Saturday, November 22, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 22


50,381 words, but far from done. Now to actually do some shaping and purging and augmenting! 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 16


Quite frankly, I’m ready to be done with this NaNoWriMo business. I have 48,000 words, but so what? I spend from 20 minutes to two hours a day writing (the two-hour days are rare). The excitement of meeting the challenge doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore, but I know that without this push and the public exposure of this blog, I would have given up by now. If I’d given up, I wouldn’t have this crazy assemblage of thoughts and memories, which, potentially, contains all the ingredients needed for a book.

On the days I write for 20 minutes—a lick and a promise—I’m ready to give up. Maybe when I get to 50,000 words I’ll just stop, I think. But on those days when I take a little more time—not just writing a snatch but also scrolling through the pages, skim-reading bits, seeing that portions do hang together—on those days I’m pretty sure there’s a publishable book in here somewhere, many months (or years) from now. But I can only shape a book out of this stuff if I hang out in the manuscript, if I think on it and read through it and keep on pushing myself. If I put it aside for a week, two weeks, six months, the work will languish. I have so many drafts, so much of my mind recorded here and there in drafts on my hard drive. When I immerse myself enough in the manuscript, I know I must continue.

The second week of November, I started a big, wonderful, copyediting project that has immersed me in someone else’s manuscript. Four, five, six hours a day, I’m transported back seventy years. When I’m not editing, I’m pulling World War II titles off my bookshelves—even my “breaks” revolve around this editing project! Today is Sunday, and I’m forcing myself to rest from the editing for one day—but I’m eager to get back to the characters who even during the copyediting process are becoming so dear to me. 

It’s weird to move between the vast, well-structured World War II compilation I’m editing and my own snips and drafts, not even yet adequately stitched together. I’m frankly a lot more interested in the editing project than in my own writing. If I hadn’t made a public commitment to this cheater’s NaNoWriMo, I would gladly tuck my own work away for a few weeks. Which would stretch into months. I know myself. Daily I choose to honor the potential in my writing. I choose to have a tiny bit of faith that slow and steady will take me to the finish line, that some of these pages deserve a home in a book, that slow deliberate plodding will bear more fruit than manic hypergraphia.

So, however reluctantly, I will keep on writing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 10


On the morning of Day 7, I received news that my dear writing mentor, Judith Kitchen, had died. That day, I had to teach a software training session—no way I could cancel. I had an afternoon appointment with a student writer, and I couldn’t cancel that either. Shouldn’t life stand still when we need to grieve?

But I know better. I don’t expect life to stand still, and I also don’t expect myself to power numbly through. I proceeded through my day with puffy eyes, a scratchy voice, distracted and grieving. I wore black, though in our culture that’s no sign of anything in particular. And when I wasn’t teaching, I read.

One of Judith’s most recent works was The Circus Train, a novella-length essay published as a book last winter but first appearing in The Georgia Review last year. I’ve had that issue of GR on my dresser for a full year now, but I never opened it up and started reading Judith’s long essay. I was waiting, for some reason.

I opened Judith’s essay and started to read. Judith took me once again under her wing and let me into her thoughts as she remembered her life as a girl, a young mother, a middle-aged woman full of health and love but already squarely facing her mortality. The year after my mother-in-law died, Judith was diagnosed with breast cancer. Each time I saw her—once or twice a year—I wondered if it would be the last time. But she kept rallying, kept surprising her doctors. Just weeks ago she was hospitalized and struggling to breathe and it seemed like the end. Then she sat up in bed and started editing poetry.

Judith kept writing through the chemo brain fog, through breathing struggles, through weakness and prednisone puffiness and lymphedema.

And because she kept writing, I have access to her mind as she considered a life lived, a life about to end. And here I am in the middle of a writing challenge, wondering if I even want to keep writing. I certainly want to quit writing for today and for tomorrow, and I have struggled over the past weeks and months as well.

Judith kept writing, and because she did, I have her mind on the page. She still keeps me company, and her words continue to speak.

Judith would have rolled her eyes at my wimpy attitude. When I found a small publisher for my first book and worried that I was settling for something too small, Judith shrugged. “You will write many more books,” she said. “Publish, then write another.”

So I did. And Judith helped me, though she was sick and weak and probably should have focused on herself instead. She made sure I had the best second book possible—and I know many, many other writers who are this week remembering Judith for all she was and all we are because we had her.

