Wednesday, June 29, 2011

when reading is writing

Some of you know that this past week my writers block returned. I did the usual things -- tried to psych myself and write through it, read other people's writing instead, complained on Twitter, curled up on the floor in a fetal position.... (just kidding about that last one) before once again taking the advice I give to many writers in a similar position. I printed out the 80+ pages of the writing I've done this past month as-is (single space to save paper, although I regret not giving myself more margin space for annotations), headed for the coffeeshop, and began to read.

Maybe it was the iced vanilla chai that had mellowed me out (that particular brand always takes me back to my old hangout in Massachusetts), but once again I was pleasantly surprised (not to mention relieved) to find that it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, it was a first draft in need of direction and description, with gaping holes in the timeline and telling rather than showing. But it wasn't bad. Heck, I even laughed out loud a few times (in a good way). It's always a great feeling for me to write something funny enough to make someone laugh, but perhaps it's even better when that someone is me.

I got through half the pages in three hours, making lots of notes and corrections, yet not crossing out entire blocks of text (although I suspect that will come towards the end). The realization that my novel isn't sucking is sometimes the very thing that snaps me out of my writers block. And even if it doesn't, I feel better about taking that physical writing time off and allowing the mental composing to take over again, sitting with the characters a little more, the whole lot of us hanging out in the coffeeshop of my imagination and chillin' out on iced vanilla chais. It certainly beats complaining on Twitter.

Sometimes reading is writing. It's such an important part of the process. Whether you read as you go along, following that day's writing, or wait until you're 30,000 words in, or until you've got the entire first draft of the manuscript done, the act of reading your manuscript (either with the eyes of an intended reader or one who knows these characters intimately) allows you to see both the little things and the bigger picture with more clarity. The revision process happens as you subconsciously ask (and answer) questions about meaning, order, arrangement, imagery, voice, behavior, setting, audience, purpose, style, and so much more. You find direction. You find little nuggets of gold, or keys to portals of brilliance. And sometimes you even make yourself laugh for all the right reasons.

And on a different note...

It figures--just as I was getting back into the groove of posting regularly on my blog, I got the Linknews that I'd been accepted and invited to the Southampton Writers Conference on the east end of Long Island. Yep, I'm due north yet again! I've been wanting to attend this conference for years, ever since my mom started cutting out the full-page ads in the Sag Harbor Express and mailing them to me. And every year I'd gaze at the ad, reading the list of that year's participants (ranging from Alan Alda to the late Frank McCourt) and lament that I could barely afford to set foot on the campus.

However, I decided to put it on my 2011 to-do list, and lo and behold, the opportunity (not to mention the financing) came through. I was afraid to make the commitment at first, coming up with all kinds of excuses. But something inside me knew that I would regret not going far more than any of the so-called inconveniences I was contriving to feed my fears.

I'll be on the Island for almost the entire month of July, and I imagine most of my time and energy will be devoted to the writing sessions, instruction, networking, keynote speakers, etc. (plus, I need to go to the beach again). I would love to share my experiences with you, but be prepared for yet another blog hiatus. My apologies for abandoning you yet again, and my thanks to those who faithfully await my return.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

more than words: playing the Taboo game

Back in my early teaching days, I had assigned my students to write an essay about the concept of Home. However, they were not to use the words home, house, warmth, comfort, familiar, etc. (I think we even played a couple rounds of the game Taboo.) Almost ten years later, I still remember some of those essays (and interestingly, so do they-- one of my former students recently told me that he saved that particular essay, citing it as one of his all-time favorites). The ones who really "got" it were the ones who mastered "showing" vs. "telling", capturing the meaning of the experience (or the experience itself) by using a completely different image or experience. They revealed a truth without explicitly telling it.

The other night I was on the phone with my twin brother. I was bragging about that day's word count (3200!), yet lamenting how disappointed I was with what I'd written.

"It's supposed to be a pivotal moment," I explained. "A breakthrough. It's emotional. Everyone's crying. But it's hard to write or describe people crying without it sounding like a bad soap opera. You know when you watch a TV show and the character's supposed to be so distraught, but the actor can't get him/herself to cry? That's what this scene feels like (and all my crying scenes/descriptions, really). Just so disingenuous. I don't know how to make it work."

My brother's advice floored me: "Play the Taboo game. Write it without using the words crying or tears and see what happens. Describe the physicality of what they're feeling rather than filming what they're doing."

Describe the physicality of what they're feeling... my God, that's brilliant!

I told him what a great idea that was, and couldn't wait to try it. "You know," I said. "That reminds me of an essay assignment I gave like ten years ago."

"Yeah, I think that might have been where I got the idea, actually."

Moral of the story: as writers, we need to remember that we're smarter than we think. And when it comes to description, conveying meaning, and showing vs. telling, we need to play the Taboo game every now and then, surrendering generic words and descriptions for unique ones. Revealing the truth without explicitly saying it. Try it in your own manuscript and see what happens. I will too.

Friday, June 17, 2011

wherever you go, there you are

I'm always flattered and humbled when someone sends me an email to tell me that I've inspired them to pick up writing. More often than not, many are writers who gave up on writing at some point in their lives because they or someone else told them they were no good, or that it wouldn't pay the bills, and so on.

I can't tell you how many of these aspiring writers are hung up on perfection. This is an observation, not a judgment. Just yesterday I posted on Twitter about the 2100 "teeth" I pulled. It was rough, man. And the whole time I was writing, a little voice in the back of my mind kept taunting me about how crappy the writing was, how it would never amount to anything, etc. I know the perfection hangup. I've occasionally got that monkey on my back.

