Busy with a Baby :: Writing Page by Page

Surprising news: it’s hard to write with a baby.

She has her bad days, where she cries and whines, and needs to be held and rocked and read to. Even on the good days she holds tight to your arm while PBS (or, let’s be honest, something on Netflix) plays on the TV, she finds today’s favorite book and wants you to read it again (and again and again) or grabs your hands because it’s time to practice walking again.

I’m not complaining (ok, maybe a little bit); I love to hold her and play with her and listen to her laugh. Still, all of this interaction leaves little time for writing during the day. I cram a few paragraphs in while she naps, and try to get some writing done when she’s down for the night, between spending time with my husband and getting some actual rest. While this helps me relax (going to long without writing makes me feel itchy) it always feels like too little. A page or two, a few days a week — how much am I really writing.

A decent amount, it looks like.

Proof of the writing I've done, page by page, word by word

I usually write by hand, a benefit of which is when I feel stalled up in the story, I can take a break from writing and type up the chapters, getting myself back into the story. I’ve hit my second snarl of this write-through, so I began flipping back through my notebook to find where I’d last started up my writing.

And flipping back and flipping back…

I can see by the way I’ve gone through my outline some of the progress I’ve been making as I sit at the desk, hunched over my notebook in the glow of the baby monitor. But seeing this chunk of pages is an actual measurement of what I’ve done, of how far I’ve gotten as I move forward inch by inch.

 


Bonus content: I’ve always had problems fitting in my writing, the baby is just the most recent excuse.

Query Problems: Writing That Synopsis

Probably the thing I hate the most about querying (aside from the hours spent researching and emailing agents, only to get very polite but still disheartening rejection letters) is writing the synopsis. Not ever agent I research asks for one. Some will only want the query letter, others a few chapters, a blessed few who just want you to send the whole dang thing along. But many want a synopsis, so they know what the story is about before they decide to ask for more and dive in.

I get it. Agents don’t have a lot of time, and a synopsis is a quick way to figure out what you’re trying to sell them before they invest more of their reading hours on your stuff. But it’s hard to do.

Take a book you have spent years writing, where you’ve changed and reworked and perfected all the twists and turns. Now condense the whole thing into a page. Maybe two.

wp-1472136525235.jpgI have to decide what events are important enough to describe, what plot twists need to be left out because it takes too long to explain. I have to keep the whole thing concise, while also making it perfectly clear what happens, and why.

The issue for me is that the story has swollen to something so big in my head, I feel like I’m taking a mountain and shrinking it down to a vaguely detailed fist-sized rock: you look at it, get the gist of what it is, and can still imagine how impressive the real thing is. That’s not something I do easily (which is why I’m sure I failed miserably at #PitMad last time I tried), so I spend a lot of time staring at my notebook, or my screen, and feeling very frustrated.

It is useful, though. Not just because if I can figure out how to do it, writing a decent synopsis can get my one step (half-step?) closer to getting published. But also, if I learn how to shrink down the description of my story, I feel more confident when I describe my novel to other people: friends, family, maybe by some luck a person in the publishing industry. Other than it being required for some queries, I want to get good at this, so I will keep working at it, tweaking it, and I will force ask very nicely that my friends and writing group mates take a peek and give me their own opinions, and maybe I can figure out how to concisely, and intelligibly, describe what the heck my novel is about.

What do you have trouble with when gathering your query materials? Do you have trouble writing synopses as well?

For useful synopsis advice, I’d check out Jane Friedman’s post on her blog.

Critiques: What to Take, What to Leave

As a writer, it’s really wonderful to have people who are willing to take on the time consuming task reading your work and giving you feedback. Outside eyes can see where things aren’t working, can look without sentiment on the parts that have become too precious to you to know if it’s really good or not, and they can reaffirm decisions that you were hoping, hoping, hoping were the right ones when you put them to paper. And, possibly most important, they can give you a perspective you didn’t know you were missing, rounding out your stories, and your characters.

But it can also be a little too much.

