Creative Dilemma Solved

After I finished my most recent manuscript, I spent a fair amount of time worrying that a new book idea was not presenting itself for my consideration. Usually I have to beat back the ideas before I’m halfway through writing the current one. I scribble notes and I see my main character and I know what she wants. I catch glimpses of the whole, and they fill me with excited anticipation.

That’s the way it’s always been but it didn’t happen like that this time. This time I had to sit in my writing room and just start somewhere. I thought maybe a short story. One member of my writing group wrote a whole book of stories while waiting for the next novel idea to appear. And it worked. He’s writing a longer piece now. Maybe it will be a novella, he says.

I can write a story. Even if it’s crap, I can do it. I’ve done it plenty of times before. I primed the pump by reading the best mystery short stories published in 2015. Some of them, although they were good, did not seem at all like mystery stories, but then what do I know? Maybe it would be easier that way. Not to have any of the rules that kind of had my creative side in jail. Just go for it.

When I sat down that first day to write, I had something on my mind. It was personal. So I ranted for a couple of pages. Caring about your conflict is excellent. Then I spent a few days thinking about how I’d resolve things. It felt imperative to solve this problem, which as I said, started out as a personal kind of rant. In fact I thought it was too personal. Then my friend read it and said “Why don’t you change the gender? That way it’s not you.”

Wow did that open up a world of possibilities. I basically wrote that story in two sessions over a week or so. After I changed the personal part of it, and allowed my imagination free choice, it all came together in a very satisfying way. Nothing about it was real anymore, which was a relief, because it had started out as something so private and not something I was inclined to share. I’ll share now, because I hate when people write but remain obscure.

So here’s the story behind the story. My husband has a hard time getting rid of things. Our basement is a hoarder’s paradise. We moved a few years ago and for a long time if we needed anything we’d go down there and find something that worked. But now, it’s just stuff we don’t need. Like the 15 year old sofa bed my husband kept insisting we take to Florida for our new place there. It’s a nice piece of furniture. I chose it. But it’s not practical to move an old sofa to Florida.

That was the conflict. He was holding on to the old, I wanted to let go and seek the new. In the story I made the female in the marriage the one who held on to stuff. My friend suggested lots of Christmas trees. I threw that in there. So that crabby rant of mine turned into a husband mulling over the many ways his wife irritated the hell out of him. He’s mad because she’s working late (again) and he has to microwave a frozen dinner. The microwave won’t work, but there’s another one in the basement. He goes down the stairs.

Then I switched to the female pov. She’s doing her best in a bad situation. Caught in the storm from hell, she can’t get home. She can’t get in touch with her husband, either. She’s too exhausted to worry so hears nothing until early in the morning when a police detective comes to her hotel room to inform her that her husband has died of electrical shock. She discloses to the detective that her husband had wired the basement himself. So, suicide by DYI.

That was the plot. Of course the plot is not the whole story. There’s character and dialogue and description and tension and subtext. I really liked the female character. I thought she might be good for the Florida setting I wanted to use in a new series of amateur sleuth mysteries. I’d had the setting idea for almost a year, but no characters. No plot. No juice to get me going into the other stuff. Now I had her.

Instead of immediately leaping into the new book, I wrote another story. I got this idea from watching Out of Sight, a movie based on an Elmore Leonard short story starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. I’d seen it before but I wanted to watch it again. I knew my husband would like it. Elmore Leonard was the inspiration for my Detroit crime novel, so I thought, you know, maybe he’d help me again.

In the film, George Clooney was a charming criminal. I thought it would be fun to try to do that. So I thought about it for awhile and then I wrote that short story in another couple of days. It doesn’t have as tidy of an ending as the first story, but that’s okay, by the end of that story I knew my character (I named him George) could be the secondary character my main character plays off. He’d be perfect. And there was another female character in his story who could easily come into play.

This morning I figured out the first scene and the inciting incident, the thing that sets the plot in motion. And that is good enough for me. I am ready to write my next book. The short stories are pretty much my characters’ back stories. At least for now. If you’re looking for story ideas, find a location or a character or both. Then write a backstory. I think both of my short stories together were probably 20 pages. And no actual husbands were killed in the writing of those pages.

Glorious Messes

It’s been several weeks since I sent my manuscript in to my editor and in those weeks I’ve been doing some self-care with great results. I’m continuing to eat a plant-based whole food diet, which pleases my body and eases my mind. Yeah, I know. Weird that what you eat can affect your mental state, but that’s exactly what’s happened here.