Nothing is more debilitating than the fear that what you are writing is no good. The best of us have had this fear. Even a certain recent Oscar-winning screenwriter has had this fear. And nothing is more debilitating to the process than obsessing and worrying about perfection during the drafting stage.

There isn't a right or wrong way to write a first draft. Some, like me, bang out a first draft by seemingly spilling it all on the page without pausing for too long to consider the right word, phrase, description, etc. We don't get hung up on timelines or loose ends, not at this stage. We simply get it out of our heads. Once in awhile I re-read the last chapter or few pages I wrote before starting a new one, just to get a sense of place. Sometimes I even go back and re-read when I'm finished.

When drafting, I write until I run out of steam or hit a wall (couldn't decide which metaphor I liked better; both are applicable). I don't think I've ever stopped in mid-sentence or even mid-paragraph (although I'm probably forgetting), but I've certainly stopped mid-chapter, and I'm ok with that. I'd even be ok with stopping mid-sentence. I'm sure others have.

Many writers prefer to edit as they go along. They write a few pages, stop, then re-read what they've just written, making adjustments along the way. They write a few more, stop, re-read, re-write, and so on. Perhaps they don't want those loose ends or gaps in timeline. Perhaps it helps them organize their thoughts, develop their plots, better hear their characters. Perhaps it means less work later on. Perhaps they just like the idea of a tight manuscript.

There is no right or wrong way to write a first draft. There is no right or wrong way to revise, either.

But it's rare to find a first draft that is without flaws, even with the rewrite-as-you-go method. First drafts are going to be flawed. They're going to be messy, going to lack direction or depth. First drafts are going to have poorly constructed sentences, incomplete thoughts, under-developed ideas. First drafts are going to have characters who aren't sure what they're doing or why, or where they're going or why. They're going to have words that are cliche, descriptions that are confusing, dialogue that is forced. They're going to be either too long or too short. Too many words, or not enough. Too much info dump, or not enough context.

First drafts are not final drafts.

At some point, you've got to quiet the voice that is taunting you, telling you it's no good. You've got to shout back, "Of course it's no good, you idiot! It's a first draft! But I wanna have some fun, here. I have something to say, and I'm going to say it, and by the time my book is bound, I will have said it as best as I can."

Revision can be the sandbox where you play, digging for treasure, building castles and tearing them down again and loving every minute of it, or it can be the mudpit where you get stuck spinning your wheels. Of course I much prefer the sandbox, and it's way more fun to be there when I'm not criticizing my draft as, well, nothing more than a ton of sand. To get there, you've got to accept your draft for what it is, where it is, at any given time. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, "Wherever you go, there you are."

Your manuscript will get to where you want it to be. But first you need to accept where it is. And you need to accept what it is not as well as what it is. Some days pulling out the words will be like pulling teeth. Some days will be the mudpit. You've got to allow your draft to be bad. And you can joke about it being bad, by all means; but you've also got to cut yourself some slack. And by god, you've got to have some fun. At some point, give up spinning your wheels in the mud and start making mudpies. What's the point of writing, otherwise?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

where I've been

Hi. Remember me?

It shocked me to see that I've not posted anything in over two months. I've been busy, I swear. First there was the end of the semester. I felt like I was grading non-stop for four weeks, at least. The semester's end always makes me crazy. I eat a lot of junk food, clutter my living space, and mutter quietly to myself.

Following the end of the semester came the BookExpo America. I was invited and attended courtesy of AmazonEncore.

In a word, friggin awesome. Ok, so that's two words, but I kept saying it as one.

As if I wasn't already proud to be an AmazonEncore author, this trip clinched it. Everyone I met who is affiliated with Amazon Publishing fits the friggin-awesome description. Friendly, funny, committed, smart, encouraging, supportive... shall I go on? As if that wasn't good enough, I finally got to meet, in person, my good friends and fellow AE authors Rob Kroese, RJ Keller, and Karen McQuestion, as well as some others who had previously been names that kept appearing on the Kindle boards and blogs, like Craig Lancaster and Greg Smith, and the charming Maria Murnane. I got a little spoiled with the rock star treatment for the three days in Manhattan--nice hotel, limo pick-up, and people saying "You're Elisa Lorello? So cool to meet you in person!"

But perhaps the best part was seeing my Why I Love Singlehood co-author, Sarah Girrell. We haven't seen each other since spending a week in December, 2009 on our then-manuscript. Sarah and I were a bit like conjoined twins--we were rarely seen separately. We had a great time explaining to people how we met, how we collaborated, how we feel about being AmazonEncore authors (I'm tellin' ya, it was a love fest), etc.

Following the three days in Manhattan, I took an extended vacation on the East End of Long Island. Being on the beach--namely, the ocean-- was nothing short of life-affirming. As I wrote in a tweet, "I re-charged the battery of my soul. I also got sand in my ear." It was pretty tough having limited internet access (the folks at the public library were starting to set their watches by me showing up, I think), and I could do without the asshole drivers, but I'd suffer through both all over again if just to have one more day on the sand, with that big, blue, vast stretch of water and horizon, and my oldest, bestest buddy, who also happened to come to town.

Oh yeah, and my New York accent returned. Big time. Couldn't help it.

Meanwhile, lots of good things happening for Faking It. In addition to hitting the Kindle Bestseller list (again!) for 18 days straight, Harcourt Houghton-Mifflin will be taking over the print distribution in August of this year. That means a snazzy new cover (again!) and a lot more exposure in bookstores.

So then, after all this, What's next?

Back to writing, of course. The novel ideas are coming to me faster than I can get them on the page. Here's hopin' for a long, productive summer.