20160606_105650The problem with so many new voices is that there are so many new voices. If more than one person is looking at your story, you’re bound to get more than one opinion on different parts. Or one reader will find they don’t like one bit of your story that you always thought worked, that reads to you like one of the best bits of the manuscript. You get a list of things you feel you should change, to the point that you feel you’re rewriting everything every time a new critique comes in. It’s overwhelming, and makes you feel as if you’ll never, ever get this damn story finished.

It’s really important, when working with critiques, to take readers’ opinions of your work seriously, to accept that you’ve made mistakes that other people have found, and now you have to take the time to fix them.

But it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to take every single bit of advice you’re given. When your book finally makes it out in the world, it’s basically an impossibility that it will be universally beloved. No matter what you do, or how you change it, someone will think that it doesn’t work, that it fails, even if others love it. Some of that opinion will have to do with your own skills and the quality of the work, and some of it will have to do with that person’s point of view and life experience and how that causes them to relate to what you’ve written.

I have a problem with internalizing every critique I get, and trying to apply a fix to my manuscript. It’s how I wind up with stories that get rewritten too many times, that get changed one way and then back again, stories that never feel quite done. I love getting all of these opinions, knowing what’s boring or preachy or what is good or clear or exciting. But I also have to trust my own self on some things: that this bit of word choice is what I want; that this flashback does add to the development of my character; that the timing of this joke works just fine. When I agree with the criticism, when I can’t ignore it, I’ll change the wording, I’ll work out the puzzle — it’s something I actually enjoy doing, after all. And I’ll give every bit of criticism its moment, analyzing it, weighing whether or not it will make my story better.

But I won’t make it perfect for every individual who ever picks it up — it’s not possible, and it’s not something I would expect when people take in my critiques. I’ll take what works for me, and make my story the best in my own eyes.

How do you deal with critiques? Do you ever have a problem with suggestions you disagree with? How likely are you to change a large chunk of your story based on what a critique partner says?

 

Writing Problems: How Weird I Must Look

Sometimes I wonder how weird I must look while I’m writing.

I rock back and forth in my chair.

I shift my position so I’m cross-legged, sitting on my feet, gathering my knees up to my chest, all within a handful of minutes.

I write frantically, hunched over my desk.

I lean back, sitting straight, writing slowly.

I stop writing entirely to draw circles and weird sketchy faces in the margins of my notebook.

I take long, slow, loud breaths, like I’m trying to calm down, or I’m pacing myself for a jog, while I try to get out the dozens of sentences screaming in my head all at once.

I whip out my phone and check Twitter, even though I’m obviously mid-paragraph, sometimes mid-sentence.

I chew on my pen and stair out the window, watching raindrops hit the road, or sometimes absolutely nothing at all.

I do a bunch of other strange little habits that I don’t even notice, because my brain is somewhere else entirely, and I’m no longer aware of what my body is up to.

Basically, I’m glad it’s usually just the dog in the room with me, snoring on the floor; anyone else probably wouldn’t be able to keep from asking what the heck is wrong with me.

Writing Problems: Doing SOMETHING

As a writer, I know I’m not unique in having this issue. I sit down, and try to hack out a book or a review or something of that sort, and I feel like I’m doing little more than shuffling forward at hundred-year-old tortoise speed. This first draft is taking forever, I take ages between querying new agents, augh, I have to come up with another blog post.

This morning I decided to flip through a writer/artist book I haven’t skimmed in a while, The Artist in the Office by Summer Pierre. And I landed on this quote in the book:

How perfect. A reminder that writing, or any kind of creating, is a laying of bricks. You do these things one at a time, and it doesn’t seem like much, but you look back and you realize you’ve built a wall, a house, a skyscraper with each little addition.

It doesn’t matter that I only wrote a page this morning. I have one more page than yesterday. I entered a contest yesterday — one more contest. I’ll query an agent this week — one more agent. I’ll run today, and that’s one more mile. I’ll hit the Publish button, and there’s one more blog post.

It all adds up eventually, hopefully to something.

The Artist in the Office by Summer Pierre
Might be time to reread this book.

 

What’s one thing that you’ve done today? Did you read a book? Draw a picture? Outline a chapter?

