Category Archives: Writing is like

No Time for Breadcrumbs

At my house, uneaten bread butts get stuffed, in their original packaging, into the back of the fridge. Months go by, and we end up with a pile-up of stale, hopefully not moldy, bread taking up valuable refrigerator real estate. It usually takes weeks of me saying “I really must make bread crumbs out of all that old bread” before I finally haul out the blender and cookie sheet. Sometimes, the longer I put it off, the more bread there is to tear up, grind into bits, and toast in the oven. It’s worth it though: homemade chicken nuggets, veal parmesan, pasta with bread crumbs. All become possible. Yum.

Sometimes, the longer I put it off the more mold has invaded the plastic bags–and I end up tossing all the bread butts out. No yum.

At this very moment, there is a hill of old bread on my kitchen table, only one batch of bread crumbs done and ready to pour into a Tupperware, and a dawning realization that if I want to finish the whole job, I may have to stay up till midnight.

Yes, this all seems like my writing process. And yes, I’d work on my novel tonight, but I have some bread crumbs to make.

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Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The stages of rewriting or revising a novel chapter:

  1. Elation at finishing previous chapter. Conviction that this one will be easier.
  2. Slow realization that this chapter has more and stickier problems than you realized.
  3. Panic and insomnia.
  4. Inspiration and slow return of confidence.
  5. Possible mini cycle:
    1. Slow realization that the solution you thought of won’t quite work.
    2. Brief bout of panic and insomnia.
    3. Re-inspiration and return of confidence.
  6. Elation at finishing chapter. Conviction that the next one will be easier.

What the ‘The Voice’ Says About Competition and Rejection in the Creative Arts

Yes, I’m writing about a reality TV show.

I was worried that the “Battle Round” episodes of the new singing competition “The Voice” would be totally cheesy. But in fact, the first one was really dramatic and interesting. We often think of the arts as individual pursuits of passion, but in fact, artists often have to compete against one another, whether in an audition or by submitting their work to journals, contests, agents and publishers. Writers don’t have to compete against each other in person (usually), but we send our work into the black hole of submissions, where editors, contest judges, agents and publishers compare our stories and poems and novels to other people’s stories and poems and novels and decide who will be featured in an issue, win the contest, get their book published.

One thing the “Voice” shows is that often, the people who judge artists and their work and choose who will be given a record contract or a spot in a journal — well, they’re judging equally talented, equally passionate, equally committed people. And that’s hard. And often, the choice comes down to a personal preference, or a feeling like, “This person really has potential,” or “This piece really touched me in a certain way.” We who are sending our work out to be judged have no way of controlling that reaction. All we can do is write what we hope is a great piece, polish it to death, and send it out there hoping it will wing its way to someone who gets touched or moved by it.

Another thing the show illustrated was the range of ways artists can feel about competing against each other. The first two competitors  clearly wanted to beat each other. Their relationship was tense. The last two competitors clearly respected each other and enjoyed performing together, even though they knew only one of them could be chosen. As writers — let’s just admit it — we can sometimes envy the folks who we’re competing against, or feel superior to them and think we deserve to succeed more than they do, or feel connected to them by the creative endeavor and really, really want them to succeed, even if we don’t.

Rejections suck. Acceptances rock. Obviously, when we’re writing, we should be focused on our individual pursuit of passion, our individual artistic impulse. We should apply ourselves and make the work as good as it can be, regardless of what the writer next door is doing. But there’s no denying that if a writer aims to be published and share her work with an audience, she’s going to have to compete with others. The hope is that most of the time, we’ll find camaraderie in that competition, rather than bitterness toward the folks who share our passion for writing.

I’m no evil genius

Plotting doesn’t come to me naturally. I think it does for some writers (or so I hear). From the very beginning of drafting a story or novel, they know exactly what’s going to happen. They connect the dots, and voila! (I know it’s not that easy, but please just grant me for a moment my naïveté about other people’s writing processes.)

