. I made peanut butter cookies with Swerve, too. Al liked both sweet treats and didn’t have any digestive issues. But he doesn’t have problems with sugar, either. Next time I’ll try brown rice syrup, which my body tolerates better.

As for the hair, it is finally growing out to a longer length. Not sure if I’ll like it this way, but it will be easy to put in a ponytail in Florida and, as I get older, I am all about easy.

Healthier

I have not had a piece of toast in six weeks. Reading a sentence like that would have made me frustrated, angry and upset before I started eliminating sugar and wheat from my diet. Again. The other times I tried similar plans, I found them too difficult and inconvenient. The food world runs on sugar and wheat. It’s convenient and yummy. I had wheat at every meal. Cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, pasta for dinner. Now I have other things, like frittatas.

I always secretly wanted to learn to make frittata but it seemed so complicated. First, you had to have the right pan. Cast iron skillets are good. This is my 9 inch, but I also have a 12 inch for when I cook for friends. After you oil the pan (I use coconut or olive oil) just throw in chopped veggies, whatever ones are in your fridge and sauté. Then mix eggs (9 eggs for 9 inch pan, 12 for 12 inch) until almost fully blended. Add grated cheese to the eggs and then put it all in the skillet. Let cook on stovetop a minute or two and then switch to a 375 oven for 25 minutes or so. I got the nice brown around the crust by adding a little extra grated cheese around the edge. That’s it. So easy. And it reheats well.

My wheat filled food choices were not doing my health any good, but I refused to accept it until I ran out of options. Wheat was the last on a long list of things I had quit eating in order to get my body back working like it used to. I thought, okay, I’ll just try. I switched out all the flour and wheat and sugar in my pantry for healthier options. Nuts, seeds, coconut. Flours and oils made from them. It took several weeks and two cookbooks to get me where I am today: making bread without wheat or sugar so I can have some avocado toast for lunch.

What has improved? My energy and sleep. What has been eliminated? Anxiety and IBS. Also anxiety about the IBS, not getting enough sleep, not having any energy. I was also anxious about aging. I thought maybe I was just getting old and things were breaking down and that’s the way it was going to be. Not true. Everything has improved, including a weird case of excema that persisted for a year before I cut sugar and wheat.

Also I lost five pounds but that wasn’t the point. That’s what’s different this time. The other times I’d cut carbs, I was doing it to lose weight. This time I am doing it to gain health plus peace of mind. And it’s working so well I can’t imagine ever going back to eating sugar and wheat.

How to Structure a Novel

Finished the first shaggy draft of my current WIP at the end of November. Set it aside for the holidays and a sweet trip with my husband to our Florida home. I have a writing group in St. Pete, and we do weekly prompts, so I was still writing while the novel rested.

Back home in Detroit, a few months later, I read the pages I’d dashed off as 2018 concluded. They were not good. They were worse than usual. I conferred with my Michigan writing group and we brainstormed ways to improve the draft. In my writing room, I began blocking out every scene, writing a one or two sentence summary for each scene into an outline. Yes! I outline, but only after I have written the first draft.

As has been the case for awhile now, my keyboard was not cooperating, so somewhere in there I got a Mac Magic Keyboard and it’s working out just fine. This is a digression, but digressions happen all the time, taking writers out of the books they’re working on. Apple is correcting keyboard problems like mine for free right now, but I can’t let go of my machine while I’m working on this book. Thus the magic keyboard. It works just fine.

My revision is all over the place. I like to start revising at the beginning, because I’m linear that way. But once a month I had to go to the middle to grab a chapter for my critique group. Naturally I had to revise the hell out of that before I’d show it to them or they’d shred me like paper. And now I’ve got another group, and have to go back to the first chapter for them. Revision three of the first chapter. Revision zero for the second half of the book. That’s where I’m at.

So, yes, my revision is all over the place. I don’t do well with chaos for long. I like to bring it to order, sharpish. So when a writing friend told me about Jane Cleland’s Suspense, Structure and Plot the word structure made my hopes soar. When I found “Jane’s Plotting Road Map” on page 38 I knew I was on my way to getting this book into shape. The one page diagram about how to structure plot will save me so many steps.

I particularly like how Jane lays out the plot and subplots and gives you an approximate page number of where they should show up for maximum readability. It’s kind of like when I used to write romances and knew the consummation scene needed to be around page 100. First I needed to figure out my subplots. That was easy. I’d already written them. They’d been scattershot through the book with no regard to pacing or maximizing impact.

This isn’t the first time a book or a blog about plotting and structure has come to my rescue. I’ve used many through the years, but Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt served me well through several revisions. “Writing/Romance” Jennifer Crusie’s blog, written in 2015-2016, reads like a short course in writing and structuring a novel. She also answers writing questions on her Argh Ink blog on Mondays.