I wrote a little on Day 7, though my heart wasn’t in it at all. A few hundred words. And a few hundred more on Day 8. Yesterday I felt just as weary, just as sad. Today is Monday and I started a big editing job and conducted another software training and turned in grades for my online class.

But what about the writing?

I’ve decided to make my NaNoWriMo project into an even bigger mess. Take a couple of those essays I was reserving for another book. Break them up and plug them into this one. If they don’t work, fine. Nothing else is clicking, and I’m not going to throw in the towel (until December 1).

Judith would have told me not to reserve my best stuff for some later project. “What the hell are you waiting for?” she would have said. So I won’t wait. I have no faith that any of this will come together, but I won’t quit yet.

A lifetime of writing, Judith, and it wasn’t enough. Thank you for leaving us with so much of yourself.   


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 5


A word of advice

The NaNoWriMo website gets jammed in the evening when everyone is posting a word count. I tend to write in the morning, and I go ahead and enter my word count as I go, even if I plan to write more later in the day. You can update your word count as many times a day as you’d like. If I do write in the evening, I enter that word count the next day.


What I’m learning

Keep in mind that I did not start from scratch. On Day 1 of NaNoWriMo I was already halfway to my goal. This means my daily goal is already less than half that of a true, non-cheating NaNoWriMo participant. I’ve been spending no more than two hours a day writing—sometimes just an hour, and yet I’m making progress and I see the shape of the manuscript emerging in ways I wouldn’t have if I’d just read through drafts without adding any new writing.

I can see that I need to set up a quest or Big Concern early on and shape the book to explore that quest or concern. And I’m already getting a good idea of what that Big Concern is for me—not something I ever considered writing about until this month, although I see my quest there under the surface in much of my writing to date. This is the fun part of writing—discovery! 

Much (if not all) of this material will need to be rewritten once I know better where the manuscript is headed. Creating a book out of discrete pieces (whether stand-alone drafts, blogs, or essays) can happen in two ways (probably more than two): as a collection of discrete meditations or essays, or as narrative nonfiction.

This writing wants to be narrative. What a surprise! When I fantasized about converting blog posts into a book, I imagined a minimum of revision. I thought I would just plunk the pieces together and voila! I love the essay, but I think I might love the challenge of book-length narrative even more—holding the structure of years and multiple themes and threads together and cinching them tighter in each round of revision.

I’m not yet doing the cinching, but this NaNo cheating forces me into the manuscript each day for at least an hour or two. I skim eight or ten pages of what’s already written, then find an access point to dip in and write. I surface again, skim, then write some more. It’s that writing time, inside the manuscript, that helps me think, that helps me to see the narrative threads and motifs in my life. 

But the time when I’m not writing is just as valuable—maybe even more so. Because I’m physically “into” the manuscript every day to get my word count, I find that I’m also mentally into the manuscript while I’m going about the rest of my day. More than once I’ve opened the file again hours after completing my word count in order to add another thought, another paragraph, another few hundred words.


Reading list

To help keep my head in the manuscript even when I’m not immersed in it, I’ve started a reading list, along the lines of what I see as my Big Concern in the work.

Why Place Matters: Geography, identity, and Civic Life in Modern Times, eds. Wilfred M. McClay, Ted V. McAllister

The Body Geographic, Barrie Jean Borich

Leaving the Pink House, Ladette Randolph

Our Town, Thornton Wilder



Word count: 35,382

Sunday, November 2, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Day 2




Yesterday: Day 1

The throat tickle I’ve had all week dripped and scratched itself deep yesterday. Full-on cold symptoms. Awesome. But I figured if I didn’t get started on November 1, I wouldn’t get started.

So I sat down at my desk, opened my computer, and started cutting and pasting. I started with blog posts from the time period I have in mind to write about. The blog posts added up to something just under 10,000 words. I didn’t read them as I cut and pasted. No evaluation or censoring—well, not much. The point of NaNoWriMo is to produce raw material, isn’t it? I might not be truly producing yet, but I’m certainly not going to start editing, either.

After I’d harvested all I could from the blog, I went through my very messy hard drive, searching through drafts, cutting and pasting in between blog posts as I tried to keep things roughly in chronological order. I have so many drafts, mostly unsorted, all over the place. It’s hard to find what I want by keyword search any more. I didn’t take loads of time to organize, but as I searched I also made some attempt at leaving my files tidier than I found them (thanks, Mom). Even though I wasn’t reading the drafts, I could still see certain friendships and places appearing and reappearing in those drafts. I resisted the impulse to chart or measure or plan. Not yet. My only plan right now is not having a plan.