As happy as I am with this turn my life has taken, I’m also conscious of deliberately filling the well. Reading books about and watching documentaries on the lives of other creative people, whether film, biography or memoir, is one way I recharge after writing a difficult book. Every book I’ve written has had its problems, but this last one almost broke my brain.

Yes, now that it’s over (until the edits come in) it was worth it.

One reason I’m so attracted to the lives of poets, musicians and authors is because I love getting glimpses into their creative processes. As I listen, watch, and read about these other creative types, I search for inspiration and insight into my own way of writing. Maybe I’ll pick up a trick or two, maybe I’ll uncover a danger zone from which I need to steer clear. Probably both.

I’ve delved into the lives of creative folks for decades. The sparks I’ve come away with have been like somebody up the ladder taking my hand and giving me a tug along the path. Looking into other artist’s lives is the most refreshing and invigorating thing I can do when my own work has emptied me out. Sometimes I find inspiration in unexpected places.

In the last few days I’ve been reading Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot along with a strange book on David Bowie’s life. It’s strange because it’s a compilation of long quotes, snippets of interviews, and the author’s own inserts, so there are like a zillion authors. This pastiche is not particularly elegant, but it’s interesting. You get all these views on who Bowie was and how his personas and processes evolved through several decades.

Then I saw documentaries on the Stooges and Bowie mixed in with the reading. I’m not a huge fan of Bowie’s music or even his various incarnations, but I’ve always found him interesting. He was somebody who obviously cared deeply about crafting those personas and the music that went with each of his many stages as a performer. I was a fan of the Stooges. In my teenage delusion, I thought I Wanna Be Your Dog was romantic.

If I’d thought more deeply about it then, I would have realized what I really liked was the guitar shred in the opening bars, the dissonance of the cowbell beat, and the way Iggy did a kind of spoken word singing. He was a poet. That’s what attracted me, not the idea of being anybody’s dog.

In the Stooges doc, elder statesman Iggy came across as just so smart and not at all like someone who stage dived and rubbed peanut butter on his belly in concert. Just by coincidence, reading David Bowie: A Life, I found out that the only reason Iggy is still relevant is because David literally gave him a hand up–more like grabbed him with both arms and hoisted him into writing Lust for Life. Bowie used his money and influence and artistry to usher Iggy into his next act.

What I’ve learned this time in my deep dive is that creative lives are not smooth and shiny, but more like glorious messes. And this, above all else, is somehow a strange comfort to me.

Crisis of the Writing Soul

When I cut 140 pages of my most recent manuscript, I had a crisis that led to a startling revelation. I’d been revising for awhile and knew the problem with the manuscript was a really boring subplot. At first, unwilling to do the necessary radical surgery, I tried to fix it. Much cutting and pasting later, I realized I was mostly deleting those subplot scenes while layering in a new point of view character.

Excited about the new character and what she brought to the story, I decided to chuck the rest of the draft. It had been helpful to write, but trying to fix it was becoming tedious. I gathered up my courage and cut. I didn’t trash those pages, I just put them in their own document. I knew I couldn’t use them, but saving them felt less radical than sending them to hell where they belonged.

The next day I had a crisis of the writing soul. I wondered if maybe the whole book had been a mistake. If it was simply one of those manuscripts that didn’t quite come together and should thus be abandoned. The idea of abandoning a story I’d grown quite attached to made me miserable. I was scared. Unsure. Defeated? Not quite. I couldn’t give up. I had to try a little longer.

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I had a deadline. It was a firm deadline if I wanted a book out in 2016, and I did. That I wanted it so much was a revelation.  Writing has always been a vital part of my life, but why, now, did it feel so much bigger? Why did my life, in the day-to-day sense, seem like a huge blank without writing and publishing? That writing has taken on such importance  is a scary thing to admit, but there it is. Writing and I had a nice friendship for a really long time. Now writing wants my soul. Without realizing, I already handed it over.

I love my family and friends. But my current situation is this: my family are, for the most part, unavailable in real time. My kids live across the country and my husband works every day, even weekends. I see him maybe two or three hours a day. I see my kids maybe two or three times a year. Maybe once or twice a week, I have lunch with friends. I volunteer a bit. I cook dinner and do the homemaker thing. Lunch and shopping and cooking and cleaning and being a Good Wife take maybe half my time. The other half, now that I don’t teach, is invested in writing.