It hasn’t been that way for me. At the start, I knew that a particular historical event and historical figure (fictionalized) would be central to my novel. So that gave me setting – historical, geographical and vocational. I had several characters in mind, and I knew generally at what times in their lives the story would happen. I also knew a lot about my themes, although my understanding of them and of my characters has matured along with the novel.

But plot. Huh. I knew I sort of needed one, even if the novel wasn’t going to be plot-driven. At least a road-map for readers, a little momentum to keep them going.

I’ve recently written here about a scene that has finally come together. The scene centers on the disappearance of one of my characters. At first, she simply disappeared into thin air. Really. That’s what happened. No one knew where she was, most especially me. She never came back.

For a long time, I justified that plot point to myself: In my book, in my world, anything can happen. A character can just vanish into thin air. For no reason.

But as I’ve rewritten and revised other parts of the book, things slowly fell into place. Now her disappearance is explained and fits into an actual plot. (Not totally explained. As of now, readers don’t see the character’s disappearance from her point of view, and so there are still questions about what happened.)

I imagine that when I’m writing my next novel, plotting will be somewhat easier for me. But I’m also coming to terms with the fact that I’m not a linear writer. It’s sort of like – Lego building. Grown-ups and older children generally decide what to build and then start at the bottom, adding a brick or layer of bricks on top, and so on, and so on. But I’ve noticed that my toddler adds bricks underneath, to the side, all around. His structures end up being more organic and less building-y than the ones I build.

In writing, I think, I’ve kept my toddlerness. I move things around, add layers here there and wherever, and slowly the whole picture is coming into view.

I’m not saying this approach is better or harder or more rewarding than writing to the plot, or that it could result in a better novel. It’s just my way.

What are you plotting these days?

Don’t Go to Work Naked

Sometimes, writing a novel is like getting up in the morning, putting on an outfit, deciding it doesn’t quite work, choosing another outfit, realizing you’re going to have to change your bra or you won’t look decent, deciding to keep on outfit No. 1, realizing outfit No. 1 has a hole in a conspicuous place, changing your bra et al to put on outfit No. 2, realizing you don’t have cute shoes for outfit No. 2, coming up with an idea for outfit No. 3, realizing the tights you’d need are dirty. Such clothing revision might take 15 or 20 minutes, maybe half an hour on a really bad day. Panic can set in, and you start to feel stuck.

With a novel, the struggle lasts years.

The scene I’ve been working on is now in its third major incarnation. The basics haven’t changed. Someone comes home. Another character has gone missing. There’s a confrontation with the people in the house about the missing-ness of the other character.

The missing character has not changed (although the reason she’s missing has). The setting has only sort of changed — the scene has simply moved from a room in the house to the entry hall. The characters have shifted. Originally, two characters came home together and confronted three other characters. Those two characters are now at odds, the other three are out of the scene.

It’s taken three years and a lot of changes in other parts of the novel for the scene to get where it is now. (In fact, this is the scene I told you all I was cutting. In the end, without really knowing what I was doing, I moved it and changed the characters.)

I’m determined to make the scene work and move on.

I’m also fascinated that a scene can change completely, and yet still be the same scene. Sort of.

Pineapple Inside-Out Cake

I must have been feeling nostalgic on Saturday. As a teenager, I made a lot of pineapple upside-down cakes. So when I needed something to bring to a potluck, that’s what I decided to bake.

Unable to find the recipe from my teen years, I adapted the one in Greg Patent’s “Baking in America.” Patent uses fresh pineapple instead of canned and macadamia nuts instead of maraschino cherries. I followed his advice on the pineapple, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The fruit winds up doused in brown-sugar butter and baked for 40 minutes, for God’s sake. Still, using a fresh pineapple means one can make the slices thicker than the canned kind, which I think makes the cake even heartier and homier than usual. I wanted to substitute maraschinos back into the recipe, but my husband couldn’t find them at the store, so I used toasted coconut instead.