Writing Problems: And Then…And Then…

The above is one of my favorite writing quotes, because it applies almost directly to the way I write my stories. I outline only just enough to keep track of things that I’ve thought up that I think I want to get to at one point, though any scribblings I do is more brainstorming than laying down any sort of a map for the story. I think this is a great way to write, for me at least: it keeps me excited the whole way through, as I figure out what will happen in the next few scenes, and I discover things about my characters and their world as I go.

Of course, writing this way comes with some problems. Much of the world building and back story has to be put in after I’ve done the first draft, simply because I wasn’t aware of most of that stuff before I first started scratching away in my notebook. My “research” is done concurrently, or after the fact, since I didn’t know what I needed to read up on until halfway through the story, when the plot and theme became apparent to me.

Still, I love to write my novels this way — but sometimes it can put me into a bit of a panic. Such as, when I’m approaching the end of the story, and I have sort of an idea of what the conclusion should be, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how the heroine will actually achieve that goal. All the solutions I come up with are cheesy, or weak, or simply don’t fit with the character I’ve come to understand. And of course, I begin to worry: that I’m not going to figure it out, that I’m going to slam face first into a wall, and as I hobble away to tend to my battered self I leave the almost-finished-but-not-quite story behind never to be touched again…

Then, as I’m doing my as-I-go “research”, I come across one idea, a single word really, that sparks an idea, that blooms into a bigger idea, and suddenly…I know what my heroine does. I know how everything gets fixed, and how the story slides into its conclusion. I might change it (I’m certainly changing most of what happened before, this is a gross-messy rough draft), but now it feels solid, like something I can work on without having to worry about the whole thing collapsing.

It worked out. Just like it always seems to do.

How do you write? Do you just pay attention to what’s in your headlights and review the trip when you’re done, or do you need to map out the whole road before you can even get in the car? Let me know!

The Power of Routine; or, Why I Can’t Write on Vacation

Last week was our week long vacation down on Cape Cod, and as usual I had more plans for myself than I actually understood what to do with. I was going to do my new book research, read most of my critique partner’s novel, catch up on a bunch of books. Instead I went to the beach, walked the dog, and did an intense amount of napping.

Despite how strapped for time I sometimes feel with my normal schedule — near full time work, taking care of the house, making myself exercise — the regular happenings of my week actually help my writing projects, in that I know what time I have set aside to work on them. Generally mornings, before and maybe just after breakfast, and then until noon if I’m not going to my job until later that day. On vacation, despite all this open time, I manage to spend less on work, I think because I lack part of the urgency. I don’t get up as early, I don’t have a desk to sit at and get me in the right mindset. Also my husband, and often his family, is right there, waiting for me to spend time with them and state what I want to do that day.

photo credit: visualpanic via photopin cc
photo credit: visualpanic via photopin cc

So, on vacation, my regular routine won’t work. And that’s fine. There are plenty of times in my life where my routine has morphed to fit the lifestyle I’m living, like how I work in the morning now rather than night when the family slept like I did when I lived with my parents. The problem is, with a vacation, it’s a short term change that I have to get into right away and try to keep up, until I quickly ditch it again for the old one I’ve grown so accustomed to when I get home. I figured out how to make it work a little better by the end of the week, and while I still didn’t get as much done as I wished, I was able to complete something.

  • Figure out your new writing time. Is there an hour when everyone’s in the shower and you know you won’t be bothered? A period right after lunch when you would normally just rest? Can you go to bed a half hour later? It’s your vacation, but maybe waking yourself up before everyone else stumbles to the coffee is the only thing you can do. I did that a bit, forcing myself up at 7:00 with the dog, so I could do my research and make my notes.
  • Don’t give up that time. It’s a vacation, plans are fluid, you might feel you need to give up late night writing in favor of ice cream, or the morning for a big out-to-eat breakfast. Guard that time, though, or set aside something else specific. I’ve found that when writing time is a “when I get to it” kind of deal, it tends to not get done.
  • Separate yourself. Maybe you can write within a crowd. I can’t. Depending on what kind of project I’m working on, the more activity going on around me, the harder it is to focus on the story at hand. It doesn’t help that everyone suddenly shows interest in what you’re working on once you crack open a notebook in their presence. Hide in your bed, walk to the coffee shop. I’ve gotten work done while curling up in a chair opposite someone taking a nap — no one’s going to be too loud in that room.
  • Small goals, please. You’re probably not going to write as much as you would at home, despite your lofty intentions. Set little goals: I’ll write a page, I’ll annotate this chapter, I’ll edit 5 pages. Then you’re not stressing yourself out (you’re on vacation, man) and you’ll close the laptop with a little sense of accomplishment.
  • Relax. Writing on vacation is not the same thing as taking time off specifically to write. You won’t finish your great amazing novel now; this is just to keep your head in the game, keep your wordsmithing sharp. Worry about marathon sessions and intense edits when you get back to the dusty corner of your own house, not when you’re supposed to be choking on sea water and crisping your lily-white skin at the beach.