Here’s why. I’m afraid if I take the time to develop a plan, I’ll talk myself out of trying to end the month with a 50,000-word manuscript. It would be so easy to decide this stuff is boring and no one will be interested. That may well be true, but I’m not going to make that assessment until at least December!


Day 2

I would have liked to use the extra hour from setting back our clocks to sleep, but my cold woke me up at six—I mean five o’clock. I remembered a couple of journal entries that might fit with my manuscript, so I added those fragments (1,500 words) to my work-in-progress before I even got started writing for the day. And from the moment I laid fingers to keyboard, I had to banish thoughts about how lame this exercise is and how messy the manuscript. I promised myself: no indulging in self doubt until December. Power on through.

I started on page one of the 30,000 or so words I’d patched together from drafts. As I read, I added some narrative and reflection and made notes for threads to weave into later parts of the manuscript. In fits and starts, I wrote 1,138 words—my first new writing of the month. I only got to page 18. Tomorrow I intend to pick up there and continue reading and augmenting my way through until I’ve got another thousand words.

Here’s my advice to myself today, starting as I am with a pretty good chunk of manuscript already before me:

Resist deleting. When you notice repetition, leave it stand for now. Don’t worry about tense inconsistencies or any craft decisions. Keep slapping on more words here and there and filling out the pages with material. Just write.



Day 2
Starting word count:            31,786
Ending word count:             32,924

Words written:                       1,138                                     
Words remaining:                17,078           


Words per day to finish on time: 589

Saturday, November 1, 2014

NaNoWriMo (a Nonfiction Cheater's Confession)


No, I am not writing a novel. Truth be told, all I’m doing is using the challenge (and word-count software) of NaNoWriMo as motivation to assemble a new manuscript. I’m not writing from scratch, at least not yet, but I am pulling from rough drafts, blog posts, and journal entries to see if I can put together something cohesive. What a cheater’s path to 50,000 words, right? Cutting and pasting to meet your word count. Really? 

The thing is, I’ve got all this material on my hard drive, sorted into various nooks and crannies. Why not patch it all together and write what needs to be written and see what happens?

Writing is discovery, I tell my thesis students. Don’t worry about where the writing might go or whether the project is publishable. There are no rules about how to draft, whether in chapters or essays or one long stream-of-consciousness paragraph. Write to figure out what you think. Write to find the meaning in the events in your life. Write because writing feels good and because God has gifted you. Write because it’s fun. If it’s not fun any more, then stop. But if you talk yourself out of writing before you sit down to the keyboard, you’ll never know if what’s inside you might become a book that will connect you to others, that will contribute to culture, to conversation, to community.

Uh, somewhere in the middle of the last paragraph I stopped talking to my students and started talking to myself.  So, yeah. I’m going to do this. And by blogging my intention, I’m making it public. I am taking a cheater’s path through NaNoWriMo by starting with a body of work—all nonfiction.  

NaNoWriMo it is. I’m all in.  


Day 1
Words written:                                     29,481
Words remaining:                                20,519
Words per day to finish on time:              684


Friday, October 3, 2014

Ethics of the Book Review



Back in January I asked my friend Nancy to consider reviewing The Fifth Season. She declined, and we began a months-long conversation about the ethics of the book review. 

I've read a number of reviews by friends or colleagues who I know have a relationship with the author they're reviewing. That's why I felt free to ask my friend Nancy to review my book.  Is this really unethical? My friend Nancy says yes, and the more I think and read about the issue, the more convinced I am that she's right and that it's best for book reviewers to have no more than a passing connection to the author.

What the submissions guidelines say:

Never review the work of a personal or ideological friend or enemy. If the work is by your college professor, a classmate, a close colleague, a family member, or if the work is one with which you are associated in any fashion, please do not review it for The Bloomsbury Review.

Rain Taxi is dedicated to publishing unbiased, objective reviews. If you have a connection with the author or press, please disclose it upon submission. Not all relationships constitute conflicts of interest, but we respectfully request your candor regarding any relationships. If you are friends with an author and would like to highlight their work, please feel free to email us and suggest a review, or consider pitching an interview instead.

Writers reviewing books written by personal friends (or enemies), or from a press they hope to submit their own work to, or that has published their work in the past (or has published works of their personal friends or enemies)...you see where this is going? We hope for good ethics in the review section. If you have some connection with a press or author, be sure to disclose that to us before you write a review for NewPages