So far, so good. But here’s where I went wrong with this super-moist recipe: I put the batter in a nonstick cake pan instead of a cast-iron skillet (or just a good old, non-nonstick cake pan). In my haste to pull the cake out of the oven (we were running late for the party), I tipped the pan — you guessed it — upside down, and the whole thing slid onto my oven door.

My husband, who saved the day with a spatula and a lot of patience, dubbed the dish Pineapple Smash, but I like to call it Pineapple Inside-Out Cake. The cake looked like hell, but it tasted moist and buttery and sugary, the way pineapple upside-down cake should.

I don’t have a picture. Sorry. And I also don’t have a good analogy to writing, though I invite my readers to provide one.

Pineapple Inside-Out Cake

Adapted from “Baking in America,” by Greg Patent

1 fresh pineapple, sliced into 8 pieces, or 1-16 oz can

Topping

4 tablespoons butter or margarine

3/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup toasted coconut

Cake

1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 eggs

3/4 cup buttermilk or 3/4 cup reserved pineapple liquid, or a combination

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Melt butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet or a 9- or 10-inch cake pan (preferably not nonstick) over stove. If you like, add up to a tablespoon reserved pineapple juice. Add brown sugar and cook, stirring, until thick and bubbly. Remove from heat. Arrange 7-8 pineapple rings in syrup; cut rings if necessary to fit them in. Sprinkle toasted coconut into the spaces between the rings.

Resift flour with baking soda and salt. Set aside.

Beat butter with electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add 1/4 cup of the sugar and vanilla, and beat for a few minutes. Add remaining 1/2 cup sugar in bits, beating after each addition. Beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in the flour mixture with a spatula in three parts, alternating with the liquid. Begin and end with flour, and stir only until the batter is smooth. Pour over fruit and spread it level.

Bake 40 minutes, until top is well browned and a tooth pick comes out clean. If you’re not using a nonstick pan, run a knife around edges. Cover the skillet or pan with a dessert platter and invert. Wait a minute or so to let the juices run down the sides. Then carefully (carefully) lift off the skillet.

Or, for the inside-out effect, pour the contents of the skillet or pan onto the platter, from a height of 8-12 inches.

Why Write a Novel?

Back in April, when I was thinking about starting this blog, I made a list of about 30 topics I thought might make good posts. (I was on leave at the time; my brain was free and creative.) No. 5 on the list: Why write a novel?

The question now is: What was I thinking? How on earth do I answer that question?

Why write a novel? I used to write poetry. Writing poetry is no piece of cake, but you can write the first draft of a poem in minutes or hours, on a napkin or the back of an envelope. You can see the fruits of your labor. Maybe no one else in the world will ever read that poem, maybe it will take you years to revise it to your liking. But in the meantime, you can move on to the next poem.

A writing teacher of mine in college, a writer of novels for children and young adults, told me, “Poetry is nice, but you’ll never get anywhere doing that.” Or something along those lines. Her words didn’t influence me to want to write novels–I was already writing short fiction and had always loved novels best of all types of literature–but they stuck with me.

Why write a novel? As I have said, writing a novel is hard. It takes stamina. It causes guilt. Right this minute, I should be working on my novel. I should always be working on my novel, if I ever want to finish it.

Why write a novel? It’s all about the story. Which is funny, because I didn’t set out with a complete plot–or any plot, really–in mind. I just saw characters I liked and wondered what made them that way, what motivated them, what stories I could uncover for them. The length of a novel gives so much room to explore. It’s exhilarating, and tiring, like searching for the Northwest Passage.

Wanting to write a novel is also about–surprise!–writing. Good writing days, when things are flowing and moving along, feel really good. Plus, when I finish writing my @#$@#%#@ first novel, I will be a better writer than I was when I started. I know that for a fact. I will have learned to hone, to cut, to plot, to characterize. I can always learn more, of course, but I’ll be further along the way.

There are more reasons to write a novel: To move people, to share a view of the world. But those things seem far away. At the moment, I focus on the reasons connected to the process of writing, because I’m in the thick of it.

Fellow novel writers: What are your reasons?