Do you try to keep up a writing routine when you go away, or do you treat it like any other job and leave it all behind? How do you keep up the quota on your vacation?

 

Writing Problems: Stitching It Together

I’m still chugging away, reworking the middle of my novel. I’m at a portion where I’m not just rearranging or redoing parts, but entire chapters have been chucked out and are in the process of being rewritten. None of this changes the beginning or the real outcome of the novel, but some motivations are different, reasons for doing things, information that the characters have going in has shifted, and as I go, trying to write the entire thing through, I keep changing my mind about where things get revealed, and how.

Thread and needle by liftarn - Converted to SVG from clipart on “PC för alla” CD 3-2003.Every now and then, I realize a scene in one part is better if a character does or does not already know something, which was or not revealed in an earlier chapter I just finished tweaking a few days ago. So I either have to go back and change, disrupting the writing momentum, or I have to make notes, fix it when I type it all together, and what with my fantastic memory that makes things a bit risky.

So, basically, after writing out dozens of new pages, I have a bunch of scenes that don’t exactly match together anymore, that I have to tweak and stretch and cut, so I can line them up and stitch them together like pieces of a quilt. And then I have to hope that after I’ve typed, tweaked, read, and rewritten, that the scenes move smoothly together, and don’t take on the appearance of some awful stitched-together monster.

Writing Problems: Paralyzing Moments

Today I had one of my crisis moments where the same paralyzing thought echoed through my head: What am I accomplishing, exactly?

Every project that I’m working on right now is at a point where I need to edit, and while that can make it easier — I just have to fix, I don’t have to create from nothing. But that’s also the problem. I don’t feel like I’m creating. And when I’m not creating, I have too much time to pause and wonder, why can’t I get things out there? Why can’t I look up more magazines, more agents, send out more letters and submissions? Why can’t I get noticed when I do do those things?

When I feel this way, it’s actually harder to get anything done. I feel it all the way out to the tips of my fingers, slowing me down. I forced my way through it. I completed a round of edits on a short story and an essay, and I sent out three (3!) query letters. A decent day. But the thought kept eating at me, devouring me from the inside: What am I doing?

I keep reminding myself of all my little personal pep talks, but when I get this feeling I can’t talk it away. I gotta let it ooze out on its own.

 

Maybe I should go to yoga more.

Writing Problems: Productivity Relativity

Sometimes I worry that I am not a productive writer. It’s not just what I have published, which is not as much as I’d like it to be (mainly my fault). But even in general I worry that I don’t do this enough.

Writing in the afternoon is pulling teeth, so to accomplish anything I need to work in the morning. If I’m busy in the A.M., my writing hours are basically lost. I could get up earlier, but I set my alarm for 6:00 am, and that’s already like trying to extract myself from warm maple syrup. Then I make the mistake (don’t compare, don’t compare) of comparing myself (damn) to other writers. More prolific writers. Writers who publish multiple(!) books a year, or maybe run their own YouTube channels.

But then, on a morning when I’m running particularly slow, I set to write part of a short story. And I write, and I write. And I realize I filled 6 pages before my brain curled up in a cramp. And they’re 6 pages that I like.

So maybe I do write enough. Maybe I don’t give myself enough credit. Maybe it’s all relative.

Or maybe I need to do that more often.