Just reading Jenny helps with the panic. And the truly Magic keyboard came to my rescue. And Jane’s road map. I was beginning to despair (because I’m a drama queen deep inside) but I just might finish this book by my December deadline after all.

Vacation Thoughts

We are in Seattle, our last day of a vacation that is both more and less a typical vacation. We have been to here half a dozen times so we’re not tourists anymore. What we have come to see and insert ourselves into for a week is the lives being lived by our beloved grandchildren and their awesome parents best told in pictures.

My Revision Process

Organizing Revision

I write a first draft with no revision. Just flat out write it. I finished my current WIP “Jane” in November 2018. Then it was Christmas. Then I went to Florida for six weeks. During this time I kept pulling chapters to feed to my critique group, even though they were first draft. I would not recommend that. By the time I settled back into my writing routine, months had gone by and I had a big mess of a manuscript with many many suggestions for improvement on the first five chapters from my writing group.

After writing an unfiltered and thus awful first draft, I like to let it sit for a bit and simmer. I left it a little too long this time and showed it too soon and the result was a mess. But I knew my next step. I like to read the entire book in a day (or two) making brief revision notes as I go. Before I could do the read-through, I had to organize those first five chapters and get things coherent. So I did a little more than the usual. I went over the five chapters, incorporating suggestions I liked. I outlined every scene, and made a summary for my critique partners, because we only meet once a month, plus the six week break was in there and people forget.

It took a few days just to get that first chunk in order, but I’m happy I did it instead of just reverting to the uncritiqued original. I also liked outlining the scenes. I felt organized enough to go ahead and read the rest of the book. It took two days, not one, but the thing is to have my whole book in my head. The entire plot needs to be clear to me so I can figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, and where in the manuscript those fixes need to be inserted.

I didn’t outline the rest of the manuscript when I did the read-through. I did make brief notes to myself about the changes I wanted to make. I knew I had a crap bad guy so I was able to come up with a semi-solution for that and I even figured out the final twist at the end. Mystery novels often have a sting in the tail that is the final surprising twist. I got that in the read through, surprising even myself, because I usually struggle with that. Jane the book and Jane the character both need more work, the crime story itself needs some work, but that’s fine because now I will go back and outline the entire book and find those places where I need to up the stakes, delete the nonsense (an entire character this time) and fill out Jane. At this point, I also revise the character list of names and places.

The other problem I’ve been thinking about is that the book is in first person point of view (Jane’s). But two random chapters are in other voices. I contemplated changing the whole thing to third person and adding other points of view, but then decided to keep it in first person and try to figure out how to do those other pov chapters later. Not sure I’ve ever told an entire book from one first person point of view. But it feels right this time. So much of revising is just hearing the click in your head that signals “yes, this.”

After I outline everything, I look at the structure and make sure my turning points, my big moments, are in the most effective places. Jenny Crusie taught me about turning points. (And so much more). She has an entire blog about writing and revising a novel. It’s extremely helpful. I always go looking for Jenny when I am in revision mode because she always has the exact answer I need, even when I didn’t know I needed it.

All that done, I read the book again. I add the scenes I didn’t write but that need to be in the story. I add dimension to characters who lack it (Jane needs a bit of help and my bad guy needs a lot). Then I read the book again to make sure everything tracks. At this point, I do a timeline. It starts when the book starts and ends when the book ends. I buy a calendar with big blank squares as they are dirt cheap right now. After I do all that, I read the book again to make sure the added scenes flow, that Jane is as heroically flawed as I can make her and that my bad guy is terrifying. I’ll have to add things and take stuff out. When I’m happy, I’ll do one more read through. (Ha.)

I polish sloppy sentences and look for inconsistencies. An example of an inconsistency is Jane has two grown children. She’s also a granny. (I was scared to write a granny as a main character in a crime novel but then I decided to do it because I wish more crime novels had aging female characters who have actual families. Also I like writing what scares me. “Too scary” is like a clue to the writer that you are on the right track.) So inconsistencies. My example: Jane’s kids and their families live on different coasts. Every time I mention a family member of one or the other I have to make sure they’re in the right city. This is one reason why annotated character lists are helpful.

After all that I am pretty sick of my book. I love it but I need to let it sit and rest for a week or so. Then I read it again and hope I don’t have to use my pen. Most of the time I do find more things to fix. When I start taking out commas that I put in on the previous edit, I know I’m done. Then I mail it to my editor and she and I go through a few more edits together. I hope I am lucky enough to have the same editor I’ve had for the last several books, because I have gotten good at anticipating what she’ll have problems with, and she’s always right.

If there’s a way to not be messy in revision, I have not found it. The most difficult thing is to dive in when it’s just chaos in a stack of paper. It feels good when I tame all that down to pretty folders for research, old drafts, current pages, critique group, to-be-revised and my favorite, finished chapters. I have a free download of my writing manual on the landing page here. I used it for my students when I taught creative writing. There’s a chapter on revision. I should probably read that myself.