Once I realized and accepted that writing is the joy that takes the biggest chunk of my time, I felt a bigger responsibility toward it. Like, I can not let it down. I cannot let the opportunity to publish this book this year pass. Even if it doesn’t happen, I need to know I did my part to make it so.

The crisis was not about giving up, but more wondering if I had it in me to pull off this particular book this particular time. And the only way to know was to try. So I did. I took it bird by bird and rewrote that long section of the book. I finished a few days ago. Yesterday I read the completed manuscript. It was good. I will meet my deadline. Crisis averted.

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PS After four months of intense work, I’m due for a break. Happy to say my husband agrees and we’re leaving snowy Michigan for a nice, long vacation in sunny Florida. I’ll even being seeing my son, who will be there for work! Will post a new entry (maybe I’ll hear from my editor) when I return. 

 

I did it!

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Very happy and excited to have gone beyond my 50K already:)) It’s a great feeling to finish a book. Never gets old. And to finish a first draft in less than a month? I could not do it without NaNa inspiring me!

This morning before I started writing I had a vague idea of how I wanted my story to end. I knew I wanted to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my characters. I knew I wanted to provide the “sting in the tale” of my murder plot. I knew I wanted to advance the arcs of the main characters. I wanted a happy ending for everyone.

What I didn’t know was exactly how I’d do it. But I had faith. It’s a first draft. It doesn’t have to be the perfect final form the novel will take. So I gave myself permission to write as clumsily as necessary in order to affix my ideas to the page. And then the magic happened.

Structure effortlessly came together for me and I was able to lay my plot out and finish the third act. I didn’t think it would happen today but when you are this close to the end it’s very difficult to stop. I’d given myself permission to stop if I needed to. Take a night to dream it over. But then found to my happiness that I didn’t need more time. The perfect ending (well, perfect for now) wrote itself.

Thanks in no small part to the energy of writers around the world who participated with me in this annual event and for Chris Baty and his NaNo team for the incredible work they do to help us come together this way.

 

Writing Saves Me

ceremony_002I have never missed a deadline in my life. Until this month.

When I used to hear published authors talk about being behind on a book, I judged them. How lucky were they? Didn’t they realize? What was their problem? Why risk losing a career most writers would do anything to get?

So, as happens when I judge just about anyone or anything, it happened to me so the universe could show me exactly how someone might miss a deadline. For the first time in my life, I took on too many work projects, including the third Blue Lake book. It happened because I have always been able to juggle everything. I taught emotionally impaired high school kids days, went to grad school at night, read every novel on the syllabus, including Ulysses (the James Joyce one!), labored over A+ essays on the weekends, wrote my Master’s Thesis, raised my sons, and had dinner on the table every night.

My time was squeezed so tight sometimes I couldn’t take a phone call or have a cup of coffee with family. But I still made homemade cookies every Christmas and gave away dozens of tins as gifts. That was then. This is now. And I can’t do it all anymore. Much to my surprise, I have slowed down. Must have been over the winter of ’13 when I wasn’t looking.

I knew the last thing I added to my schedule in September was too much, but I thought, you know, lie low in October and get it done. Power through. Except I couldn’t. I needed recuperation time between teaching and learning and writing and keeping house. And then I got it into my head that I needed my house to feel more like a home, and made a list of what that would take. If I just felt easy in my own space, all would be well, I thought.

It worked, sort of. I do feel more at home in my new place now that I’ve added some more Cindy to it. But this summer I got in a car accident, got an air bag concussion, and have had ongoing headaches, sleepless nights, and panic. So I had to add in therapy once a week to nip that. And therapy helped. Is helping. In fact, therapy, and talking to a spiritual counselor, helped me figure out why I couldn’t get it all done and what my priorities should be. So I dropped the least important items from my list and only kept my happy home, teaching and writing front and center.

I still will not make my October deadline and finally wrote and told my editor. She was really nice about it — I mean it’s better for her if I turn in the best book I can write, and it’s not there yet. But it will be and I have her blessing to take all the time I need. My publisher is a small boutique house and in that I am lucky. They do most of their sales in e-books and have flexibility that another, bigger publisher wouldn’t. And they treat their authors so well.

Yes, I missed my deadline, but it won’t be by much, and I hope to get this series rolling very soon. I have one “work” thing on my agenda in 2015: write. Because, in the end, writing is what saves me.